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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2 Responses to Disability in Japan; implementing policy.

  1. As an academic philosopher and physically disabled person living in Japan, I found this interesting.

    • I see you wrote a book on your personal experiences about the topic, looks interesting. I wrote this blogpost during my studies in Japan, largely out of an attempt to make sense out of my sense of culture shock. Looking back, with the benefit of both temporal and spatial distance, I wonder if I shouldn’t have been more nuanced and less direct. On the other hand, even with temporal and spatial distance, the concept of a “gaiben”, an unofficial but widely accepted place for foreigners to eat and to hang out, increasingly seems like an odd and backward concept to me.

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