‘Disabled’ in Britain, just ‘foreign’ in Japan

‘Disabled’ in Britain, just ‘foreign’ in Japan

‘Disabled’ in Britain, just ‘foreign’ in Japan

“At the same time there was a new feeling of freedom. The visitor was no longer controlled by his own mores and he could disregard Japan’s. Exceptions were made for the gaijin [foreigner] who could be expected to know nothing. This freedom included the ultimate liberty of finding everything other than himself — walking down the street, he enjoyed the freedom of being manifestly different.”

As the late author Donald Richie noted, to be a foreigner in Japan means to experience a paradox. You experience a kind of freedom living in Japan — of being able to experience your surroundings but not your own self. Your status as a foreigner is reflected back at you by the environment you traverse, and it is not only the more-than-occasional stare that reminds you that you are gaijin — here, even the buildings, tall and proud, loom over you, remonstrating you for your foreignness.

Whilst not experienced all of the time by all gaijin, it does lead some to experience themselves schismatically: There is both the person I think I am and the one that is perceived by others. You have to negotiate with the world in order to receive a self-image you can recognize as your own.

There is a kind of liberation in this, but one that not all find welcome. As another writer, Richard Lloyd Parry, notes, every foreigner “experiences the small daily shock of re-entry,” an act of remembering, or rather realizing, that yesterday was not a dream or hallucination — that you are, indeed, in Japan. It is also an experience of the uncanny, a feeling that your own self is always public; as a foreigner you are always “out there,” in the world, and on show. Who and what you are is no longer something you have control over. Here, it is probably better not to worry about your own self-identity; other people in Japan will worry about that for you.

As a disabled foreigner living in Japan, I have experienced both sides of this paradox. It may seem bleak, but I do not find it so. And yet, for myself, a British citizen who has cerebral palsy living in Japan, it is the liberatory power of being a foreigner here that leaves the deepest impression on me.

In Britain, I always felt like an outsider — not discriminated against, at least not personally, but I always felt like I was someone for whom allowances had to be made. Apologies were made for me by others, often for the crime of tripping someone up or over, or for “getting in the way.” Actions that would otherwise have been dismissed as the actions of, at worst, a rude man, became actions of a disabled man.

Not so here in Japan. I am not claiming that Japanese people do not make such allowances, but at the very least, I see nothing in the faces of my hosts that offers pity or sympathy; if anything, curiosity is the dominant expression.

The life of a foreigner is, at times, one of negotiation. There are terrains to be traversed, both physical and psychological in nature. Not only do you have to negotiate for your identity — to insist daily that, in my case at least, I am British, not English (Japanese people rarely recognize the term “British”) — but you also have to negotiate the physical space. For the foreigner with a physical disability, the need to negotiate the environment safely is of paramount importance.

However, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the people of Japan have an odd sense of space. Examine a morning train journey. The queue to enter the train is long and slow-moving. The people of Japan rarely run — “rush hour” is a misnomer. Regardless of the human traffic, everyone — from the salaryman apparently “hurrying” for work to the young mother “dashing” for the shops — will march at the same slow, orderly pace. Nothing shall disturb the civility of the morning commute. Japan is a country that follows the advice to “hasten slowly” to the letter; everyone is in a rush, but nobody ever runs.

Until the train doors open. After that, such civility appears to be suspended, as passengers flood in and out, often attempting to do so simultaneously, and it’s everyone for themselves — no “women and children first” on Japanese trains. I am flung into the carriage and I trip towards the “priority seats,” those reserved for the elderly, disabled, pregnant and children.

Salvation from the hurly-burly of the morning commute often arrives in the form of a friendly smile, a nod from a fellow traveler as they vacate their seat and offer it to me. A nod and a smile from her (the offer usually comes from female traveler), a nod and “arigatō gozaimashita” (“thank you”) from me and I am seated. Perhaps it is quite fitting then, given the obstacle-course nature of the morning journey to work, that the Japanese for disabled person, which is pronounced shōgaisha, is etymologically related to the word for “obstacle.” I am an “obstacle person.”

The reader may be thinking that this doesn’t sound liberatory; it may even sound unwelcoming, if not physically dangerous for a disabled person. And yet, I enjoy a sense of liberation — of being freed from the constraints of my disability — here in Japan.

