TOKYO -- Blind soccer player Kaito Niwa, 21, can pretty much determine the path of the ball as it curves through the air and the movement of other players from the sounds they make.
In November last year, he took part in a practice match between the Japanese and Argentine national teams in Tokyo. Though he was given only five minutes on the field, he became determined to play beautifully like the other players.
Niwa, who was born in Chiba Prefecture east of Tokyo, lost sight in both of his eyes six months after birth as a result of eye cancer. When he was in elementary school he started playing a type of softball for the blind. Two years ago he switched to blind soccer, and he was picked for the national squad last autumn.
Blind soccer players wear eye masks and they play with a ball that makes a sound when it moves. The goalkeeper is played either by a regular sighted player or someone with weak eyesight. Blind soccer will be an official event at the Tokyo Summer Paralympics next year.
"Playing against the world is something I was first able to experience by starting soccer," Niwa said.
Blind soccer began to spread in Japan after the arrival of international rules in 2001. But nearly 20 years earlier, the roots of a blind soccer team were already growing at a prefectural school for the blind in the Chiba Prefecture city of Yotsukaido. It was a time when children at schools for the disabled had limited contact with the outside world.
As it so happened, it was a question from a fourth year elementary school student that led to the formation of the team.
"How do you shoot a soccer ball, Sir?" the student asked. Boardinghouse instructor Yukihiro Shimoda introduced the sport to the schoolchildren using a ball with a bell inside, and the boy at the school quickly became engrossed in the game. When the number of those participating in their practice sessions climbed to eight, they wanted to play against other teams. Shimoda also wanted the students, whose travel consisted mainly of trips between the school building and their boardinghouse and who only saw the same students and the same teachers, to have more contact with the outside world.
At first, Shimoda approached a soccer team at an ordinary school but it rejected the request. But then a friend of Shimoda's who worked at a school for disabled children also in Yotsukaido helped put together a friendly match. The boys appeared happy afterwards. "I heard all these sounds and voices that I hadn't heard before, and it was fun," one of the students said.
The blind soccer team was named Pegasus, after the mythical winged stallion. Shimoda wanted the boys to spread their wings wide.
Since the team didn't have a sighted player for a keeper, they used a blind player, with a mask to protect his face. At first he ran away crying when the ball came his way. The boy had no answer when his teacher asked him why he fled. But then one time, the ball happened to hit one of the keeper's outstretched arms. "Nice keeping," Shimoda told him -- and the young player's expression warmed.
It was after the Heisei period commenced in 1989 that the team was finally able to play against children from regular schools. They lost their first match 0-24, but gradually began to start scoring. Still, some people at their school questioned Pegasus' activities. "Who's going to take responsibility if someone gets hurt?" one person asked.
In 1995, Shimoda was transferred to another school. Pegasus' activities continued after that, but their interaction with other teams wilted. His 10-year challenge of taking the students to see the outside world was now over. "Don't run away," "Don't give up," Shimoda had always told them. He believed those words would give them strength as they made their way into society.
In 1994, the building access law, which urged public facilities to consider accessibility for the elderly and the disabled, came into effect. This was followed by the law promoting accessible public transportation infrastructure in 2000 and one promoting mobility in 2006. Ten years later, the law to prevent discrimination of people with disabilities was enacted. But up until then, the disabled and those supporting them had had to search for ways to forge their own paths into the outside world.
In the mid-1990s, Tomonari Kuroda, who would go on to play blind soccer for Japan's national team, was attending a school for the blind in Kumamoto Prefecture in southern Japan. He wanted to take a university entrance examination in Braille, but there was no such system in place at the university he wanted to attend.
Kuroda approached the institution, but they were worried about how he would cope after he was enrolled, noting that accessibility for the disabled was lacking. But Kuroda did not give up. "I can remember places myself even without tiled blocks, he said." He sat the exam in Braille and passed.
Kuroda had had his left eye removed due to cancer at the age of 3 months, followed by his right eye during his first year of elementary school. When he still had one eye, he would get close to the TV and watch "Captain Tsubasa," a cartoon based on the manga by 58-year-old Japanese cartoonist Yoichi Takahashi. "I want to play soccer, too," Kuroda thought. His dream finally came true after he took part in a blind soccer training session in 2002 while conducting graduate research on the education of children with disabilities.
In November last year, Takahashi announced that he would create a new title based on blind soccer. He first saw the sport about 10 years ago, and was deeply impressed by it. Rather than portraying the protagonists of his new title as people with disabilities, the main characters would rather be "young people who like soccer" as anyone else would, he said.
Now 40, Kuroda went on to become a teacher at a school for the blind in 2004, and continued training. He believes it is his duty to become a role model for the children he teaches as someone living with a disability.
In the spring of 2016, Shimoda, retired. Now aged 63, he still interacts with the children from Pegasus. In December last year, he paid a visit to former player Takahiro Katori, 38, who became a chiropractor and runs a clinic in Tokyo.
Katori had also faced challenges, such as being turned away when trying to rent an apartment on the grounds he couldn't deal with an open flame -- used for cooking. He also had trouble finding a place when moving his clinic. He finally managed to sign a contract after directly explaining to the building's owner what kind of facility he wanted to run.
"It's the same as asking, 'Who decided you can't play soccer just because you can't see?' right?" Shimoda told him with a smile. Katori nodded in agreement.
(Japanese original by Sachi Fukushima, City News Department)