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Boccia Captivates Toyota Employees: The Potential of Boccia to Change the Company and Society

Toyota Motor Corporation has been a Worldwide Paralympic Partner of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) since 2015. In their time working with the IPC, Toyota has focused much of their efforts in two sports—boccia and wheelchair basketball. “Through parasports, we want our employees to recognize the importance of diversity, and build the courage to try new things. It’s of course important for them to learn about parasports in general, but we thought it would be better if they were more deeply involved in a certain few of these sports.” So says Toshihiko Nagata, Deputy General Manager of Olympic and Paralympic Division, Toyota Motor Corporation. The company became a Gold Partner of the Japan Boccia Association in 2017.

Mr. Toshihiko Nagata

Wheelchair basketball as a sport is fairly easy to understand, and offers a high level of entertainment. Another reason they chose to focus their support on wheelchair basketball was that the company owns a professional basketball team, and thus already has a deep involvement with basketball.

“But when you think about actually having the employees play wheelchair basketball, it’s fairly difficult to set up, since you need all this equipment, like racing wheelchairs. That’s why we also decided to focus on boccia—a sport anyone can play, as long as they have a boccia ball set,” said Nagata. Boccia is also more conducive to casual play, like on the way home from work, which was important since many of the workshops and supporter events tended to be on the employees’ days off. “We thought it was perfect for creating that connection since it allows the employees to play on equal footing as people with impairment.”

The lobby of the company’s Tokyo Head Office features a boccia court

Boccia Captivates Toyota Employees

Says Nagata about the beauty of boccia, “It allows just about anybody to compete—really compete—against one another, regardless of impairment, physical stature, or even physical strength.” He went on, saying, “But when you actually try it, it’s surprisingly difficult and has a lot of depth, and most people who try it become obsessed with it. It’s amazing to watch all these full-grown adults so serious and getting so competitive about throwing these balls onto the court, almost like the sport has a kind of magical pull.”

The rules seem simple at first. You throw balls towards the target (white jack ball), with whoever’s balls are closest to the jack winning the match. When you actually play, however, you realize you need accuracy—to get the ball to where you want it to go—as well as strategy—to figure out where to put your balls to block your opponent’s path. You can also hit an opponent’s ball and even the jack itself to move them, which means the outcome of a match can change with the very last ball that’s thrown—another exciting element.

Every day, Nagata considers how better to expose the company’s employees to parasports

“We bought boccia ball sets, rented them to each department and factory, and held workshops. Almost instantly, people were obsessed. Our department has 15 sets, and we’re always getting requests to rent them. Some departments and factories have even bought their own sets to play with.” More than half of the departments have started playing boccia, and the company has held a total of 50 workshops over the past two years. Nagata says over 12,000 employees have tried boccia.

Said Nagata, smiling, “We also held a boccia tournament—a face-off between all the departments in Tokyo—and now we’re getting requests from all kinds of departments to hold a company-wide tournament. Everyone’s practicing after work, and they seem to want an opportunity to show off their new skills.”

Posters at the company encourage employees to spectate boccia and other parasports

Boccia Bringing Everyone Together

“Toyota’s Head Office has a restaurant on the third floor. From 2017 until last year, this restaurant hosted a once-a-week ‘Boccia Bar,’ which came about when organizers heard from employees how fun it was to play boccia while drinking. This ‘Boccia Bar,’ which was held regularly in a kind of darts bar-style atmosphere, was the starting point for our current efforts. And it really was fun to play boccia like that, with everyone all excited and drinking together [laughs],” said Nagata.

“Boccia Bar,” held in the in-house restaurant (Photo by: Toyota Motor Corporation)

The company also hosts “Boccia Clinics” for those who want to improve their skills (Photo by: Toyota Motor Corporation)

Unfortunately, though it seems many people would want to take part in such a fun event, the “Boccia Bar” is not currently active in the Tokyo Head Office. “Instead, we have a space on the first floor where anybody can try it out. We also offer a space in MEGA WEB in Odaiba where people can try not just boccia but all kinds of parasports, including wheelchair basketball.”

Some Toyota dealerships also offer a space to try out boccia. These spaces are used as a part of business—with children playing boccia while their parents negotiate—but also sometimes as a training location for boccia players in local disability associations.
“At dealerships that handle Welcab (welfare vehicles), many of the staff have some connection to these local disability associations, so some of them provide their spaces as a training location for the boccia players in these associations.”

In addition to promoting the actual involvement of employees in boccia, the company is also encouraging employees to spectate boccia events. “Having played it themselves, they know how difficult it is, how much depth there is in the sport, and they’re very stunned when they see these professionals and their high-level matches. This creates respect for these people as athletes. This year, there’s going to be a major tournament in Toyota City, which is where our company got its start. We want as many employees as possible to go out and see this kind of professional play for themselves,” said Nagata passionately.

And finally, the company also wants to use boccia as an opportunity to connect with people with impairment outside of the company. “At Shimoyama Plant in Aichi Prefecture and our Tokyo Head Office, we’ve actually invited people from local facilities for the disabled to play boccia with the employees, and just socialize regardless of disability.”

The company has held three boccia tournaments in the Tokyo Head Office lobby with people from welfare facilities in Bunkyo City (Photo by: Toyota Motor Corporation)

Nagata says he hopes these kinds of events, where people can just get together and socialize organically through boccia, will make its way to the rest of society.

“These kinds of regular events may drive a person with impairment, who perhaps tended to stay home, to head outside. We believe boccia as a sport is a kind of gateway into understanding inclusive societies and what they mean, and in that sense they have the power to change things anywhere, including in school environments. For instance, it’s possible with boccia to have special-ed children and the other children form mixed teams and compete against one another. If this kind of thing could keep happening, even after Tokyo 2020, that would be a legacy in the true meaning of the word.”

Toyota is looking ahead, towards a world even beyond 2020.

Nagata also competes in company boccia tournaments himself

text by Shigeki Masutani
photo by Haruo Wanibe

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