In Britain, my disability was often made visible. For example, I would step on the bus and granny types and mothers would shoo their children off seats, saying, often quite loudly, “Let the disabled man sit there.” They meant well, of course, and I would never want to discourage such acts of kindness. However, the act of helping me often entailed or even required the act of announcing my disability to the entire world, and that can become grating after a time. One has to keep remembering the good intentions of the Samaritan, but after 30-plus years of such encounters, it takes a lot of effort to do so.

When I first moved to Japan, I noticed one thing very quickly: People simply didn’t seem to take note of my disability in the same way they did in Britain, and they would certainly never refer to it. Of course, they have noticed it — that is why I am offered the priority seat — but my disability, in many ways, still remains in the background; it seems to recede, with my not being Japanese a far more dominant trait.

In April, when I moved from Tokyo to Osaka, on my first time going to Osaka Umeda University, I tripped while boarding the Hankyu Senri Line train from Yamada to Umeda. I fell, quite dramatically, into the priority seat, almost sitting on a young female passenger.

I dusted myself off, exclaimed “gomen nasai” — “I am sorry” — and sat down.

There was a pause.

She turned round, faced me, and said (in English, coincidentally), “You are English?”

I responded, “Yes, I am English,” sat back and smiled.

I thought to myself: Yes, I am a gaijin, an “outside person”; yes, of course, I am still disabled; but at least here (however strange or silly this sentiment may sound), I don’t feel disabled, nor am I seemingly treated as a disabled person by many.

My status as a foreigner seems to have rendered my disability unapparent, if not at times completely invisible, and in that invisibility, I experience a kind of freedom I never had in Britain. And for that experience, I am indebted to Japan.


Japan’s Cabinet office approves plans to improve facilities for the disabled [2013]

On September 27th 2013, the Cabinet Office of the Japanese Government, endorsed plans to improve facilities for people with disabilities (PWD).  In preparation for the 2020 Paralympics, the government is set to improve arenas and facilities where Paralympic athletes can train.  Training facilities will not have different floor levels. Restrooms will also be rid of barriers, while tiles with raised bumps are increased to better assist people who are visually impaired. However, facilities that will go through renovation depend on the decision of the Japan Paralympic Committee and particular sports associations.

There will also be an increase of facilities for PWDs so they can train safely and better. Meanwhile, coaches will be trained to better assist disabled athletes. Train stations and bus terminals will also go through renovations to guarantee easier access for disabled people by fiscal 2020.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government had previously stated that “it will raise the number of low-floor buses from the current rate of around 80 percent to 100 percent, and install elevators and restrooms for the disabled at all Tokyo train stations as opposed to 90 percent at present.”, according to the Mainichi News.  Some such as Japanese Paralympian Masaaki Chiba, 51, a wheelchair user and track and field athlete are suspicious of such claims saying, “Mere infrastructure improvements are pointless.” He adds, “When I get in an elevator in Japan, people don’t make room for me unless I ask, and non-disabled people use the restrooms for the disabled.”

Chiba continues:

“Attitudes toward the disabled are behind the times in Japan. That is because there is not enough communication, and because disabled and non-disabled do not understand each other,” said. Chiba believes it is necessary to speak to young people now to raise awareness before visitors flock to Tokyo for the 2020 Paralympics and find themselves disappointed by anachronistic attitudes.

Chiba’s concerns appeared to be shared by the Chairman of the Japan GoalBall Association, Kazuo Kondo.  Kondo hopes many people will watch goalball ( in which participants are vision impaired, either through natural or artificial means such as a eyemask) and the aim is to throw the ball into the opponents goal) and discover the sport’s appeal, and he also says that people watching the disabled compete in sports will lead to better understanding of them in general.

“That will lead to a society that is also more accommodating to the elderly and other socially vulnerable populations,” says Kondo.

I have no doubt that Tokyo 2020 will be impressive, and as I have stated elsewhere, Tokyo is far from the worst place in the world for disability access.  My only concern is that their plans, are quite simply, not grand enough.  Restrooms in every Tokyo train station is of course welcome, and will be costly.  But where is the attempt to change the image of disability in Japan?  It was the emphasis Lord Sebastian Coe placed on the London 2012 Paralympics that led to two million people buying tickets for it.  Japan should use the resources of ‘Cool Japan’, whether it is AKB48, or Hello Kitty or other cultural ‘brands’ in order sell the idea of the Japanese Paralympics.

