Notes from the Obstacle Course
Dr. Michael Peckitt
[T]he virtues that we need, if we are to develop from our animal condition into that of independent rational agents, and the virtues that we need, if we are to confront and respond to vulnerability and disability both in ourselves and in others, belong to one and the same set of virtues, the distinctive virtues of dependent rational animals.
Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals
As a foreigner living in Japan and a person with a disability, I think a lot about what it means to be independent. Most would agree that independence is a desirable state, and that achieving independence, whether it is in a physical, emotional, intellectual or financial terms is moral good.
In a article for The Japan Times, William Bradbury opines about being dependent on others as a foreigner living in Japan, saying “[a]t the outset, moving to Japan makes an infant of us all, regardless of race, sex or creed.” (Japan Times, March 12 2014). Being robbed of language, when we first move here, we are dependent on native others:
“If a Westerner happens to have a Japanese partner, it’s easy to become dependent on them when it comes to dealing with problems, translations, ideas for where to go, phone calls with Japanese-only services and so on. When I took the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) I saw a colleague, an architect in his home country, struggling to figure out the way to the test hall without the help of his wife. It’s pathetic to complain about being helped, but with requiring assistance in everyday tasks comes a feeling of discomfort — emasculation, even.”
(Japan Times, March 12 2014)
As a foreigner, still relatively new to Japan, whose Japanese language ability is still somewhat lacking, I share Bradbury’s concern. It would obviously be nice to have better understanding of the Japanese language so I could let my intentions, beliefs and desires be known. And yet I can’t quite envisage what independence would look like, and if it is truly a desirable state of affairs. Is it merely just that, the ability to speak and move around if I wanted? Quite frankly, I have always been suspicious of the word ‘independence’. What is it exactly? Webster’s defines it as “freedom from outside control or support”, it is the idea of self-governance, that at its most basic, we all have the ability to move and think and feel how and what we want.
The reason for my suspicion is that some of us do not have the ability to control our own body physically, having cerebral palsy means that my body is prone to spasm and shiver whether I want it to or not. We can of course think what we want, but do we really have emotional self-control, the point of emotions like happiness or sadness is that it can creep up on you.
We forget sometimes that as human beings we are always reliant on other people, even a hermit requires that people leave them alone. No matter how isolated or solitary you think you are, you are in fact dependent on a network of other human beings. Take, for an example, the activity of cooking a meal for one. Even if you grew your own vegetables and reared your own cattle, your meal was only made possible by a history of human interaction. Someone built your cooker for example, made your cutlery, perhaps wrote the recipe, no human being is completely independent.
I suggest that dependency is not merely something that disabled people have to endure, but is a pleasure that everyone, although maybe in particular expats should learn to enjoy, the pleasure of being supported. It is surely good to communicate with other people? It is not a sign of weakness to be dependent on others, being dependent is in fact, an essential part of being human.
Dr. Michael Gillan Peckitt is an academic who lives in Suita, Osaka 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.