Persons with disabilities have historically faced many struggles. Over the centuries and in various cultures around the world, people with disabilities have had to fight for their rights to be recognized as human beings capable of living independent and valuable lives. Although the terminology has changed remarkably over the past few decades from using words such as “crippled” to “handicapped” to “persons with disabilities”, the words themselves do not change the basic state of inequality people with disabilities cope with in their everyday lives.
These include barriers in many essential aspects of life such as access to independent housing, education, public transportation and employment. Without equality of access and opportunities, people with disabilities will never truly be equal in any society. First and foremost, there must be recognition of the individuality of the disability experience. There must also be a recognition that the term disability embodies much more than persons who are wheelchair users. This term implies a multiplicity of experiences including persons with learning disabilities, neurological, psychiatric and intellectual disabilities.
To analyze the situation of persons with disabilities in Japan, it is crucial therefore that we accept the concepts of individuality of experience and the sense of disability as implying a wide range of experiences. Another guideline that will aid us in this analysis is to accept that this situation must be understood from the perspectives of people with disabilities themselves. Therefore, it may be that while strides are being made in Japan for persons with some manner of disabilities, persons with other types of disabilities may not be experiencing the same amount of progress in their lives.
In Japan as in many other countries around the world, persons with disabilities have begun to mobilize themselves. The mobilization of people with disabilities is an important step in changing the state of inequality to one of greater equality. This mobilization process or ‘disability rights activism’ reflects the fact that people with disabilities in Japan are no longer willing to wait for their country to make important social change. They are taking the issue of creating an integrated society seriously and are willing to work hard to attain it.
Social change for persons with disabilities in Japan began to take shape in 1986. This is when the seminal organization DPI-Japan (Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples’ International) formed. The formation of this organization meant that for the first time, people with disabilities in Japan had a national and organized voice to speak on behalf of their needs and most importantly, their rights. (Country Reports 2003). DPI-Japan is an important organization and “has taken a leadership position in the grassroots consumer movement in Japan.
Furthermore, it has played an important role in the disability field at large in promoting human rights and independence of persons with disabilities” (Yuki 2000). The fact that DPI-Japan even exists is evidence of the fact that people with disabilities in Japan face significant struggles. It is also evidence that persons with disabilities in Japan have begun to organize themselves in meaningful ways to address these struggles. This organization has now taken on the responsibility of trying to transform this ancient culture into an integrated society.
According to some Japanese who are involved with disability rights activism and the independence living movement, persons with disabilities in Japan face some age-old problems that their counterparts have had to deal with in many other countries – prejudice. This prejudice has its foundation in basic misconceptions about what it means to live life with a disability. As one Japanese activist stated: In Japan today, most disabled people face discrimination that confines them to living in a separate world. As soon as it is determined that a new-born child has a disability, the child is separated from other people and consigned o a separate world for his or her whole life [. . . ] Parents with disabled children often keep them at home because of the strange looks both would get from the people in the community. (Daiichi 1) This is (unfortunately) not an unfamiliar scenario for people with disabilities. Peoples’ misconceptions, parental fears and systemic barriers are the kinds of struggles persons with disabilities have faced in many cultures and in Japan. Although disability rights activists have begun to mobilize in Japan, social change is slow. Recently however change has begun to appear on the horizon of Japanese culture.
In 2003, a new national organization appeared which may signal the beginning of real success in creating greater awareness of the rights of people with disabilities in Japan. The Japanese Disability Forum is a relatively new coalition of disability-rights Japanese NGO’s. In May 2003, they had their first dialogue with the Japanese government. “As a result, Mr. Toshihiro Higashi, a board member of DPI-Japan and an attorney, became an advisor of the Japanese Governmental Delegation to the Second Session of the UN Ad Hoc Committee” (Country Reports 2). Thus, a new age is slowly dawning in Japan.