Still, it is early days, but I shall be watching Tokyo for the next seven years.



‘Wheelchair athlete calls for better attitudes toward disabled by 2020’ http://mainichi.jp/english/english/newsselect/news/20130914p2a00m0na009000c.html

Japanese government endorses plan to improve Paralympic facilities http://japandailypress.com/japanese-government-endorses-plan-to-improve-paralympic-facilities-0437165/

The Limping Philosopher on recent Disability Abuse cases in Japan.

Obviously when I said billions, that is a little bit of an exaggeration, but in a country of a 120 odd million would would expect more than just a 1,505 cases of abuse in a six month period. Here is the Japan Times/Kyodo article:


Typhoon Haiyan: how you can help the Philippines

Typhoon Haiyan: how you can help the Philippines

Thankfully, even though I live in Japan, I’ve never experienced a typhoon like this, but thought the information worth sharing.


The Philippine Red Cross is deploying rescue teams to affected areas of the country. The British Red Cross has also launched an appeal.

Logistics equipment including mobile storage units, pre-fabricated offices and generators, is being sent from the UN humanitarian response depot (UNHRD) in Malaysia to set up operational hubs at Tacloban and Cebu airports. Some 300kg of IT equipment including digital radios are being sent from UNHRD in Dubai. The WFP is drawing upon $2m to buy high-energy biscuits and rice, but will be appealing for more funds as the needs become clearer.

The UN’s World Food Programme is providing emergency food assistance to families and children.

UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees, plans an emergency airlift of tents, plastic sheets, blankets, mats, water containers and cooking utensils for 16,000 families. UNHCR will also distribute 50,000 solar lanterns.

Unicef is asking for funds to help children in urgent need of access to safe water, hygiene supplies, food, shelter and a safe environment.

Readers in the UK can donate through these relief agencies:

British aid agencies have launched a joint emergency appeal to get food, water and shelter to victims of the typhoon. The Disasters Emergency Committee is made up of 14 aid charities.

Oxfam is raising funds to deploy water and sanitation materials to those affected.

ShelterBox is working to assist families affected by the typhoon.

Care is delivering food, water, shelter and other essentials to the survivors.

Save the Children has launched a typhoon Haiyan children’s relief fund to support their responses to urgent needs.

Christian Aid has deployed three rapid response teams to affected areas in Samar, Leyte and Panay to assess the needs of communities. It is working with local partners to provide food, shelter repair materials and hygiene kits.

Plan UK is providing shelters, hygiene kits and school equipment to families affected by the typhoon.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has sent an emergency team to Manila and launched a $10m appeal in order to implement the most appropriate response.

HelpAge is working with the coalition of services of the elderly (COSE), to send staff to affected areas. It is developing a relief plan to meet older people’s most urgent needs.

ActionAid has put a local assessment team on standby in Vietnam.

Emergency teams from Médecins Sans Frontières arrived in thePhilippines on Saturday. Four cargo planes carrying 329 tonnes of medical and relief items will arrive in the coming days, flying out of Dubai and Ostende.

Anglican Overseas Aid is swinging into action to bring urgent aid to people.

Readers in Australia can donate through these relief agencies:

ChildFund Australia is calling for donations to help provide emergency relief items and safe spaces for children.

Plan International Australiais prioritising assisting children and will be providing shelters, hygiene kits and school equipment to families affected by the typhoon.

World Vision Australia does not have a specific typhoon Haiyan appeal, but you can make donations to its emergency and preparedness fund, which will go towards its work – already under way – in the Philippines and Vietnam.

Australia for UNHCR has mobilised teams to pool resources, food and non-food items and distribute them to victims of the typhoon. It is sending 200 tonnes of medical equipment as well as adding to its on-the-ground team with extra personnel, including medical staff and psychologists.

The international Caritas network is responding to affected communities, providing shelter, clean water, sanitation, hygiene and household relief.

The Australian Red Cross is also asking for donations to help in the provision of emergency relief, rehabilitation and recovery to both the Philippines and Vietnam.

Médecins Sans Frontières is sending an extra 50 people to its team in Cebu. It is sending 329 tonnes of medical and relief cargo.

Oxfam Australia is aiming to raise $17m in donations to provide relief to half a million people in affected communities in the Philippines.