Disability and, to be more specific, attitudes to disability have a particularly checkered history in Japan. Once upon a time, it was believed that people born with disabilities were paying spiritual penance for wrongdoings in a previous life or incarnation. It would possibly surprise many of you how a sizeable number of people here still believe this to be a truism. 

Giving Back to the Community

I first met Alex Ramirez, the Venezuelan-born Japanese global baseball hero, on a cruise ship this summer. We spent some time together and when we disembarked in Hakodate in Hokkaido, I was fortunate to walk through the city with him and his family. What surprised me, and really impressed me, was that Ramichan, as he’s more affectionately known, never once rejected a photo or autograph.

Every street we were stopped, and he happily gave up his time to his fans and put an arm around them and answered questions. He is happy to admit that this act is simply “giving back to the community.” The former Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Tokyo Yakult Swallows, Yomiuri Giants and Yokohama DeNa Baystars player and manager for the Yokohama outfit is a genuine legend of the game and has been welcomed in Japan as one of their own since his arrival over 20 years ago. 

Ramirez’ son Kenji has Down syndrome and Vamos Together, the NPO he runs with his wife Miho, is the reason why we are sitting across from each other in a suite room at the Yokohama Bay Sheraton Hotel on a beautiful autumn day in late October. Established in 2020, the goal of Vamos Together is to set the record straight about Down syndrome and other special needs in Japan. Admirably, it is also aiming “for a society where people with disabilities and able-bodied people can live together.”

When speaking with Ramirez, I’m reminded of what renowned British neurologist Oliver Sacks said regarding disability: “I wish for a world that views disability, mental or physical, not as a hindrance but as unique attributes that can be seen as powerful assets if given the right opportunities.” Throughout the interview, I realize that Ramirez shares very similar views. 

Ramichan with his son Kenji

The Origins of Vamos Together

The aim of Ramirez and Vamos Together, essentially, is to distance themselves from the concept of segregation. The antiquated notion that kids with disabilities should only play with other kids that share their disabilities. Ramirez firmly believes in integration, collaboration and the utilization of spaces where everyone can, regardless of being disabled or not, be accepted for who they are. 

When I ask Ramirez how Vamos Together came about, he answers very sincerely. “My son Kenji has Down syndrome and I want to be able to help him become independent. And to live a life as normal as anyone else. So, a couple of years ago, I joined an organization where only kids with special needs were able to participate. I came up with the idea of creating another organization where everybody gets to participate, and nobody gets left out.” 

As a legendary sportsperson in Japan, it comes as no surprise, then, that Vamos Together organizes a host of sporting events for kids, throughout the year, including baseball, soccer, basketball, lacrosse and art activities.

According to Ramirez, “The kids participate and interact with each other and communicate. Some kids don’t like to speak, and in their minds, they might be afraid of what kids with no disabilities think or say. So, the best way for them to express themselves is through sport and art. When you play sports, for example, you don’t have to talk. You let your body speak for you.”

It’s refreshing to hear Ramirez talk so openly about his kids and, in this instance, his son Kenji. Rather than Down syndrome being perceived as a hindrance, the baseball star views it as a kind of celestial gift.

“Some parents believe that, because their child has Down syndrome, that something happened to them in the past or that the parents did something wrong,” says Ramirez. “We believe, however, that kids with Down syndrome are only given to special parents. Because they need special treatment, not every parent can do this.” 

A Sporting Chance

Talk turns to his baseball career and after a while I ask how his time in the sport has trained him for working with Down syndrome children in his capacity as founder of Vamos Together.

“One of the things I learned in my sports career is that I should appreciate what I have,” he says. “I accomplished many things in my career in baseball and now is the time to give back to the community. My NPO, Vamos Together, gives me the opportunity to give back and to help me to understand kids with disabilities and kids without disabilities. To be able to make a team together, to interact and to teach. Some of these kids see me on TV and once they see me face to face they are amazed. For me to spend time with them, to play baseball with them is just an amazing feeling.

“I have accomplished many things,” continues Ramirez. “But I wasn’t always successful. Sometimes I failed. Actually, I failed more than I succeeded. That’s the reason I became successful in baseball. I learned from failure. One of the things I want to teach the kids is that it doesn’t matter how many times you fall down, you have to pull yourself up and, most importantly, stay up.” 

Vamos Together

Christmas Cruise Collaboration

So, what’s coming up for Vamos Together in the coming months? The Yokohama superstar talks about a partnership cruise with MSC Cruises Japan. The upcoming Christmas cruise sees the two unify and Ramirez sees this harmony due to both organizations’ focus on family.

“I’ve cruised with MSC Cruises twice now and it’s been amazing,” he says. “The hospitality and the service are incredible, and it is very family orientated. A place where families and kids can feel comfortable and opportunities for the kids to enjoy the cruise and to interact with a lot of people. The first two times I went on the cruise, of course, we started talking with MSC Cruises Japan and Vamos Together about an opportunity to collaborate. MSC Cruises Japan opened the door for us, accepted us.

“I like to be a Santa every Christmas,” he continues. “So, on the upcoming Christmas cruise we are going to give the kids some gifts and interact with them, sign autographs and things like that. My wife is going to be teaching CrossFit on the cruise and before the Christmas cruise leaves the port in Yokohama, we are going to do a sports event on the ship. It’s going to be really good with 50 kids plus parents and we are going to play baseball, basketball, soccer and to show the kids around the ship. That’s the reason we decided to work with them. We are happy about that.”

Ramirez seems very straightforward about his aims and goals and for those of Vamos Together. To banish the old-fashioned attitudes to disability that many in Japan still have and to be positive about how Down syndrome and other conditions can be seen as a force for good and can, eventually, see a new and more accepting Japan. 

“What I’m trying to do is for people to understand that these kids are as normal as us,” he says. “They can do sports and work. They can accomplish many things. Maybe not at the same time or speed as us. But they can do it. I want to see my son develop into being himself. I’ve seen kids with Down syndrome and other special needs lead by themselves. I really admire that. And that’s the goal for Vamos Together. To be able to provide those opportunities. And for these children to become truly independent.” 

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To find out more information about Vamos Together, please visit the official website and follow on Line,  Instagram, X (Twitter)