When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe formed a task force last year to promote greater citizen involvement in whatever it is he is trying to accomplish, many people objected to the name of the group. “Ichioku Sokatsuyaku” reminded them of a slogan used before and during World War II that demanded national solidarity toward prosecution of the conflict. One of the people who took issue with the name was former pop idol Momoko Kikuchi, who had been asked to participate in the task force.
Kikuchi told the group that she wasn’t sure about the name’s implications, because she didn’t think Japan was ready for “social inclusion” of every single citizen. She was speaking from experience, because her daughter has a physical disability and Kikuchi had found it difficult to find a school that would accept her because of it. Wherever she went, administrators — even those working for “special schools” — told her she should think of hiring a home tutor, and she wondered why Japan could not guarantee a public school education for her child. She noted to reporters that in Europe, citizens who have disabilities are full members of the societies in which they live, but such a notion “has not taken root in Japan.”
In a sense, the exclusion Kikuchi talked about is built into the language. In its English-language edition, the Asahi Shimbun explained the task force name as meaning “the dynamic engagement of all 100 million citizens.” The word katsuyaku, which is part of the name, is difficult to translate directly. Usually it’s rendered as “being active” or “demonstrating (one’s) ability,” concepts that get to the heart of inclusion. The word “disability” means a lack of ability, and so “katsuyaku” may not seem to apply to people with disabilities, but, of course, there are many kinds of abilities. The astrophysicist Stephen Hawking cannot move his limbs or use his vocal cords to communicate, but he has contributed enormously to our knowledge of the universe. So the point Kikuchi is making is not how able you are, but what you can contribute.
That’s also the point of the NHK series “Baribara,” which is shorthand for “Barrier-free Variety.” Yes, it’s a variety show for and featuring people with disabilities, who do all the silly things that people on conventional variety shows do — tell jokes, talk about themselves, sightsee, eat food and tell more jokes. What the show “contributes” may be less edifying than what Hawking offers, but it’s the participation that counts.
At first glance, the show seems to walk a fine line between empowerment and exploitation, until you realize that that is also how conventional variety shows approach their celebrity talent, and while it may not be the sort of “inclusion” Kikuchi has in mind, it does a fair job of bringing out what’s interesting about its participants. In the end, variety shows are all about personality.
The format is the same: There are four regulars and every week two or three guests who discuss a topic and then watch video of activities related to that topic. Occasionally the hosts offer up advice to disabled viewers that is always practical in nature. Even if the problem stems from a specific disability, the advice is useful to anyone, the message being that we all need a little help sometimes.
Under such circumstances, “disability” loses its loaded connotation. A young woman who stammers (kitsuon) wrote in saying she was self-conscious about her speech and wondered if there was anything she could do about it, since she was about to start looking for employment. The show produced a group of “stammering senpai (senior students),” all of whom had recently found work and whose speech problems were noticeably more pronounced than the woman’s. Using the buzz phrase “coming out,” they said that once they decided to go ahead with their job search, the difficulties resolved themselves. The solution, in other words, was simplistic — “just do it” — but heartening because the woman’s underlying problem wasn’t her speech impediment but rather her fear.
A young woman with a hearing problem asked for help with her hoarding habit. Echoing the popular gomi-yashiki (garbage house) theme that variety shows love to cover, the woman’s problem was that she couldn’t throw anything away, and an expert in autism was brought in to teach her how to tidy up. The root of the problem was that when the woman couldn’t see an item, she would automatically go out and buy another one. The expert arranged all her stuff so that it was readily visible without being in a state of clutter. It was a variety show solution to a problem that had something to do with a condition that might be called a developmental disorder. It was also instructive and entertaining.
Like any variety show, “Baribara” has produced its own stars, one of whom is Asodog, a 37-year-old man with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, the same disease Hawking has. Asodog wants to be a comedian. He can speak, but the only part of his body he can move is his face, which he contorts in various ways to elicit laughs.
Asodog was the subject of a two-part travel special to Kyoto, which he had never visited before. He did the usual variety show itinerary, visiting temples where he underwent Zen training, being entertained by a maiko (apprentice geisha) and asking directions of other tourists, which pointed up the social response to his disability, since most passers-by ignored his pleas for assistance. In true variety show style, he would tell jokes to get attention and put strangers at ease.
The program’s jaunty tone is a function of the variety show format, but “Baribara” doesn’t sidestep the hardships people with disabilities face every day. It does, however, show how inclusion makes the day easier, and not just for the nominally disabled. As the phrase “Ichioku Sokatsuyaku” is meant to convey, Japan is a country where interdependence can be considered a strength. It’s not about being different; it’s about belonging.