Saturday, March 4, 2017

Despite the silence, their lives mattered: exploring attitudes toward disabilities in Japan through the lens of the Sagamihara massacre

In the early morning hours of July 26, 2016, 26-year-old Satoshi Uematsu broke into his former employer, Tsukui Yamayuri-en, a care facility for developmentally disabled adults in Sagamihara, Kanagawa prefecture. Armed with several knives and sharp tools, Uematsu allegedly tied up the staff and took the keys to the facility's residential areas. By the time security cameras showed him leaving about 40 minutes later, he had killed 19 people and injured 26 more. Just minutes later, he turned himself in at the Tsukui Police Station, reportedly telling police, "I did’s better that the disabled disappear."

An aerial view of the scene at Tsukui Yamayuri-en
The attack was Japan's worst mass killing since World War II. As The Washington Post reported, Japan is a place where mass violence is uncommon; even homicides are relatively rare. The data speaks for itself: in 2015, there were 933 homicides in Japan, and in the United States that same year, there were 15,696 homicides. America's population is more than twice that of Japan's, but its murder rate is more than 16 times higher. Just by looking at the numbers, it's clear that this killing came as a shock to a country with comparatively little violent crime.

However, if you live overseas--or even if you live in Japan but are unaware of current events--there's a good chance that reading this blog post may be the first time that you're hearing of this.

Only the ages and genders of the victims were released
In the seven months following the tragedy, both the public and media responses have been criticized by international journalists and disability advocates. Public outcry both in Japan and abroad seemed lukewarm when compared with other recent mass killings. While news outlets such as The Japan Times, NHK World, and The Asahi Shimbun all reported the attack the day it happened, news coverage dropped off 10 days later due in part to extensive attention paid to the Summer Olympics in Rio. And when the case did get media coverage, critical information was always absent: names and photos of the injured and deceased. Only the genders and ages of victims were released; nine men and ten women had been killed, ranging in age from 19 to 70. Such details seem important to include in news stories, so why omit it?

As I explored this question further, it became clear that I had stumbled upon a complex topic--and this blog post thus took a completely different direction than what I had initially visualized. While socially conscious Americans understand that the disabled in our country are often ridiculed, used, or overlooked, they're often also viewed as lesser, perhaps thanks in part to deep-rooted views about work stemming from the Industrial Era. During this time, Americans were encouraged to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become self-made men or women by taking on whatever sort of work they could find. As Daniel T. Rodgers wrote in "The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920," work became "the core of the moral life."

College students on the job hunt (source: NHK World)
The classic archetype of Japan's overworked, sleep-deprived salaryman sounds entirely similar; it's not unreasonable to apply the 19th century American sentiment to modern Japanese work culture, as Carolyn S. Stevens did in her book "Disability in Japan." Couple this with the Japanese proverb 出る釘は打たれる (deru kui wa utareru - translated as "the standing nail is driven"), a saying that in part reinforces the societal pressure to conform. One only needs to take a look at job-hunting college students in Japan for a striking visual example of this proverb's relevance: whether male or female, all of the job seekers are dressed in dark suits with white collared shirts, with nearly no exception. Some young adults with dyed hair even make it a point to change their hair back to a more natural color (i.e. black) to further fit cultural expectations. While some may argue that Japan is home to many unique and colorful subcultures, even within those subcultures, there's a certain level of conformity among its members. (Indeed, a topic for another day!)

A panel discusses disability in Japan in "19 Lives That Matter"
If so much of a person's self-worth is tied to their ability to work and fit in, what happens when he or she is unable to work and stands out due to a disability? Perhaps this perception of the value and importance of work can help explain why the names of the victims still have not been--and probably will never be--officially released by police. As NHK World reported in "19 Lives That Matter" on the current affairs program, Today's Close-Up, the stigma of disability in Japan is so prevalent that some of the victims' families refused to give consent to release the victims' names due to the dishonor it might bring to surviving family members. Some of the families had never even told anyone that they had a disabled family member. Thankfully, the program also went on to show that not all Japanese feel this way, as it interviewed relatives and friends of disabled people who work to improve public opinions and misconceptions.

