One Year After Sagamihara, Japanese Disabled People Continue to Face Discrimination

July 26th 2017 marks one year since the murder of 19 intellectually disabled people at the Tsukui Yamayuri En care home in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, an attack that injured 27 others. The alleged attacker, Satoshi Uematsu, a former employee at the care facility, is still awaiting trial, and prosecutors have said it may take more than a year before the trial will begin. According to a judicial official quoted in a Kyodo News Report:

“There is an enormous amount of evidence (to be examined). I reckon more than a year would be needed merely for pretrial discovery, or disclosure of evidence, by prosecutors during the consultation stage.”

A long wait for a trial is in itself, not unusual in Japan, although much has been made in both the Japanese and Western press about the names of the victims not be released. As early as the end of the July 2016, disability groups have been saying that to not the release the names of the victims, is to deny them their identity, just as the alleged attacker Uematsu did. As Professor Osamu Nagase, a disability rights advocate and academic at Ritsumeikan University said to the Sankei Shimbun at the time:

“To not announce the name of the 19 human beings is to suggest that disabled people are not people…that thinking seems to in part be overlapping with the thinking of the suspect “.

Article 291 of The Japanese Code of Criminal Procedure allows prosecutors to read out the indictment without identifying the victim, so it cannot be said that the Kanagawa Prefectural Police were acting improperly in not releasing the names of the victims. However, it is also worth noting that there have been murder cases where the Japanese police have released the names of the victims, such as in the recent ‘Black Widow’ murder, where it was released to the press that Chisako Kakehi, was alleged to have killed her husband, Isao Kakehi. Why the release the names in that case, but not the names of those killed at the Sagamihara care home?

Regardless of the legal minutia of murder cases in Japan; about whether it is appropriate or not to the release the names of those that were killed I cannot help but feel that the Sagamihara massacre says a lot of about attitudes towards the disabled in Japan. It is true that one year ago, much of the press talked about the murders at the Sagamihara care home as being a “massacre” and according to Kyodo, an incident that “sent shock waves through the country”. However, one year later after this ‘massacre’ it is difficult to say that attitudes towards disabled people in Japan have changed that dramatically.

Take the example of Hideto Kijima, a paraplegic man who, in late June, had to crawl up the stairs of an airplane to board his flight from Amami Oshima , a small island off Kagoshima to Osaka. Staff at Vanilla Air, a low cost carrier (LCC) or ‘budget airline’ that is a subsidiary of All Nippon Airways reportedly told Kijima “people who cannot walk cannot fly” although that he could board the plane, if he “can climb up the stairs on his own with the assistance” of his friends, although his friends were forbidden from carrying Kijima’s wheelchair up the staircase. In the end, Kijima decided to crawl up the stairs despite the protestations of the Vanilla Air staff, although the Vanilla Air has since apologized and according to the Sankei Shimbun:

“…the low-cost carrier (LCC) was quick to apologize and has purchased a boarding chair. The airline has also promised to install an electric stairlift.”

Kijima was apparently thankful for Vanilla Air’s quick response, but others, such as the aforementioned Professor Nagase, were no so forgiving, viewing Kijima’s treatment as a human rights violation, and a violation of Japan’s own ‘Act to Eliminate Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities’, which came into effect April 2016:

“Vanilla Air’s policy not to let people who do not walk fly seems a violation of the Act to Eliminate Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities and the CRPD, which Japan has ratified,” said Nagase in an email interview. “If there was no accessibility, the airline was expected to provide reasonable accommodation, though as private company it is only encouraged to do so. This really proves the necessity to promote general accessibility and to secure reasonable accommodation in specific situations.”

Other incidents could be mentioned, such the case of mentally handicapped man, aged 19, who died of heat exhaustion after having been left locked in car outside a welfare facility in Saitama for six hours in early July. Police are still investigating that incident and no arrests of those responsible have been reported.

Taken individually, it is easy to respond to such incidents as simply sad or tragic, but they are also something more than that, they are also completely avoidable, if companies and institutions have a policy regarding people with disabilities. Japanese companies are encouraged by the government to be ‘barrier free’ or accessible to disabled people, particularly as the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics draws nearer, and Japan has had some success in increasing accessibility for disabled people but, if it is to be truly ‘barrier free’ to quote Tokyo Governor Koike “I believe that a barrier-free mind is equally vital”.

I submit that we are a long way from having a ‘barrier free mind’ here in Japan, if disabled people have to resort to crawl up staircases to get on airplanes, die of heat exhaustion in cars, and we can’t even say their names when they are murdered.

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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.

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References

‘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/

Yes I take sugar, but is that all?

The impetus for this blog came from a sense of ambivalence.  One morning, after a long time away from the issue of disability, (I had not written on the subject for at least two years, although most of my previous published work was on disability and the phenomenology of pain) I decided to begin writing again on disability again.  But I did not know what to write on yet.  It’s the 21st Century so I did what most human beings do, I Googled ‘Disability’, I got back the following: ‘Brothels for disabled people’.[1] My reaction was physical and one of revulsion. When and begin to think about why I felt such revulsion, my initial thoughts was that there was something a little condescending about the entire enterprise, with phrases like ‘’You cannot stop a disabled person from having a normal life or having the same opportunities of an able-bodied person – it’s discrimination.’[2], or the title of the article ‘Disabled people have sexual needs too’ there was something of ‘Does he take sugar?’ about the tone of the interview.  I should like to make it clear that I no longer think the interview actually was condescending towards disabled people, and whilst I believe that I myself would never use the services of Para-doxies, I generally consider myself a supporter of the project.[3]

The memory of my initial reaction, scared me though and still does, and it raised two questions:  Firstly, as someone with cerebral palsy, had I become so defensive about ‘help from non-disabled allies’ (to the best of my knowledge Becky Adams is non-disabled) that I simply didn’t trust her intervention?  The second question was even more worrying, had a ‘nothing about without us’ attitude, (which I generally see as a positive move within Disability Studies) become so entrenched, this it was now impossible to have a single thought about disability which was not simply about fighting oppression from the ‘non-disabled world’?  It is the second question that this blog shall be dedicated to answering.  How can we talk about disability in positive terms, tell stories about our lives without those lives being reduced in those stories to a fight against oppression and nothing more.


[1] Many articles appeared at this time, as Becky Adams a former ‘Madam’ was doing interviews about setting up a ‘brothel for disabled people’, a not for profit organization called ‘Para-doxies’,  the purpose of which was to enable disabled people to have sex.  A good example of this is Sarah Ismail in The Independent   ‘Brothels for disabled people: Guess what? We like sex too’ http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/brothels-for-disabled-people-guess-what-we-like-sex-too-8461537.html

[2]‘Disabled people have sexual needs too’: UK madam to open first brothel for those with mental and physical disabilities, including boys with autism and injured soldiers

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2260701/Madam-Becky-Buckinghamshire-open-British-brothel-mental-physical-disabilities-including-boys-autism-injured-soldiers.html#ixzz2Iu1lUg1l

[3] How the author came to alter his mind and for his comprehensive view on Para-doxies is a subject for another article, one the author may indeed write.  His Twitter stream @Peckitt reveals some illumination on the subject.