Even though Japan’s adult guardianship system may be necessary to protect the assets of those who need additional attention due to their mental state, stripping them of their suffrage is an excessive infringement of rights that goes against international trends, experts said.
Thursday’s ruling that the Public Office Election Law takes away the voting rights of the disabled and the elderly with dementia is “unconstitutional” cast the spotlight on the fact Japan lags behind the global community in protecting the rights of those with certain disabilities.
The guardianship scheme was first introduced in 2000 to help people with cognitive disabilities manage their assets. It replaced a system dating from the Meiji Era that prevented those declared incompetent from having control over their own property and was often criticized as discriminatory because details of their disability was officially entered into the family registry.
Makoto Arai, a professor at Chuo University and president of the Japan Adult Guardianship Law Association, welcomed the ruling, but at the same time criticized the current system for being “behind the times.”
“Times have changed since the Meiji Era, when the old system was established, and (the adult guardianship system) was created with a new principle to respect the elderly and the disabled (to allow them) to make decisions by themselves and to create a society in which they can live normal lives,” Arai said.
In Europe, more and more countries are reviewing systems that restrict voting rights of the disabled since the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities in 2006. Its aim was to ban any discrimination of disabled people and to promote their participation in society.
In 2007 in France, for example, the law was revised so that a judge can determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether an individual who was included under the guardianship program can maintain suffrage. Hungary revised its constitution last year after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that under that nation’s charter, which had a provision similar to Japan’s guardianship system and uniformly took away voting rights, “infringes on the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Japan also signed the U.N. treaty in 2007 and is currently preparing domestic laws for ratification. But the convention clearly states that member states need to ensure “the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote and be elected.”
“It will be difficult for Japan to ratify the convention unless the clause in the Public Offices Election Law (that strips voting rights of the disabled) is deleted,” said Shoichi Sato, a professor of civil proceedings law at Kokugakuin University’s law school.
The guardianship was originally introduced along with the public nursing care insurance scheme to help the nation deal with an aging society. But while an estimated 3 million people suffer from dementia, Supreme Court data for 2012 showed that only 136,000 had appointed guardians — just 0.1 percent of the general population.
Meanwhile, the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan said about 10,000 cases of people suffering dementia, intellectual or mental disabilities were pressured into buying expensive products.
“It is hard to say that Japan has been providing necessary support for those who need guardians. One of the reasons why very few people use the system is because it restricts their rights by robbing them of their suffrage and disqualifies them from being public servants,” Arai pointed out.