"Barrier-free" is a buzzword in Japan,
and バリバラ celebrates barrier-free diversity
During the program, NHK Journalist Yuko Matsui, who has covered the case extensively, made a remark that stuck with me. She said that before the massacre occurred, she had viewed the public opinion toward disability as improving. I admit that I thought the same thing: not only is Tokyo full of miles upon miles of tactile pavement, its biggest public broadcaster produces バリバラ (baribara - a shortened form of "barrier-free variety"), touted as "Japan's first variety show for disabled people." When I first visited Japan I didn't see any disabled people while I was out and about, but during my following visits, I noticed a significantly higher number in train stations, restaurants, malls, and parks. I watched Baribara on NHK's E-TV at midnight on Fridays during my last visit. I even told my disabled American friend that I thought Japan had been making strides toward inclusivity and acceptance in recent years. However, just as having a black president for eight years did not "solve" racism in America, installing special pavement and broadcasting a TV show has not completely improved how the disabled are perceived in Japan.

As Matsui explained in "19 Lives That Matter," NHK saw that not releasing the victims' names was doing an injustice to their lives and memory. To that end, NHK created the website 19のいのち (jyukyuu no inochi - the nineteen lives) in January. Featuring watercolor images of their favorite things--and illustrated portraits of those whose families gave consent--alongside personal stories from friends and family, the website hopes to honor the victims' memories by painting a picture of their humanity, driving home the fact that while these people may have been differently abled, they were still people. Exploring the website, you begin to put the pieces together: this 60-year-old woman loved to collect stuffed animals; this 55-year-old man enjoyed sweet canned coffee. The website is in Japanese but it can easily be read in other languages with Google Chrome's Translate feature.

19のいのち: NHK's touching tribute to the 19 lives lost in the Sagamihara massacre
As the Asahi Shimbun reported on March 1, Uematsu was formally indicted on February 24 "with 19 murders and 24 counts of attempted murder, two of illegal confinement causing injury, three of illegal confinement, one of unlawful entry and also one charge of violating the swords and firearms control law." While he was determined to exhibit signs of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, he was deemed mentally competent to stand trial. All evidence points to premeditation, as he outlined his ideas and goals in a letter he had attempted to deliver to the speaker of Japan's lower house of parliament in February 2016.

The portrait of the 70-year-old female victim on 19のいのち
In an opinion piece appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald a week after the attack, writer and activist Carly Findlay wrote, "The silence around the Sagamihara murders over the past week suggests to me people think these disabled lives are worth less. That their deaths are indeed a burden relieved from society. Or perhaps mainstream society is simply able to distance itself from the fear such an act evokes in those of us with disabilities." Findlay's observations make it clear that we as a society need to reprogram our thinking about those with differences, and I believe that starts with education: listen to activists like Findlay, read articles by people like disability rights journalist David Perry, and learn about organizations that offer service and support.

Journalists and media outlets also need to be mindful of the manner in which they report stories of mass killings. Growing up in America, I remember the names and faces of so many convicted mass murderers, but I remember so few of the victims. For whatever reason--and whether it was real or imagined--I sensed a change in American news coverage when the Pulse nightclub shooting happened in Orlando in June 2016: many news outlets, from local (Orlando Sentinel) to national (CNN), seemed to take a genuine interest in sharing the victims' stories rather than focusing solely on the shooter. While the shooter naturally received media coverage as well, it seems that celebrating victims' lives is a better way to cope with tragedies like this--and concurrently takes the spotlight away from disturbed individuals craving attention.

Associate Professor Shinichiro Kumagaya: inclusivity is key
This blog post will not provide closure to the victims' families still searching for answers, and neither will the sometimes discordant comments guests have written at NHK's website. However, it's brought up important questions and issues that our society--myself included--all too often tries its best to avoid facing. As Shinichiro Kumagaya, an Associate Professor at The University of Tokyo and a disabled man himself, said in "19 Lives That Matter," our aim isn't to find all of the answers right now; rather, we must "aim for a society that doesn't reject anyone."

This blog post is dedicated to my friend Kimi, who has taught me about disabled erasure and rights in modern American society.

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