Disability in Japan; implementing policy.

For quite some time I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about the treatment of disabled people in Japan. There’s of course the policy, pretty much out there as it is in other countries. The attitudes on the treatment of handicapped people, however, are a pretty dark area, a grey zone, which is not often talked about in Japan. I’ll try to share my first hand impressions from my stay in Kyoto, where I’m living for another two months, as well as my conclusions from some things I learned by reading about this topic.

First of all, I have to tell you a bit about the legal frame concerning the treatment of the disabled in Japanese society. In 1993 “The Fundamental law for Disabled Persons” was enacted. This, by Japanese standards, very progressive law was revised in 2004. The law asks for full participation and equality for disabled people, as well as an abolishment of all discrimination, and a securing of opportunities for the thus targeted group of people. The law is quite extensive and deals with a lot of areas, such as nursing, employment, education, et cetera . This law reflects what I would call the official, political level’s opinion on this topic, but unfortunately there’s also another side to it.

Just walking around in the streets of Kyoto every once in a while you encounter a disabled person. Most of the people you see are physically handicapped, constricted in their movement, but still able to walk. I can’t however in the three months that I’ve been here conceive of more than one time that I’ve seen a person in a wheelchair, or a cognitively disabled person. Japan has a handicapped population of 5,9 percent, or 7.510.000 people. It Is quite high number, though not higher than average with one in twenty people having some kind of disability. In Germany, for example, almost one in ten people have some kind of disability. The question one could ask oneself is where all these people are? Do I happen to live in the only Japanese town where there are almost no handicapped people around?

This can, of course, not be the answer. Other people have also asked themselves the same questions. The journalist Tomoke Otake writes in an article for the Japan Times that people see more facilities for the disabled, such as station elevators, toilets and buses with lifts, compared to ten or twenty years earlier, but that hardly anyone ever encounters the people who use them. According to her most “abled” people live their lives without ever interacting with disabled people.

Miss Otake also writes about the proactive law called “The law for promotion for Employment, Promotion, Etc. of persons with disabilities”. This law states that all private-sector companies with more than 56 people should have 1,8 percent of their positions filled by disabled people. In the public sector, the quotum is 2,1 percent. The law has been passed thirty years ago, and the quota have, maybe not unsurprisingly, not once been met. The prevailing prejudice seems to be that handicapped people will hurt efficiency and bring the company down. Not even thirty years of policy has been able to dent this kind of prejudice, and though some are hopeful that attitudes are changing, there’s not a lot of evidence pointing in a positive direction.

Apart from employment, another major area of concern is education. I first encountered the special schools in which the disabled are segregated in an academical paper by Ian Reader about the cult leader Shoko Asahara 麻原彰晃 (real name: 松本智津夫, Matsumoto Chizuo), who was responsible for the march 1995 sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway. Asahara had a minor visual handicap, though for some time in his childhood it seemed he would become completely blind. Because of this his parent sent him to a segregated school for the visually disabled. According to Reader’s account Asahara grew to be addicted to the power he exercised over his fellow students, who were more severely disabled than he was. We have no possibility to verify this hypothesis on its veracity, however, so how much of Asahara’s later views and attitudes on the use of human lives for his own goals were influenced by his past as a handicapped kid in a segregated world stands open for discussion. This little story however, teaches us a lot about how handicapped kids were dealt with in Japan in the past. They lived a segregated life. Never could they mingle or were they mixed with the “normal” kids. The other way around, it seems like non-handicapped kids rarely ever got in contact with handicapped kids of their own age. It doesn’t need to be explained why this is a situation that tends to aggravate prejudice and discrimination towards the handicapped, but I’ll do it anyway. It is a well proven fact about the human psyche that we don’t tend to care about what we don’t see, or about what we perceive to be far away from us. Education’s important task is to take such biases away.

But have things changed, at least, in education? Asahara, after all, grew up in the sixties and seventies. The law of 1993 would make one assume there has been a gigantic leap forward, since that time.

