One evening last December, some high school and junior high school girls who were on their way home from school gathered at a facility of the U.S. Embassy in Akasaka, Tokyo, to participate in the Embassy-hosted “Girls Unlimited Program (GUP).” On that day, ewoman CEO Kaori Sasaki, who started a business in her 20s and is now active in many different fields, was invited as a guest speaker. She spoke about her part-time job in high school and experiences traveling to more than ten countries as a reporter for a news program. She enthusiastically told participants, “Opportunity will come knocking if you focus on the matter at hand,” and “Use positive words because the words you utter affect your thoughts and life.”
Ai Shibata, 18, a third-grade student at Junten Senior High School in Tokyo’s Kita Ward, was listening to Sasaki’s stories with rapt attention. She said starry-eyed, “I want to do everything I want to do.” She is determined to further expand opportunities for people with disabilities in and outside Japan, particularly in developing countries, to participate in sports. She wants to make this her “lifework”.
In the spring of her second-year in junior high school, when she was dedicating herself to dancing, her father suffered a head injury in a traffic accident and remained unconscious for three days. He used to love sports and even ran the 10 plus km to his office. But he began to suffer from alogia, memory loss, and depression and eventually quit his job. Shibata did not know how to treat her father, who “had become weak like a child.” So she threw herself into dancing as if she were avoiding him. Her dance club won a national championship when she was in junior high school.
Meanwhile, her father began to play sports again as part of his rehabilitation and gradually regained language skills and confidence. He even found a new job though he suffered from higher brain dysfunction.
When her father said, “I want to compete in the  Tokyo Paralympics,” Shibata realized, “Both my father and I overcome difficult times through the power of sports.”
She began to be interested in parasports and was fascinated by videos showing Paralympians. Around the same time, she learned about “Tobitate! Ryugaku Japan.” [“Go abroad! Study Overseas, Japan.”] It is an overseas study support system sponsored by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and private companies that allows students to decide what and where to learn. She submitted her application, in which she stated her desire to go to the birthplace of the Paralympics. Her application was accepted, allowing her to spend three weeks in the U.K. in the summer of her second-year in high school.
Her biggest goal was to visit Stoke Mandeville Hospital in a suburb of London. It is believed that a sporting competition held there for injured soldiers in 1948 as part of their rehabilitation is the origin of Paralympics. Shibata saw people with disabilities and able-bodied people enjoying sports together at a gym next to the hospital. She was surprised to witness a scene hardly seen in Japan and thought, “There is no barrier [between people with disabilities and others.]”
She was also impressed by a hospital employee who said, “80% of people with disabilities live in developing countries.” Shibata had learned through her father that playing sports motivates one to work and to support him- or herself. She thought she wanted to hold Paralympic Games in developing countries because if parasports spread in developing countries, children with disabilities can be hopeful about their future.
She joined the GUP because she wanted to acquire leadership skills that would enable her to be trusted and face difficulties in order to make her dream into a reality.
Shibata will enter Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (in Beppu, Oita Prefecture) in the spring. She plans to launch activities to spread parasports with students from developing countries.
Sakura Imoto, 17, a second-year student at Koka Gakuen Senior High School in Chofu City, Tokyo, spent three years in India after her second year in junior high school due to her mother’s transfer there. Her experience of witnessing the gap between the rich and the poor led her to join the GUP.
Most of the students at the international school she attended were from wealthy Indian families and hoping to study at universities overseas. On the other hand, the school she went for volunteer activities had no air conditioner and its bathrooms were shabby. When she asked some students what they want to be in the future, they said, “an engineer” or “a doctor”. But they also said, “I’m leaving school soon because I have to work.” Imoto was shocked to learn how the circumstances in which her peers were born affected their future. That made her fully aware of how little she knows about the world.
She applied for the GUP out of a desire to expand her horizons further, know more about the world, and find what she can do to make the world better.
After returning to Japan for the first time in three years, she feels a bit constrained here because “there is a great deal of pressure to fit in with everybody else.” But she says, “Any kinds of opinion is respected and it’s interesting to see conversations going deeper and deeper” in the GUP’s group discussions. She imagines herself accumulating various work experiences in developing and other countries in the future.
In Japan, there are only a few female leaders and Imoto “feels that there is a glass ceiling for women when she looks at her mother.” But the GUP is literally a program geared to girls. Imoto thinks that the program is encouraging her, saying, “Now it’s your turn to step forward.” She thinks, “OK, why not?”