Outcast Status Worsens Pain of Japan's Disabled

Outcast Status Worsens Pain of Japan's Disabled

Published: April 7, 1996

He sits back in his wheelchair now and laughs about it, but as a child it was a burden more excruciating than his crippled body and deformed hands: the gradual awareness that what his father felt for him was not love but embarrassment, that even those he lived with regarded him as a monster.

"When my brothers and sisters had friends visiting our home, they would tell me to get lost," the disabled man, Osamu Takahashi, recalled with disarming cheerfulness. "Their friends never knew I existed."

Mr. Takahashi never went to any school and was hidden in the house from birth until the age of 26. While the rest of his family ate together, he was served meals alone in his own room. His family allowed him out of the house only about once a year, and then mostly at night so the neighbors would not see.

"The idea was that if you're born deformed, you should be concealed as much as possible," said Mr. Takahashi, who is now 49 and runs a center for the disabled. "And that view still survives in some households."

Mr. Takahashi's experience was extreme, but the stigma was not. Physical and mental disabilities seem to arouse powerful feelings of shame across Japan, and these emotions offer a disconcerting glimpse of the way in which society here sometimes works.

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Japan lacks any law prohibiting discrimination against the handicapped, although advocates for the disabled are trying to change that.

To be sure, Japan is in many ways one of the most sensitive and civilized societies in the world. This is a country where school gym classes do not allow captains to pick teams, so that weak children will not feel bad about being picked last.

Tokyo is one of the few major cities in the world where a blind person can ask a taxi driver the fare on the meter and count on not being cheated. Yet even if individuals do not prey on the handicapped, society sometimes seems to.

Japanese society emphasizes conformity, and the essence of the Japanese proverb about "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down" is drummed into children from the moment they set off for the first day of school -- sometimes in identical uniforms. The disabled are the nails that stick out, and they complain that they get hammered.

"Japanese consider someone different an outcast, a source of shame," said Naotaka Kumeta, a 25-year-old man who lives in the city of Shizuoka and uses a wheelchair. "People think it shameful that I like to go out and about. They say, 'Remember, you're handicapped!' "

Mr. Kumeta, a tall man with bushy eyebrows, was injured in 1990, while studying at a college in Oregon. He had gone to Oregon as an exchange student in high school and loved it, particularly the sports -- he wrestled the 152-pound and 160-pound weight classes and played defensive guard on the school football team.

Then one day he was driving his 1977 Mustang -- "very fast," Mr. Kumeta admitted sheepishly -- without a seatbelt, and he fell asleep at the wheel.

Mr. Kumeta was in a coma for two months and woke up in a hospital back in Japan to learn that brain injuries had left his right side paralyzed and his left side with tremors.

"I thought I wanted to die," Mr. Kumeta recalled. An American Christian missionary instilled a renewed desire to live, and Mr. Kumeta's mission in life now is to win better treatment for the disabled.

Japan, like many countries, lags behind the United States in building wheelchair ramps and elevators, although new buildings tend to have them.

When Mr. Kumeta visited Tokyo recently by train, he had to be met at Tokyo Station by a railway employee -- alerted in advance -- who led him through a labyrinth of underground passageways to make his connection to a commuter train.

"People say that Japan is a very developed society," Mr. Kumeta said quietly as he rode that train, his wheelchair parked near the door, as just about everyone in the train car gazed at him.

"But for the handicapped it is very backward, decades behind the United States. Look at how people are staring at me -- it's like that all the time."

The next stop was Shinjuku, Tokyo's busiest subway station -- and one with no elevators. A railway employee and a couple of Japanese businessmen helped carry Mr. Kumeta in his wheelchair down a long flight of steps.

Americans see Japan as a harmonious society, Mr. Kumeta said a few minutes after that humiliating episode, but the harmony is achieved by excluding those who do not seem to fit. The exclusion, he said, usually means that the disabled are often discouraged from working, from marrying, from going to movie theaters or restaurants.

"When I'm alone in a coffee shop," Mr. Kumeta said, "people think, 'Troublemaker!' "

Disabled people in many countries feel that they are treated inequitably, of course. But the vehemence with which the handicapped raise the issue in Japan is striking, particularly because their complaints have less to do with architecture and more to do with discrimination and social exclusion.

"I think I can overcome the physical barriers," said Chieko Okada, a 22-year-old university student who is in a wheelchair. "If there are no elevators, then I can use a staircase if someone will help me. But the psychological barriers are really difficult to overcome."

Miss Okada attended special schools for the disabled as she was growing up, and then when she applied to universities she was repeatedly told that she would not be allowed to take the entrance examinations.

Finally Miss Okada was accepted at a university near her home, and now she has just graduated. But when she applied for jobs she was told that companies could not accept a disabled person, and she ended up taking a job with a center for the handicapped in Tokyo.

She looked for a small apartment near her new job site, and landlords repeatedly turned her down.

"Sometimes I want to cry out: 'I'm here! I live here too!' " Miss Okada said. "Even though it's weaker than it used to be, there's still this feeling that the disabled should be excluded."

Still, it is not that anybody with a physical disability is denied opportunities. After all, a partly paralyzed politician named Ichiro Hatoyama rose to be Prime Minister, from 1954 to 1956.

The real problem, the disabled say, is that they are normally excluded from the mainstream of society, in ways comparable to racial segregation.

"This isn't an open society that tries to embrace outsiders or different people," said Mr. Takahashi, the director of the center for the disabled. "Consciously or unconsciously, society tries not to open the door but rather to exclude outsiders, those who don't seem to fit."

Mr. Takahashi and others say that when they visit the United States they find attitudes a world apart from those of Japan. In America, they say, they may be regarded as foreigners but at least are acknowledged as inhabitants of the same planet.

"Basically, America is a country of immigrants," said Akiko Saito, an advertising copywriter who works as a volunteer helping the physically and mentally disabled.

"People in America are accustomed to different people, different ethnic backgrounds, different religions and so on. But Japan is not like that, and in Japan, the disabled have long been isolated. People just do not know how to make contact with them."

Photo: Because of Japan's bias against the disabled, Osamu Takahashiwas banished to his room by his family for most of his childhood. Now Mr. Takahashi, 49, runs a center for the disabled in Tachikawa, in the Tokyo area. (Dennis Gray for The New York Times)


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