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But Discrimination Still Widespread : Disabled Coming Out of Closet in Japan

Associated Press

Japan’s physically handicapped, once kept out of sight in institutions or homes, are leading more ordinary lives today, largely because the Paralympic Games for disabled athletes were played here in 1964.

“Other countries’ participants were normal citizens,” said Ichiro Maruyama of the Health and Welfare Ministry Rehabilitation Bureau and a volunteer translator at the games.

“They were talking about their marriages, their children, love affairs and pastimes,” he said. “None of our athletes had jobs. They could talk only about how miserable their lives were in institutions far from normal activities, and most had never seen modern wheelchairs.”

Japan “took it for granted,” he added, “that those who are disabled should stay at home and should be taken care of by others.”

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Since the Paralympic Games, Japan has taken strides toward accepting its 2 million citizens, out of a population of 120 million, who have physical disabilities.

Now, disabled children must be educated, at least 1.5% of company jobs must go to disabled workers, pensions have been increased and more buildings have been made accessible as the government reaches the halfway point in a 10-year plan to give the disabled their rights.

The plan was based on a 1976 law requiring companies employing more than 66 people to pay a “levy” of 40,000 yen ($160) a month for each worker under the 1.5% minimum. Government bodies and public corporations must hire the disabled at a 1.8% to 1.9% level.

However, private firms that can afford it often pay the levies rather than hire disabled people. A 1984 ministry survey found that only 33% of companies with more than 1,000 employees reached the 1.5% ratio, while 62% of those employing 67 to 99 workers did. The government last year collected more than 18.36 billion yen ($73.4 million) in levies, which are used to remodel companies that hire disabled workers.

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And advocates complain that disabled children are still sent to segregated special schools, that most companies fall short of the 1.5% ratio and that, generally, conditions are 10 years to 15 years behind other industrial nations.

“Things are getting better. But Japanese people tend to keep disabled relatives hidden inside the house,” said Yukiko Kinoshita, a disabled fashion designer specializing in clothing for people with special needs.

Hirokuni Dazai, vice president of the Japan Council for Social Welfare, said recently at the first U.S.-Japan “summit” on disabled persons’ rights: “In the last 10 years, Japan has made progress, but normal society still does not recognize disabled people.”

Maruyama attributed Japanese discrimination to two strong sentiments:

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--Buddhist beliefs hold that the disabled did something wrong in a former life.

--Lack of tolerance for the different in the homogeneous island nation.

“Being disabled means being apart from the group,” Maruyama said.

All agree that more must be done. “The 10-year plan is a good start,” Maruyama said, “but this was the first time that the country made the handicapped an issue.”

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