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.