It is hard to give an unambiguous answer to this question, but it seems there both has been improvement, and is still room for more improvement. From about 172.000 children in special elementary and middle-school education in Japan about 2/3 go to regular schools, attending special classes there. The philosophy of this is that these students will benefit from mingling with non-handicapped students. The real question here is whether the student will really mingle, even if they’re in the same school. As Ellen Rubin writes in an article on Japanese education, the stress seems to lie on equality, but also on being separate, despite all the policy.

The feeling that dominates and pervades in the end is that the cadres of Japanese society doesn’t have bad intentions or negative feelings towards the disabled, but that it is also rather clueless as to what to do with them. It seems that a lot has changed in terms of policy and education, but one hears a lot about personal tragedies. In a video blog on the internet a man claims that handicapped children are often sent to special institutes for the handicapped in New-Zealand. I wasn’t able to confirm the truth or falsity of this. You can also read a lot of testimonies of foreign disabled people in Japan who encountered, apart from all the facilities, a lot of negative attitudes towards the disabled. Disappointment seems to be the general feeling here. Miss Kerri Bonner, for example, writes: “Many of the Japanese people I came in contact with made the assumption that people with physical abilities, like me, must also have an intellectual disability… This assumption made me feel I had a lower status to people who are able bodied and I didn’t feel like an equal.” The not really treating the disabled as equals is of course also reflected in the aforementioned cluelessness of employers as to what to with them, and their constant fear that they will somehow jeopardize productivity.

I hope to do some more research into the matter, and write some more substantial things about the attitudes of average Japanese people towards the disabled, away from the official, politicized view. As a temporary conclusion, it seems that after the institutional acceptance of the handicapped that has gradually come about and still continues, it is now time for the much harder problem of opening the people’s hearts and minds to the fact that the disabled are just as useful, important and worthy of a fulfilling goal in life as other people are.

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Making sense of life in a postmodern world: becoming a fool for Japan.

This is an attempt to answer a question that I seem to be getting a lot, recently. It is best summarized as  “Japan? Why?” or, even more prosaically “Japan? What the fuck?” This is also an attempt to answer some general questions about life in post-modernity and the burden of the human beast and its human condition.

I can still recall the great sense of pride and achievement I got when I finished an academical year with success for the first time. It seemed like I finally belonged somewhere. After a troublesome adolescent era and an incredibly dull but frustrating childhood in a small provincial commune I had finally found my goal. I was to become a philosopher. “Cogito, ergo sum” was to be my motto and the world of the conceptual and the eternal were to be the realm in which I dwelled. To be a philosopher, in my opinion at the time, was to be a distinguished member of an endangered elite.  So I worked hard to excel, and excel I did.

Of course, things quickly turned sour. The expected high-spirited elite, my fellow student philosophers, were much more interested in booze than in Plato, Aristotle or even Nietzsche. The professors often seemed to lack goal and zest. They were purposeless, just like the common guy in the street and the subjects of the lessons often seemed redundant or even petty. Still, I held on to my ideals and became what I wanted to become, an intellectual of sorts, and a thinker, even if my own intellectualism was limited and my thinking was quite often fundamentally flawed. Some of the professors even found the time to really teach me something.( After my  studies I have never met a thinker that touched my heart and stimulated my brain as professor Paul Gimeno did, however short his time with his students and on this earth was to be, may he rest in peace.)

My university years as a philosophy major ended quickly and I graduated after a mere four years of studying. Finally, I had become a “master” in philosophy, as the paper said, and I was contented, at least for a short while. The bliss I felt when I quickly received my diploma ceded for another feeling. I went through a stage of great personal crisis and turned back from a master into an apprentice. To put it trivially, I became a body on the dole, an unemployed and unusable person, in every sense of these words.  In a way, I had become a part of an anonymous mass, no more human, I suddenly was a dot on a statistical curve that was called ‘The chronically workless’. It’s not that I didn’t try to get accepted by normal society, as some of my philosophical brethren did. I wrote over one hundred letters of application, and got over one hundred refusals. It was pretty obvious they didn’t want me and I felt like an elitist member of that doomed group that Nietzsche called the ‘Viel-zu-vielen’.

