Notes from the Obstacle Course
Dr. Michael Peckitt
It is now December again in Japan, so it nearing the time for Kentucky Fried Chicken at Christmas and New Years celebrations. It is also a time to take stock of the year, so I thought an ‘Accessible Japan Year in Review’ would appropriate – a look back at the disability issues in Japan that happened in 2016.
The biggest disability-related story of the year in Japan is undeniably the stabbing at a residential care facility for the disabled in Sagamihara, Kanagawa prefecture. On July 26th Satoshi Uematsu, who had worked at the facility from December 2012 until February of this year, allegedly killed 19 residents and injured 26 – 13 of them severely – we have to say allegedly, as while Uematsu is under arrest for some of the murders, he has yet to be formally charged, and since some of the relatives of some of the victims do not want the names of their family members mentioned, it is unclear as to how many of the murders with which Uematsu will be charged.
The Kanagawa Prefectural Government produced a report in late November detailing the failure of the Tsukui Yamayuri En care home to take appropriate security measures. As The Japan Times reported:
“The panel, set up by the Kanagawa Prefectural Government, said Tsukui Yamayuri En, a facility for people with mental disabilities situated in Sagamihara, acted “extremely inappropriately” by failing to share knowledge that may have affected the fates of its residents.
“If the information had been shared with the prefecture, the damage could have been avoided,” the panel said of the knife rampage.
However, the report did not go into detail about the responses of the prefectural government or the police, or discuss whether there was appropriate collaboration.
Receiving the report, Kanagawa Gov. Yuji Kuroiwa said, “We want to do all we can so that a similar incident will never happen again.” ”
It was inevitable – and perhaps reassuring that Sagamihara received so much media attention – as disability issues often do not receive so much attention in Japan, and TV Asahi in particular should be applauded for its coverage of the stabbings. However, Sagamihara was not the only disability story in Japan this year. On April 1st, The Law for the Elimination of Discrimination against People with Disabilities became an active statute. As Tomoko Otake writes in The Japan Times:
“The law is part of the government’s moves to align domestic laws with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, signed in 2007 and ratified in 2014 and to which Japan is a signatory. The law cleared the Diet in June 2013, but took effect only in April to provide time for the public and private sectors to prepare.”
The law is of course, good news for Japan’s 7.8 million people with disabilities; it bans ‘unjust discrimination’ such as signs saying ‘no people with disabilities’ and asks of companies that they make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for people with disabilities. Also, in June this year, blind activist Jun Ishikawa, became the first Japanese on independent expert to be elected to the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
There is some concern though, that The Law for the Elimination of Discrimination against People with Disabilities could be toothless, as it is unclear what, if any legal penalties occur if the law is breached. As The Japan Times reported:
“The law does not clearly define what exactly constitutes discrimination,” said Kiyoshi Harada, an official at the secretariat of Japan Disability Forum. JDF is a nongovernmental network consisting of 13 national-level organizations working on behalf of people with impairments.
“The law’s significance lies in the fact that municipal governments and businesses are asked to take action. This has given people legal grounds to lodge complaints when they have issues,” Harada said.
He said “reasonable accommodation” is specific to individual needs and hard to generalize. “It’s different from ‘barrier-free’ regulations, where rules are much more clear-cut, such as the size of certain building equipment or angles of ramps.”
Harada said the regional dispute-settlement mechanism should be beefed up, and ideally be separated from government oversight. Japan has no independent watchdog that handles issues related to human rights, not only for people with disabilities but also for other vulnerable members of society, including women.
“Ideally, we’d like to see something like the Board of Audit of Japan, which supervises government spending,” he said. “For example, the Justice Ministry has a bureau that deals with human rights issues, but because it is a ministry bureau questions (of neutrality) arise when it comes to human rights at prisons, which the ministry also supervises. We need a mechanism similar to the audit board.”
The law should also make it mandatory for companies to take “reasonable accommodation” on the issue, he added.
“I want people to know the law, as it is the first one of any kind banning discrimination,” Harada said. “The law could be the first step to creating a society where everyone — regardless of whether they have a disability — will be free of discrimination.”
The Law for the Elimination of Discrimination against People with Disabilities will be reviewed in three years. Have a happy and barrier free holidays dear reader and see you in 2017.
Dr. Michael Gillan Peckitt is an academic who lives in Nada-Ku, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan. He runs the Japan and disability related website ‘The Limping Philosopher’ (https://thelimpingphilosopher.wordpress.com) and you can find him on Twitter @Peckitt. Check out his ebooks on Amazon.