Paralympic Athletes, Up Close and Personal

Nagashima Osamu: Shuttling Between Badminton and R&D

Sports Tokyo 2020 Society

Badminton will become an official Paralympic sport at the 2020 Tokyo Games. While working as a researcher of stain-resistant technology at Lixil, a leading maker of sanitary ware and other home products, Nagashima Osamu is also busily preparing for the 2020 Games as one of the world’s highest-ranked para-badminton players.

Nagashima Osamu

Born in 1979. Works at the Material Science Laboratory of Lixil Corp. Began playing badminton while in middle school but became confined to a wheelchair after injuring his spinal cord in college. Resumed playing competitively after learning about wheelchair badminton. Joined Inax (now Lixil) in 2005 and has helped the sanitary ware maker acquire patents for and commercialize technology that resists lime scale formation and water stains. Is also one of Japan’s leading para-badminton players, winning many medals at international and domestic tournaments. Is ranked sixth in the world as a singles player in the Wheelchair 1 class (as of December 21, 2017).

I remember watching a broadcast of the 2012 London Paralympic Games and hearing the announcer on Britain’s Channel 4 describe the athletes as “superhuman.” This characterization was perfect; it was also eye-opening, for I had never—embarrassingly enough—considered the competitors in those terms.

When I cover para-athletes, I am frequently overwhelmed by their superhuman feats. They have managed to overcome not only their own physical disabilities but also social stigma and have great inner strength, enabling them to work vigorously toward their goals. They are a mirror for society, reflecting the hidden abilities all humans possess.

An Engineer-Athlete

One such athlete is Nagashima Osamu, Japan’s top para-badminton player and a member of the research and development team at Lixil—a maker of sanitary ware and other home products. Not only has he been Japan’s para-badminton champion 14 times, he is also a pioneering engineer, helping the company acquire patents for its Proguard technology that protect toilets against hard water stains and spots.

Nagashima’s stern gaze speaks volumes about the trials and tribulations he has overcome and the mental fortitude he has acquired along the way, now expressing itself as kindness toward others. One also detects a spark of curiosity of a man undertaking scientific research at the leading edge.

“You know,” he says, staring straight ahead, “it’s the accumulation of steady, honest effort—even if it appears mundane—that produces results. This is the same for both R&D and badminton.”

I had anticipated our interview would start off with a recap of the accident that almost ended his life. Instead, he began with a maxim that no doubt guided his search for answers to life’s big questions.

Near-Death Experience

He was home in Saitama for the holidays as a second-year student at Chiba University when his car veered off and climbed up an embankment. He got out of the car and tried to lift it back to the road when it began sliding back down. The car ran over him, and he lost consciousness.

“I still remember what ensued quite vividly. I had a near-death experience. An object that looked like a giant chain saw appeared and asked me whether I wanted to go back. I immediately said, ‘For sure, let me get back.’ The scene played itself out about three times, after which I heard a paramedic’s voice asking me if I was all right. That’s when I woke up.”

His life was spared, but what awaited him was agonizingly painful rehabilitation. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was used to hard, physical training from his years playing badminton, but no matter how hard he tried, his limbs would not respond. Debilitating pain, delirious fever, and fear that he would never recover began eating away at his spirit. And as the days passed, he gradually began losing hope.

“I was full of despair and stopped thinking about the future. Many times I thought how much easier it would have been if I had told the chain saw I didn’t want to go back.”

But there was something in Nagashima that would not give up. After all, he did not waver for a second when the chain saw questioned him about his intentions. Two months after the accident, he saw a magnetic resonance image of his body and realized that his spinal cord had been damaged. He understood—and instantly accepted the fact—that he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

“My outlook on life underwent a paradigm shift. There was no use fighting with reality, so I immediately accepted it and looked forward to living life in a wheelchair.”

Para-badminton athletes are classified into wheelchair and standing classes. The former is divided into WH1 for those with serious limb and trunk impairments and WH2 for those with minimal trunk impairments. The latter is categorized into SL for those with lower limb impairments, SU for those with upper limb impairments, and SS for those with short stature due to a genetic condition. Nagashima is a WH1 athlete. (Photo courtesy of Lixil)

Obstacles to Employment

Nagashima returned to school a year after the accident. He also resumed playing badminton, delighted that his former teammates would join him for practice. He also applied himself to his studies, majoring in applied chemistry. He needed only 104 credits to graduate but earned 160. He graduated top of his class and chose to enroll in graduate school.

