Megumi Mashiko is a world-class champion athlete whose team won the bronze medal in wheelchair basketball at the 2000 Summer Paralympics in Sydney, Australia. Jun Torihata is a businessman based in Singapore and Tokyo who has been scuba diving since the 1970s. One woman fulfilled her dream of winning at international sport competition. One man fulfilled his dream of building a resort designed for people like Mashiko to experience the sea from a whole new dimension.
Zero Gravity is the world’s first all-inclusive scuba diving, boating, and snorkeling facility built for wheelchair users. It is based in the southern part of Amami Oshima, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan’s second largest remote island after Sadogashima Island in Niigata Prefecture.
Next to a quiet stretch of beach, the serene sea, with its bright coral reefs and translucent waters, offers a welcome respite for differently abled persons to experience weightlessness in an extraordinary natural beauty setting in Japan.
In 2007, the world press took notice when British physicist Stephen Hawking experienced weightlessness in space. Before taking flight, Hawking said, ““I have been wheelchair-bound for almost four decades and the chance to float free in zero g will be wonderful.” Afterwards he said, “It was amazing.” Here in Japan, that amazing zero g feeling of floating free awaits the wheelchair-bound at the seashore.
CEO Torihata first had his dream for Zero Gravity Seisui Villa when he was a young man of 22 living as a foreign exchange student in Australia. While attending university in Brisbane, Queensland, he noticed many students in wheelchairs moving around freely like any other student. “It was business-as-usual.” Barrier-free access was the norm. In contrast, his hometown of Osaka had no barrier-free capacity. He was stunned at the freedom the wheelchair persons had down under — that, and the positive feeling they exhibited of being accepted and included in all aspects of campus life.
Torihata wondered why Japan was behind Australia in providing access to the disabled. The answer was that his young adulthood coincided with an era a quarter century removed from World War II, when Japan was not yet fully economically developed and Osaka was an industrial city where able-bodied people were constantly in motion to try to earn a living. Japanese war veterans, many of whom were disabled, were sometimes reduced to begging in the streets. It’s a depressing image that lingers. “They were defeated people,” he says. “They didn’t look happy.”
In Australia, wheelchair-bound people on his host campus looked happy. They were laughing, calling out to each other as everyday students. Years later when Torihata took up scuba diving, he remembered that image of disabled people fully enjoying their lives. He wanted them to experience the joy he now had in scuba diving where the stillness and suspension of floating in the water is so freeing. If it were possible, he was going to make sure that persons in wheelchairs could take to the water effortlessly and safely and return with a smile.
At Zero Gravity, it is able-bodied people who have to adjust to the all-inclusive atmosphere. Whether it is the barrier-free guest rooms, karaoke bar, restroom, dining table, boat or practice pool, the design is built first and foremost for those in wheelchairs. On the stern of the boat, there is an elevator platform that allows the person in the wheelchair to descend directly into the water with the companion swimmer or diver. “I explained the wheelchair elevator to the shipbuilder,” Torihata laughs. He said at first, “’What? How are we going to do that?’” Together they made it happen.
Amami Oshima is a perfect setting for realizing Torihata’s dream of inclusivity. The island is stunning and allows one to slow down and enjoy the scenery. Imagine an island population of just over 70,000 surrounded by 95% virgin forest. A paradise for divers, the calm blue waters are particularly well-suited for the Zero Gravity guest.
Torihata tells me, “This is the place that I said, ‘If I ever have the money, I will build here.’” He worked hard, built several businesses, and on April 1, opened the villa. “Once people see what we are doing, I’m sure that many more wheelchair-bound people will come. I’d like to see this become a barrier-free island.”
Harry Kosato, Torihata’s friend and collaborator who is responsible for attracting wheelchair users from the around the world, added, “Torihata’s ‘omotenashi’ for overseas disabled visitors shall serve as an inspiration for many other social entrepreneurs here in the lead-up to the 2020 Paralympics, for Japan to showcase it is open and welcome to everyone.”
Forty-five years after he had the seed of an idea in his youth, a vision for everyone to experience weightlessness in island Japan, Torihata is realistic that his venture may not become profitable like his other businesses. While he hopes to sustain the business with at least 80-100 guests a year, turning a profit is not his first priority. A passion, a decades-long dream, and now a goal to see the face of someone who leaves the wheelchair behind in zero gravity, is its own reward. When asked what kind of feeling he wants the wheelchair-bound guest to experience, he says, “Just smile. Just smile.”
Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies where she is teaching a special topics course on nation branding Japan.