Japanese Bestseller Puts Disabled in Positive Light

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Hirotada Ototake's mother was allowed to see her newborn for the first time, a full month after his birth, she let out a happy squeal. "How cute he is!" That wasn't the reaction her doctors had expected--the child was born without arms or legs.

The boy is now a college senior, and his autobiography, "No One's Perfect," has become the third-best-selling book in Japan since World War II. The book's many fans say it has fundamentally changed Japanese attitudes toward the disabled.

"When I got the manuscript, I was immediately touched by his vitality, but I never expected the book to sell this well," said editor Ichiro Ozawa of publisher Kodansha Ltd. He credited Ototake's exuberant attitude--unusual even in someone with a less challenging life--for the phenomenal sales of nearly 3.9 million copies since the book's October publication.

Ototake's style could not be more refreshing for Japan, where until a few decades ago the disabled were considered a shame to their families. Many were hidden away in their homes, making the disabled an almost-invisible group in Japan.

Although their situation has improved, it still leaves much to be desired. For example, at most Tokyo subway stations, those using wheelchairs must call a station attendant and wait to be carried up steep flights of stairs.

Ototake has received more than 10,000 letters from fans around the country telling him how their condescending views toward the disabled had changed after reading his book.

It is perhaps his sunny demeanor that makes the book acceptable to readers who would otherwise recoil from such a painful topic, argues Jun Sakurada, a political advisor partially paralyzed since birth.

"The timing of this book is perfect," Sakurada said. "Japan is in the middle of a severe economic recession, so people welcome something positive and cheerful. And with youth crime on the rise, many parents would like to read such a book to find out how Ototake was raised as such a nice young person."

The book's popularity also reflects a growing desire among some Japanese to try to loosen this country's notorious conformity and make room for diversity, social commentators said.

"If this book had been published 20 years ago, bookstores would not have put it on display where everyone would see it," said Natsumi Aratame, a specialist in demographics and urban sociology at Shikoku Gakuin University.

Chizuru Azuma, an actress and social activist, said Japanese are beginning to appreciate that there are many different ways of living, as well as different human value systems.

"And when the economy goes sour, people are forced to think about such issues as the true meaning of happiness and wealth," she said.

Disability is also losing its stigma as Japan's aging society makes it more common, Aratame said. Already, 16% of the population is older than 65. "Disability is now something that might happen to anybody," he said.

Author Preaches Upbeat Message Ototake, who moves around with the aid of an electric wheelchair, is seen as a symbol of kinder, gentler Japan. He writes with engaging humor about his warm relations with his parents, teachers and friends, and his school career that included playing on his junior high basketball team, dribbling with his stumps, and acting as a strategist to his senior high school's American football team. He is now attending Japan's prestigious Waseda University.

The book's message: Disability is by no means synonymous with unhappiness.

The 22-year-old is now a celebrity lecturer who urges Japan to build a barrier-free society. Ototake also works as a part-time reporter for the TBS TV network.

He was offered the job after being interviewed for a TBS program. And although he is the first disabled reporter on Japanese national television, he has said he does not want to be limited to reporting only on issues relating to the disabled. He has also tackled such stories as school bullying.

Ironically, his fiercest critics are disabled people who charge that Ototake's relatively mainstream experience is unrepresentative of their own lives.

"The picture the book paints is unbalanced," said Sakurada, the disabled political advisor. "The impression people get from the book is that Ototake can do anything," when in fact he must be helped with the simplest acts of daily life.

Ministry of Health and Welfare statistics show that 3.17 million Japanese are physically disabled, and 2.6 million more are mentally ill or handicapped.

Ryo Misawa, secretary-general of Japan National Assembly of Disabled People's International, says housing, transportation and access for these people is dreadfully inadequate. Even in Tokyo, only 43 of the 235 subway stations have elevators, for example, and facilities outside the capital are even worse. Misawa's group has been campaigning for 12 years to make public transportation accessible to everyone.

"To some extent, our project has raised public awareness of the issue, but the problem is, you need money to install special facilities, and Japan's faltering economy has compounded the problem," Misawa said.

Private Firms Fail to Meet Quotas Progress for the disabled has also been stymied by record unemployment. From April 1997 to March 1998, 2,950 disabled people were fired from their jobs, according to the Ministry of Labor. Activists claim that many more have been forced to resign or retire early but are not counted in the official statistics.

Meanwhile, under a new national employment law implemented last year, 1.8% of private-sector jobs and 2.1% of government jobs must be set aside for the disabled. However, although most government offices have complied with the rule, nearly half of private companies fail to meet the quota, the ministry said.

Worse, there are many "disqualifying clauses" in current Japanese law that bar people with disabilities from obtaining driver's licenses, or entering certain professions.

For example, the colorblind may not work for a railroad--even as a ticket puncher. And the law states that those with hearing disabilities may not become doctors, pharmacists or X-ray technicians, but it doesn't specify how severe a hearing loss is grounds for disqualification. That decision is left to the doctor who conducts the applicant's medical exam, and many are afraid to pass even a partially deaf person for fear of being held responsible for any future problems, activists said.

Activists for the disabled claim that there are about 300 such laws, and in response, the prime minister's office last year conducted a survey and recognized 59 "disqualifying clauses."

These are now being debated by the government, and reform legislation is expected to pass parliament next year. Though not a giant move forward, some hope it will open doors into mainstream society.

Choice of Schools Stirs a Debate

Ototake's book has also renewed the debate about whether disabled children should be segregated in special schools. In 1979, parliament passed laws guaranteeing every disabled child the right to an education. Today, there are 983 special schools nationwide with 87,000 pupils, more than half of them mentally disabled, according to the Ministry of Education.

"Technically, parents can choose between regular or special schools," said Keiko Higuchi, executive director of the Japan Council on Independent Living Centers. "But in reality, they are often pressured to send their children to the latter."

Ototake flourished in regular school, and many activists for the disabled argue that such mainstreaming is better because it prepares both the disabled and the able-bodied to cooperate in the mixed society in which they will live. But the Ministry of Education argues that specialized education is a better choice for some children.

Ototake, who is studying political science, hasn't decided what he wants to do when he graduates. But he should have little trouble landing a job. His book is already available in South Korea and is now being translated into English and Chinese. It is expected to be released in English in February, when Ototake will visit the United States on a promotional tour.

The author says he has some misgivings about being considered so inspiring because this implies a deep-seated assumption that disabled people should be leading miserable lives.

"I'm happy that people feel cheered up by reading my book," he told the monthly Bungei Shunju magazine. "But in an ideal world, people would take no special notice of somebody like me and my book would not become a bestseller."

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