February 17, 2015 / 5:38 AM / in 3 years

In Japan, women amputees step out of the shadows

Women wearing prosthetic legs participate in a public photo session at the Hasselblad and Profoto booth, during the CP+ camera and imaging equipment trade fair in Yokohama south of Tokyo, February 14, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

TOKYO (Reuters) - When Yoko Sato lost her left leg in an accident, she fell into despair. The stigma of amputation in a country that views disability as something to be pitied added to her misery.

But then the Japanese office worker met prosthesis maker Fumio Usui, whose artificial legs let Sato and women like her not only run, play soccer and execute karate kicks, but also transform some of the appendages into wearable works of art.

“My main aim is to change the image that disabled people are pitiful,” Sato, whose leg was amputated seven years ago, told Reuters at a photo shoot and fashion event on Valentine’s Day.

“I want to show that prostheses can be cool and sometimes even cute,” said the 33-year-old, posing in a sassy red mini-dress that showed off a prosthetic leg painted with cherry blossoms and gilded Japanese fans.

“It would be great if people felt that prostheses could be fashion items,” Sato added.

There are an estimated 80,000 people in Japan using prosthetic limbs. Some 7,000, including Paralympians, have been fitted for prostheses by Usui and his workshop, part of an organization set up in 1932 to help injured railroad workers.

Women wearing prosthetic legs participate in a public photo session at the Hasselblad and Profoto booth, during the CP+ camera and imaging equipment trade fair in Yokohama south of Tokyo, February 14, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Usui also founded a sports club to help amputees train for competition and last year teamed up with photographer Takao Ochi to produce “Amputee Venus,” a collection of photos featuring 11 young women who have each lost a leg.

“They make you forget about disability,” Usui said on the sidelines of the fashion show featuring the women profiled in the collection. “You don’t notice it.”

Slideshow (2 Images)

The only words in the book, just out in English, are the phrase “Ability not Disability” and brief biographies. The rest is just photos of women: running, snowboarding, snorkelling or posing in a black bustier - all with artificial legs, sometimes painted with flowers or butterflies, on proud display.

“Amputee Venus” and the fashion event are attempts to change attitudes towards the disabled in Japan, which remains behind much of the West in terms of accessibility and acceptance.

Onlookers at the event were initially surprised to see prosthetic legs on the catwalk, but there were signs Usui’s efforts to give amputees a new lease of life may bear fruit.

“I had never been in contact with people with prosthetic legs,” said Katsuyuki Aoki, an office worker. “But my impression about prostheses has become positive.”

Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Tony Tharakan

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