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Sagamihara stabbings highlight discrimination and abuse people with disabilities face in Japan

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By Mark Bookman and Michael Gillan Peckitt

July 26 marks the fourth anniversary of the Sagamihara stabbings, when Satoshi Uematsu, a former employee at the Tsukui Lily Garden care home for people with disabilities, killed 19 residents and injured 24 other residents, as well as two employees. Uematsu has since been put on trial and was sentenced to death by the Yokohama District Court on March 16 this year.

Whilst the sentencing of Uematsu has brought a closure of sorts for the victims and their families, the stabbings highlighted the discrimination and abuse that people with disabilities face in Japan. 

COVID-19 has also called attention to such an attitude. Since February, disability advocacy groups like the Japan Patients Association, the Japan Council on Disability, and the Japan Disability Forum have demonstrated how persons with disabilities are disproportionally affected by shortages of masks, disinfectant, and other medical supplies due to physical and social barriers. Their calls for access and equal distribution of materials have been echoed by other groups like the Japan Society for Disability Studies (JSDS), which has explained how a possible scarcity of hospital rooms and ventilators may lead to a policy of "selecting lives": that is, a policy in which the medical needs of persons with disabilities may be viewed as secondary to those of non-disabled individuals.

On April 6, the JSDS issued a statement calling for countermeasures to COVID–19 to comply with various laws and policies, especially the Basic Act for Persons with Disabilities and the Act for the Elimination of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities. In their statement, the JSDS voiced two concerns. First, that information about COVID-19 be published and distributed in that medium that is widely accessible, “including sign language, captions, and plain language and Easy Read versions.” Second, that “medical professionals not undervalue the lives of people with disabilities.” 

Behind the JSPS’s second request is the concern about "selecting lives" that continued scarcity of medical resources might produce. The JSPS has argued that prioritizing the needs of nondisabled people over those of people with disabilities would constitute “unfair discriminatory treatment” under the Act for the Elimination of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities, as well as a violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which Japan ratified in 2014. More specifically, a policy of "selecting lives" would violate Articles 10 and 11 of the CRPD, which guarantee persons with disabilities the rights to life and safety in situations of risk.

The JSDS is probably right to be worried about "selecting lives." On June 30, the Tokyo District Court dismissed a lawsuit brought by Saburo Kita (a pseudonym), a 77-year-old man who said that he was forced to undergo sterilization under the now defunct Eugenics Protection Law in 1957 when he was 14 years old. Although Kita sought damages of 30 million yen, his claim was rejected by the court, which ruled that the statute of limitations for his case had already passed. Kita is set to challenge the court’s ruling in the coming months, but the final outcome of his efforts remains to be seen.

Kita’s case is but one of many in recent memory. And with Japan’s rapidly aging population and rates of disability on the rise, it is only a matter of time before similar issues of discrimination and "selecting lives" start to affect larger swathes of society. Today, roughly one in nine people in Japan have some kind of disability or chronic illness, and around 30% of Japanese citizens are over the age of 65. What kind of future awaits Japan if "selecting lives" is already a growing issue now in the summer of 2020? 

In June, it was announced that an investigation being conducted by Kanagawa Prefecture into long-term abuse at the Tsuki Lily Garden carers home had been suspended, only to be restarted after pressure from the victim’s families. What can at best be described as poor decision-making on the part of Kanagawa Prefecture (and at worst outright negligence of the needs of care home residents) points to an attitude of indifference regarding the issues that people with disabilities in Japan face each day. As Japan’s population continue to age over time and more people become disabled, that attitude of indifference may or may not give way to one of inclusion. Either way, the clock is ticking, and with events like the Sagamihara stabbings on our minds, we must recall what is truly at stake.

Mark Bookman, PhD Candidate, University of Pennsylvania, is a visiting researcher at University of Tokyo Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology. Michael Gillan Peckitt is an author and teaches at Osaka University.

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The Sagamihara case was unprecedented, very unique in nature though it saddened the public then. It's too rush to conclude that the majority Japanese are prejudiced against the disability. I'm also observing the opposite phenomenon in the present day Japan where a rising number of people are more understanding and tolerant to diversity.

And with Japan’s rapidly aging population and rates of disability on the rise, it is only a matter of time before similar issues of discrimination and "selecting lives" start to affect larger swathes of society. Today, roughly one in nine people in Japan have some kind of disability or chronic illness, and around 30% of Japanese citizens are over the age of 65. What kind of future awaits Japan if "selecting lives" is already a growing issue now in the summer of 2020? 

Aging and "selecting lives" are more an emerging issue shared among many post-industrial societies around the world. More significantly, the technological development has made possible and available such "selecting lives" in far more efficient manner. Prenatal screening is a good case in point. Ethics and humanism are at stake.

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