November 12, 2004

Disability, Shame and Japan

The pictures above aren't related to what I'm about to write. A couple of girls taking a shotgun blast at being fashionable in Harajuku, and the nearby entrance to Meiji Jingu.

The Starbucks where I hang out has hired a new worker who is autistic. I've spent some time getting to know some of the crew and the store manager, and I like them. They're friendly, hard working and genuinely warm people. One of them told me they're all working a bit extra while the new girl gets used to the job. I think she meant that's something they want to do. All of this may not seem impressive at all, but from where I'm standing I was encouraged by what I saw. A small sign of hope in the face of a big problem. It's obvious if you live here and take notice that Japan is not a good place to be born with a disability. Anything that sets you apart from the group, especially that keeps you from working, is a source of shame -- both for you and your family. And you hide shame if you can. You still hear about families with a disabled son or daughter who has "never" (it's hard to believe) been allowed outside the house. These people become adults and the neighbors (sometimes even their relatives) don't know they exist. That's a terribly twisted tragedy. One of my wife's relatives had a son like that. He grew to adulthood and finally died without leaving the house more than a few times. More than a year passed after his death. The relatives knew he had died, but the family still hadn't told anyone. I'm sure they felt an excruciating dilemma about how to talk about the death of someone who they'd hidden for decades. Finally they did, and it was "healing" for the family (I guess) to finally talk this. But what about the man's life?

I realize I could write much, much more about shame and hiding in this society, but I'll leave it here for now.

Here's a great link though! On October 20 Karen Nakamura of attended a protest march in Tokyo. About 2000 people came and demonstrated to try and get the government's attention. They experienced mixed results, but these kinds of changes are an uphill struggle. Click here for her photo essay covering this event. It's well worth a read.

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Posted by jw at November 12, 2004 09:36 PM

Yes, what about this man's life?? That is sick and disgusting! The family should not be able to heal; they should live with what they've done for the rest of their life. Also, a society that encourages this sort of treatment needs to take a good hard look in the mirror....

Posted by: wl at November 13, 2004 03:19 AM

It isn't too shocking knowing what Japanese culture is basically like. I was told that they do not express their thoughts and emotions a lot. So I guess with having a disabled family member, their shame is in having something not seen as normal in their society. In Sydney, Australia, disabled people are treated just like any abled person, there are lots of facilities for the disabled eveywhere and the disabled folks go about in public without any shame. I admire that type of arrangement to help include disabled folks into everyday society. The Japanese government should take steps to improving the intergration of disabled folks and put out campaigns to help society accept them as they are - human beings.

Posted by: KOSMOS at November 24, 2004 10:50 AM