“The tuition was the same regardless of how many credits I earned, so I decided to take a lot of extra classes. Maybe the fact that I was now in a wheelchair gave me a clearer focus on what I wanted to do.

After earning his master’s degree in two years, he contemplated advancing to a doctoral program and pursuing an academic career. But he instead chose to seek employment in the private sector. He applied to over 50 companies, but received no offers. This was nothing new for Nagashima; after returning to college for his third year following the accident, he was turned down by almost all the research labs in the Department of Applied Chemistry that he hoped to join. The only professor who welcomed him was Satō Satoshi, who headed the Laboratory of Reaction Engineering.

“I realized then that while everybody talks about the importance of diversity in theory, they all think it’s somebody else’s job to achieve it in practice. I didn’t want to give up, though. Doing so would have meant conceding that the people who rejected me were right.”

There were times, of course, when frustration got the better of him. He remembers being told by a fellow student that he seemed to be sulking all the time. “I may not have said so out loud, but there was probably something in me that was blaming my disability for my misfortune. Internally, I was accusing people around me of only seeing me as someone in a wheelchair.

Undeterred, he continued his search for an employer, sending application forms to and calling the fifty-first and then fifty-second company. Finally, he received two offers, one from a leading domestic maker of home products, and the other from a foreign-based computer maker.

“I chose Inax [now Lixil] on a hunch. The people in the human resources department and those who interviewed me treated me as just another job applicant, instead of someone with a disability. They also seemed to be genuinely impressed by the work I had done as a student. My hunch turned out to be right.”

New Rivals

After joining the company, he was assigned to the team responsible for developing its proprietary Proguard stain-resistant technology. At the same time, he continued to play badminton competitively, participating in many domestic and international tournaments. He has won three bronze medals at world para-badminton championships and captured gold medals at the Peru Para-Badminton International in August 2017 in the men’s singles, doubles, and mixed doubles.

Nagashima still clearly remembers the day when wheelchair badminton became an official Paralympic event, starting with the 2020 Tokyo Games.

“It was around six in the evening on October 7, 2014. I received an email about the announcement from a fellow para-athlete, and I immediately checked the International Paralympic Committee site. When I saw the news about the decision, shivers ran up and down my spine. I knew then that my engagement with badminton would change radically.”

Until then, Nagashima was able to dominate the sport even with a part-time commitment. He had no coach, but true to his instincts as a researcher, he had honed the accuracy of his shots and learned to navigate his chair so that he could reach the shuttle with a single push of the wheel. He had no rival in Japan.

Nagashima in competition at Japan Para-Badminton International 2017, held in September 2017 in Machida, Tokyo. (© Osada Yōhei/Aflo Sports)

But now that badminton had become a Paralympic sport, the number of younger and physically stronger players was bound to rise—all hoping to become heroes in the locally hosted Games. Nagashima thus asked to be transferred from the company’s office in Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, to Tokyo to enable him to focus on his training.

“There may be more rivals now, but I definitely want to win a spot on the national team. I hope to win a medal and join the victory parade in Ginza as a way of repaying all the encouragement and support I’ve received from my family, friends, and colleagues.”

His ultimate goal, though, is not to win a Paralympic medal. It is to demonstrate that even a person with a disability is capable of performing at the highest levels of athletic competition while assuming responsibilities for a leading company’s core functions.

“Lixil offers a full range of home products, so the technology I’m helping to develop is used not just in toilets but also in bathroom sinks, sliding glass doors, window screens, and the like. There’s still a lot to learn and research, and the same is true for badminton. I intend to continue pursuing both work and competitive sports for many years to come.”

I have no doubt Nagashima will devote his working and competitive life to making diversity and social inclusion not just a catchy slogan but a fact of life.

In the lobby of the Lixil Wing building in Tokyo.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on January 19, 2018. Photographs by Kawamoto Seiya except where noted.)

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