SHIZUOKA, Japan (AFP) - Haunting notes stream from Manami Ito’s violin as she gracefully draws her bow back and forth, clasping it with her specially designed prosthetic arm.
The Japanese musician enthralled a nation with her brief but show-stealing performance at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Paralympics, and playing violin isn’t even her day job.
The 36-year-old is a qualified nurse and a former Paralympian swimmer who has spent the years since she lost her right arm in a motorbike accident defying her naysayers and overcoming every obstacle before her.
“There were always people who told me: ‘No, you can’t do it. It’s impossible,’” she told AFP at her mother’s home by a lush green riverbank.
“Every time I faced that kind of wall, I thought to myself: ‘They are saying that because no one has done it before. So I will do it.’”
But that wasn’t always the way Ito felt, particularly in the dark days after her accident at the age of 20.
“I thought I would confine myself at home for the rest of my life,” she admits.
“I didn’t want my friends or neighbours to see my body, I didn’t want them to know what happened to me.”
It was the sight of her parents “in real pain” at her state that made her rethink her stance.
“I thought, I cannot make them smile if I don’t smile myself,” she said.
Ito had been encouraged by her mother to play the violin when she was a child, and after her accident she decided to give it another try.
At first she tried to play by taping the bow to her foot. But it took years before she was able to receive a special prosthetic arm and master the fluid tones she now produces.
And having been a child who “hated losing or failing”, she didn’t dare to play in public for a long time.
But in the end, her determination won out.
“I want to show to the world that just because no one else has done it, it doesn’t mean I can’t do it,” she said.
‘What is normal can be different’
Ito had been a nursing student at the time of the accident, and was determined to return to training.
But the first prosthetic she was given was more like a shop mannequin arm than a functional limb.
“At first I was very happy, because when I put it on and went outside, no one stared at it,” she said.
But she soon realised that “it didn’t do anything to help me”, and fought hard to swap it for a new one that moved and allowed her to work.
In 2007, she became the first qualified nurse in Japan using a prosthetic arm and took a posting in the western city of Kobe, choosing to move far from her family home in order to live independently.
It was there she rediscovered another childhood passion -- swimming.
She began training after work for parasports competitions before going on to swim at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 and London 2012, reaching the finals three times under her maiden name Nomura.
And though she had once tried to hide her scars, Ito said she chose swimming precisely because it revealed her as she is.
“I never wanted anybody to look at my scars, the scars were the most vulnerable part of my body,” she said.
“But I began to think about exposing them to the world, because otherwise I would never be strong.”
Ito quit nursing in 2015 after getting married, and is now mostly focused on raising her daughters, aged two and five, though she continues to give talks about her life.
She plans to watch Sunday’s Paralympic closing ceremony at home with her husband and children, who she is teaching to appreciate diversity.
“When my daughter gets older, there will be a day when her friends tell her that her mum looks strange,” Ito said.
“I want to hear her saying this is her mother, and that what is normal can be different for each person and each family.”