I wondered “what is to happen next?” This question quickly became the focal point of my life and it interfered with all its other spheres. It became an obsession. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse I found two part-time jobs, all at once. I became a teacher, even though I had sworn never to swing that way, and a journalist for a news show aimed at children. I worked and worked, and all was fine again. For a while.

This too, however, quickly changed. I found myself faced with new forms of the good old question, “why am I doing all of this? And for whom?”

Whenever the questions came to mind I felt an overwhelming numbness and I experienced it all to be senselessness. I kept hitting myself over the head for abandoning my ideals, for working these jobs I didn’t really like, but still I had to eat. So I ate and I tortured myself and I found that once again I was stuck with an obsession to change everything.

After some deliberation I decided to become a fulltime student once again. I enrolled in a bachelor program, studying Japanese and Classical Chinese, while still working as a teacher in some schools and doing the occasional odd job as a journalist to earn myself a meager but livable allowance. Bliss, happiness and smileys on my social networks ensued.

This concludes the more romantic and prosaic part of this “essay”, so if you’re not interested in a lot of philosophical mumbo jumbo you might want to skip to the last paragraph. Let’s try to get into some theory.

When you look at it, in a quite general way, human beings are desiring machines. Okay, we have our rationality and morality, which can’t be equal to our desires all of the time, if you doubt this I would recommend reading something by any utilitarianistic philosopher, doesn’t really matter who, or the work of good old David Hume. But if you look at the gargantuesque amount of energy and time that people all over the world spend to satisfy their basic needs and desires you will have to agree with me on the fact that desire and the satisfaction of it is what drives the world. We, all of us, are hungry, thirsty, cold, overheated and sex driven and we can only continue making sense of our lives when we take care of these basic needs, first. Once the basic needs have disappeared, new needs arise, for our mind is so dispositioned that always needs something to occupy itself with. This was, in an evolutionary way, probably a good thing, for it kept us from starving to death, if it still is a good thing in the highly developed commodities society of the west and some peripheral parts of it (mind, I’m using “peripheral” to provoke), I am not so sure. So where were we? Oh yes, I am not thirsty and cold anymore, but I am still drinking water and wearing the hide of some ghastly jungle beast. “Well this won’t do!”, man says and he starts to desire a more luxurious life. But he is faced with a problem. How can he enjoy a luxurious life and at the same time work his ass of to make the objects that he needs to make a luxurious life?

The solution is found in the shape of the division of labor, and more recently in our evolutionary history or historical evolution, in the creation of a category of symbolical labor. The division of labor is, I do believe, a good thing in itself. It’s basically the agreement that I will make sweaters, because that’s what I do best, but that you will raise livestock, because that’s what you do best, and that we will try to share the fruits of our labor so as both to reap the benefits. A laborer in a system of divided labor is a more successful, albeit less universally useful one, than one in a system without divided labor. This is a pretty, pretty, … pretty simplified schematic of divided labor, but it will do for the here and now of this blog. Next: symbolical labor.

The symbolical laborer is a worker that doesn’t handle physical substances anymore. He handles the values and actions of other people and makes it into something he can use for his own profit. With this, a process had started in which both labor and human beings became commodities.

The long process to make a commodity out of labor was completed somewhere at the end of the nineteenth century and is still an important part of the economical system today. Salesmen, lawyers, politicians and factory owners, they all are symbolical laborers. All of this you can also hear in a Marxism 101 course.

In the twentieth century a new form of symbolical labor arose. This form of labor thrives on the exploitation of the traditional group of physical laborers in favor of the elite of symbolical laborers. I am, of course, talking about advertising. The purpose of advertising is creating new needs or reestablishing the old ones in order to be able to keep selling products that symbolical laborers need to sell. To put it in a way advertisers could relate to:  “If they don’t need it, make them want it!”

