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Pictured here is the National Diet, Japan's bicameral legislature. It comprises the lower house, called the House of Representatives, and the upper house, called the House of Councillors.
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Citizenship

Japan Elects 2 Politicians With Disabilities in 'Unprecedented' Progress for Rights

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Almost 10 million people in Japan live with a disability. Compared to those without, people with disabilities are more likely to suffer from poverty, neglect, and violence. Global Citizen campaigns on the United Nations’ Global Goals, which include equal political and social opportunities and an end to discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Take action here in support of the Global Goals.

Two politicians living with disabilities were sworn into Japan’s parliament this week, which activists are celebrating as “unprecedented” progress for disability representation and rights in the country. 

The lawmakers — both members of Japan’s new Reiwa Shinsengumi political party — were elected to the upper house. Yasuhiko Funago lives with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a progressive neurological disease that causes a continuous loss of muscle control. Eiko Kimura has cerebral palsy, a congenital disorder which can affect movement and muscle tone. 

"I look frail, but I've got strong guts," Funago stated in a note read out loud by his caregiver, according to the Japan Times.

"I am full of emotions that this moment has arrived, it has been a matter of life and death for me,” he said, before announcing he would work to promote acceptance, support disability-inclusive infrastructure, and help integrate individuals living with disabilities into society. "I don't want other disabled people to suffer like me.” 

Michael Peckitt — a lecturer at Osaka University and expert on disability studies — told the Agence France Presse that the election of two people with disabilities is a monumental step forward for the country.

"Disabled people winning elections and becoming elected officials in Japan is very important as a symbol of a possible change in attitudes towards the disabled in Japan," he stated. "Japan as a country is not necessarily much worse than other countries overall when it comes to access, but sometimes cultural attitudes can appear to be different and seemingly more negative.” 

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Japan has historically denied rights to Japanese citizens living with disabilities

Between the late 1940s and 1996, the government forcibly sterilized citizens with certain mental illness or disabilities under the so-called Eugenic Protection Law. The policy, lawmakers said, was aimed at “preventing the birth of poor-quality descendants.” The law deprived citizens of their reproductive and health rights. Despite being overturned over 20 years ago, some of the social attitudes behind the law still remain in Japanese society.

In 2016, a person who held these lingering views attacked people at a care facility for people with disabilities, stabbing and killing 19 people. However, in recent years, Japan has made concerted efforts to improve the lives of its citizens with disabilities. 

In 2014, the country ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities, which requires signatories to adopt laws banning disability discrimination. Today, laws requiring the public and private sectors to utilize disability employment quotas and ensure "reasonable accommodation" is offered to meet the needs of people with disabilities exist. 

Despite these positive steps, the transition to a more inclusive society hasn’t been smooth sailing. 

Last year, Japanese ministries and agencies were discovered to have registered 3,700 employees as living with disabilities, despite the fact that they did not, in an attempt to meet the new quotas. In reality, the departments hired just half the reported number of people with disabilities.

According to Taro Yamamoto, the head of the Reiwa Shinsengumi political group, introducing politicians with disabilities into parliament is a small but positive development in the quest to honor these new disability-inclusive resolutions.

"Whatever takes place at the highest authority of the state will trickle down to other regions,” he told Reuters. “This can be a great trigger for making progress in policy measures for the disabled.”