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Japanese para-canoeist Masaaki Suwa entering a gate at a train station in Tokyo. Image Credit: AFP

Tokyo: As the Paralympic Games begin, Japan's efforts to improve accessibility and inclusion are in the spotlight, with many arguing there is still plenty of work to do.

Some 4,400 athletes with impairments will compete in Tokyo at the world's biggest parasports tournament.

It's a place for sporting history, but also an event organisers say can change attitudes towards people with disabilities.

"It's a precious event," said Masaaki Suwa, a Japanese para-canoeist who missed the cut for the Tokyo Games but will be cheering for Japan's team on television.

"They are doing great things but they are not superhumans. I want people to know that they are human beings just like you," the 35-year-old told AFP.

It's a bittersweet moment for Suwa, who had hoped to compete in his hometown, but he's counting on other Paralympians to make an impact on Japanese society.

"I hope (the Paralympics) will be a springboard that allows people to live more closely alongside disabled people," said Suwa, who uses a wheelchair.

Disability rights experts and activists paint a mixed picture of the situation in Japan.

There has been progress on barrier-free infrastructure, with officials calling accessibility important both for people with disabilities but also the country's large elderly population.

A barrier-free enforcement law has been revised twice in recent years to promote accessibility at public facilities.

'Marginal' change

Particular efforts have been made in Tokyo's mammoth train system, with elevators operating at around 96 percent of stations as of 2019, the city government says.

By 2019, 82 percent of Tokyo subway stations also had platform gates to keep visually impaired passengers and others safe - up from 56 percent in 2013.

New hotels with more than 50 rooms are also required to make at least one of every 100 barrier-free.

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Masaaki Suwa travelling on a train in Tokyo. Image Credit: AFP

"In terms of the number of barrier-free facilities, Japan appears advanced," said Miki Matheson, deputy chief of Japan's Paralympic delegation.

But the three-time Paralympic gold medallist, who lives in Canada and is in Tokyo for the Games, says accessibility is not the same as inclusion.

"I'm often treated as a disabled person when I'm back in Japan," said Matheson, who uses a wheelchair.

"In Canada, I live without noticing my disability at all."

Activists say the workplace is an example of the barriers that remain.

Under government rules, workers with disabilities must make up at least 2.3 percent of staff at all companies. Larger firms face fines for non-compliance.

In 2018, the government was forced to apologise for routinely overstating the number of disabled people on its staff to meet quotas.

Motoaki Fujita, a sports sociology professor at Nihon Fukushi University and a parasports expert, says Japan has become more inclusive, "but the change is still marginal."

Some 57 percent of people surveyed by Fujita's team last year said they "certainly or somewhat" believe people with disabilities are weak and have difficulty living with non-disabled people.

That's only slightly less than the 61 percent who felt the same in a 2014 poll.

Paralympic 'catalyst'

Tokyo's Paralympics will take place with almost no spectators because of virus rules, which some fear could blunt its impact on Japanese society.

"The Paralympics is a very good chance to change people's thinking," said Shigeo Toda, head of a Tokyo-based research institute studying the lifestyles of people with disabilities.

"But we can't help but think that momentum could sag if people can't watch them in person," Toda said.

Saki Takakuwa, a Paralympic runner who competes with a prosthetic blade, worries about the spectator ban's effect.

"I know people will watch the Games on TV, but I wonder how they will respond," she told the Mainichi Shimbun daily.

"Compared to past Games, it's difficult for me to have hope that people will feel something", added the 29-year-old, who is contesting her third Paralympics.

International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons admits the spectator ban is "a challenge," but argues broadcasts will reach billions around the world.

"The Games themselves are a catalyst," he told AFP.

"It's the moment when people see athletes in action, and that's when this change really occurs."

In Japan, he added, there is "still a lot of progress to be made."

"But we believe that we have started to see a change."