So the young individual, freshly trained in science, humanities or art finds himself in a quite precarious situation once he ventures out to find a job. He can choose between a meager life as a marginal figure in society or participate in the game of creating the newest thing, either as a manual or as a symbolical laborer. I think every professional has to make this simple but harsh choice, and not even the so-called creative professions are spared of this. A writer, to take one example, is under enormous pressure to make his work valuable to a certain subgroup of readers. In big countries a writer can still have some freedom, because he can write for a smaller, but still large enough subgroup. In that way, an intellectualist novelist can write an intellectualist book for a small but still considerably large enough audience. There a lot of possible situations in which an individual can have a relatively large freedom of thinking and movement. The rule of thumb to remember is: as long as symbolical labor makes enough profit, everything is a-okay.

In some countries however, like the Flemish part of Belgium, which I happen to be a part of, hooray for that, the market is so small that the people that, to use the example given above, read are considered by the class of symbolical laborers to be one big undividable group. To use the given example, an intellectual who writes a book in Dutch will often not get published, bacause there’s simply no market for the symbolical laborer to get rich enough of. Because of this, the literary scene in Flanders has been dead for the past twenty or thirty years. You could argue for state intervention in this case, but governmental initiatives are rare, and they only affect those that already have had some degree of success. Frustration amongst intelligent young people is bound to arise.

Where’s does all this leave me in my story as to why I choose to study Japanese culture? How can this help to explain my, seemingly, strange choice?

First of all, I think the sketched situation is inevitable and, in a way, eternal. I don’t believe in a big revolution, or in a reversal of the values of the free market that have been thriving in the west for some time now. To put it bluntly for those who already know of this discussion, I am not and will never be a believer in a systemic revolution. People are, taken as a group, not as individuals, stupid and will always fall for the same pitfalls of commercialism and advertising. To take away their freedom means to be inhuman and I think that nobody ever proved that slavery, be it in the name of religion or humanity, can make things better.

I also don’t believe in a counterculture that could radically change things by means of symbolical actions. It would take violence to really change things, but I’m not a violent man, and I can’t abstrahate the suffering of even one person if it would save thousands.

An artist, an academic, a thinker or a writer doesn’t change the world. 99 Percent of the time he is powerless to make people act differently. But he might force a deeper understanding on what I, with a metaphor I borrowed from former Us president Bush junior, would call the alliance of the willing. You have to be modest, you can not not be modest. You won’t change anything, but you have to try to increase understanding. It is a futile but inevitable quest, for giving up on it means falling into the abyss of unreflected, uncritical Macdonaldism. That’s the way I feel it, I really can’t help it. I know it’s terribly Epicurean, and small in scale and proportion, but I think it’s all we have.

Secondly, an original creator, if he is a truly original creator, doesn’t try to be original. We live in a world that is permeated and soaked to the bone by information. Thinking you can create a new style, make something that hasn’t been done before is an illusion that can only end in disappointment or intellectual solitude. The elements are finite,  but the combinations are limitless. We are surrounded by all kinds of meanings and rearranging them into pallets of provoking and challenging new combinations is the challenge for any true creator in the postmodernist world. By getting in touch with Japanese culture I am simply expanding my set of rules for combining things. To sever oneself from obviousness and take some distance from your own identity is a great adventure albeit a perilous one. Losing yourself, losing your mind is not unthinkable, and at times I don’t know who I am, if I ever did know. Probably this is because I am nobody if not the construction that others and me assembled and continue to reassemble.

Thirdly, there is also a personal and more trivial reason why I became obsessed with Japan and all things Japanese. It seems to me that the Japanese as a people have an interesting dynamic of assimilation of other countries. I believe the reasons for this are not in any way genetical or biological, as they rather foolishly like to believe, but it’s just that they were from their early Yamato beginning in an underdog position. They were on an island, which is socio-geologically spoken a disadvantage for development, and they were also on the edge of the giant and strong Chinese empire for almost their entire history. But for some reason they created a knack for assimilating and for making the best out of a bad situation, so they always knew how to excel in a way, even if they fell in the pitfalls of fascism, isolation and absolutism at a couple of crucial times. For me, the Japanese as a people have often illustrated what it’s like to be original in a world that’s soaked in profit and utilitarianism.