These kinds of changes signify that a process of accepting and integrating persons with disabilities into a higher level of consultation and decision-making in Japan is taking place. While some may see this as a small step, it is still extremely relevant. To be taken seriously, persons with disabilities must be active in the political-decision making process. The voices of persons with disabilities need to be heard locally and nationally but not only as complaints or concerns. Their voices must also be heard as offering viable suggestions for real and practical changes to Japanese society.
DPI-Japan is being taken seriously and this marks the beginning of social change for Japanese persons with disabilities. While activists fight for change, persons with disabilities continue to cope with a society, which in their opinion does not fully accept them. Japanese people with disabilities may be moving steadily into important decisions, but for many these decisions cannot be made fast enough.
“The extent of the discrimination faced by and the suffering imposed upon disabled people in Japan is demonstrated by the appearance in recent years of independent living organizations all over the country. (Daiichi 2). Finally, however, disability rights activists in Japan have begun to make some significant strides. In May 2004, the Japan Diet (Parliament) passed a law entitled, The Basic Law for Persons with Disabilities. This bill includes anti-discrimination provisions, stating “Nobody shall discriminate against persons with dis- abilities or perform other discriminating acts to violate their rights and benefits, because of their disabilities. ” […] However, since no penalty is stipulated its legal effectiveness and binding force are quite weak. (Ohta 2005)
While this certainly has to be considered a step forward for persons with disabilities in Japan, it is a small one. There are inherent problems with this legislation that prevent it from accomplishing anything substantive. First of all, it does not define what is meant by the term disability. It may or may not be inclusive of persons with all manner of disabilities but it does not say. Second, as the comment above indicates there are no legal stipulations for what will occur when someone actually does discriminate against a person with a disability.
Thirdly and perhaps most important, it does not define what they mean by discrimination. There are no guidelines here for employers, transportation officials or anyone for that matter. Here is where Japanese disability rights activists still have a great deal of work ahead of them. If this law is to have any meaning or impact on Japanese society, it must be defined further. It would be helpful to study other laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act which lays out very specific guidelines.
There is no doubt that while some will see this as a victory, others might perceive of it as a token gesture to silence the furor that is beginning to grow in Japanese society. Indeed, some activists are beginning to take matters into their own hands. In 2003, 500 persons with disabilities, primarily wheelchair users occupied the building of the Ministry of Labor, Health and Welfare for over two week. The reason they did so was to protest the fact that personal care or assistance would be cut from twenty-four hours per day to only four.
By the time, 1200 people gathered in front of the building, disability rights activists had taken control and occupied the building for over two weeks. The government relented and did not change the service. The activists had won an important victory. (Nakanishi 2005). Other victories have also begun to take place. Also in 2003, The Human Rights Bureau of Japan (a branch of the Justice Ministry) and the Osaka Legal Affairs Bureau “conducted a joint investigation into Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) after a complaint was filed in April with the Osaka Bureau by a cart user. (Ito 2004).
According to this article by The Japan Times, the company had no reason to refuse a cart user onto their system. However the reality is that “[…]1,29 railway stations have cart access out of 9,538 stations […] and JR Tokai is one of three railways that denies access to the carts at all stations. ” (Ibid) Even though the individual was denied access there is a small victory here in that the government is taking the action and not disability rights activists. There is no doubt that in Japanese society, persons with disabilities face many systemic barriers.
They are still denied access to all public transportation. Indeed, they face age-old ideas and misconceptions about what it means to be a person with a disability. There is a law on the books but an extremely weak one which seems to have little or not ability to make substantive change in the daily life of people with disabilities. While information on other issues such as employment and education did not seem to be as readily available, it seems unlikely that there would be equality in those sectors when Japanese people with disabilities are still fighting for their basic rights.
According to Daiichi, many people with disabilities want out of the institutions they live in but they have “no place to go [. . . ] It is very difficult to rent private apartments, and metropolitan public housing is available only to those who apply as households. ” (2) So, even such basic rights as independent living are still a struggle for Japanese people with disabilities. The one bright spot on the horizon is the continuing work of disability rights activists who will hopefully not give up the fight.