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Firms offer sport for all as disability awareness rises ahead of Tokyo Paralympics

Japanese companies are increasingly offering activities open to all, regardless of age, gender or disability.

In late May, Tokyo-based pharmaceutical firm Biogen Japan Ltd. held an event for people with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disorder that affects the nervous system. About 60 participants played karuta card games and a ball-tossing activity.

Biogen Japan organized the event in cooperation with the World Yuru Sports Association, a Tokyo-based organization that develops and promotes recreation programs for people with and without disabilities. Its name draws on the word yurui (not intense).

In the karuta game, participants act out the instructions on the cards they draw. The card might tell them to yell “Woo-hoo!” for 15 seconds, for example.

“In daily life, I don’t usually have the chance to move my body so actively,” said Takashi Fukutomi, 38, a writer from the Tokyo city of Tama who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis three years ago.

People with MS experience symptoms like body numbness, vision problems and activity limitations.

“These recreational sports are a rehabilitation I can do together with other people,” Fukutomi said.

“The event is aimed at raising public awareness of MS and improving patients’ quality of life,” said Biogen Japan President Steve Sugino. “We also hope that the event will serve as a place where patients can move their bodies and make friends.”

Other than the karuta game, the World Yuru Sports Association has created or is developing some 50 recreational sports programs.

Among them is Caterpillar Rugby, in which participants crawl on their bellies and roll about on the floor. They put on green and yellow tube-like suits that make them resemble caterpillars.

In a program dubbed Squachu, players move their lips and tongues to control a tennis racket on a computer screen.

In February, the association organized an event for elderly residents at a nursing home in Yokohama.

The residents played “Ton Ton Voice Sumo,” in which two participants put on headsets and say “ton ton” into the microphone to move paper sumo wrestlers, using vibrations generated by their voices.

“The programs are designed to help elderly people rehabilitate and stay health,” said Takuya Hagiwara, director of the association.

“By promoting these sports, we hope to contribute to curbing medical expenses that are expected to swell as Japanese society continues to age.”

Since 1995, Tokyo-based drugmaker Kyowa Hakko Kirin Co. has organized friendship table tennis events for people both with and without disabilities.

The annual event, which was initiated by Shinji Sato, coach of the company’s table tennis team, has now had about 5,000 participants in all.

“I wanted to help create a barrier-free society partly for my own daughter, who has a hearing impairment,” Sato said. “I hope that there will be more sports everyone can enjoy together.”

The table tennis event is perhaps all the more relevant as Tokyo gears up to host the 2020 Paralympic Games, in which the sport will have a prominent place.

Kyowa Hakko Kirin said the event has given able-bodied participants a chance to experience the kind of difficulties people with disabilities undergo in daily life.

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