There are two possible roads for original persons: they can lose their grip on reality, become absolutists or solitarians, or they can maintain themselves in a way that’s enigmatic or even problematic  to most people, alienating almost everybody but forcing admiration by pure determination.

This second choice is, in no way, easy and frustration roars its ugly head every which way we look. I think the wannabe originals are all stuck with only one true choice: to kill ourselves or to be brave and to struggle in a heroic fashion. These are the options that Albert Camus gives the reader in “La mythe de Sisyphe” , a book that hasn’t lost one ounce of relevance in the almost seventy years since its publication. The necessity of courage or suicide is a sad but unavoidable conclusion in these modern times, and I think that the people of Japan are vitally aware of all this. They have a very high suicide rate.

This third point is less universal than the other two, and I think it is the least important one. The main points are, as we recall, the inability for individuals to change something in a systematic way and the imperative of originality to dislodge yourself from your fixed state of mind. In the end I would say the only possible way out of the modern dilemma between being stuck in nothingness or creating something and throwing it into a vaccuum is to go out and to venture. Japan is an arbitrary choice of culture, and I honestly don’t give a fuck about the Japanese or Japanese society persé, and I might as well have chosen Thailand or South-Africa, but the main thing is that the confrontation with another cultural frame dislodges you out of your fixed frame of mind, gets you out of the couch of thoughts you were embedded in and puts some vital questions to the test.

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A beginner’s guide to Yasukuni.

The yasukuni shrine

As you may or may not know, Japan has recently undergone a change of regime. In 2009, the conservative LDP (自民党) has  suffered a political defeat for the first time in over 50 years. An important and controversial point in Japanese politics has always been the frequent visits by politicians of the forementioned party to the Yasukuni shrine. In 2006, to take one out of many examples, former prime minister Koizume of the LDP visited the shrine on august  15, the day world war II ended in Japan. This visit spurred a lot of controversy with the liberals and leftists in Japan and outrage in South-Korea and China. Koizume made a point of visiting the shrine every year, sparking outrage every time. Why is the Yasukuni-shrine so controversial?

Protesters against Yasukuni making some obvious comparisons.

The Yasukuni shrine is a shintoist worshipping location that harbours the spirits of the Japanese casualties in the Second World War. Now there’s nothing wrong with that and the remembrance wouldn’t be so controversial if it weren’t for the fact that this also includes the spirits of some war criminals. The Japanese have done some pretty nasty things on the Asian continent, for example in Manchuria, Nanjing and Korea, and a lot of people have been condemned for crimes against humanity after the war. Of course all of this is ancient history for a lot of people now and if you would ask the common Japanese, Korean or Chinese I guess he or she wouldn’t really care a lot about these kinds of things. Still, the symbolical act of remembering the war criminals in a shrine is an intolerable slap in the face for some people, a lot of whom’s relatives were once victimized by the Japanese army. Ofcourse I’m massively oversimplifying things here for the sake of brevity, but that’s the gist of it.

Koizumi visits the Yasukuni shrine.

With the change of regime it seems like there will not be any visit by the prime minister to the controversial shrine on august 15 this year. Current prime minister Naoto Kan of the democratic party already expressed his intention not to go this year. He also wants to ban the war criminals out of the Yasukuni,  making it a more PC place for everyone to visit. Kan has also apologized to the Koreans for the part the Japanese played in their colonization, though he wasn’t the first to do that. The question is wether there will ever be enough support for the democrats to push this ban through. A lot of conservative powers are still at work in Japan today, and not everyone shares the views the democrats have of the past of Japan. Add to this a failing economy on the island and the ever gaining influence of China and you just know for a fact the next few years should prove interesting.

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