I have never trusted role models. There is something odd about presenting a specific person as an example to be followed, simply because that person may have achieved something great in one aspect of their life. In my case, I admire the work or the achievement, but resist all attempts to turn the person responsible for the great work into a “role model.”
To me, it is a very unusual psychological need: to have the people who do or create great things also to have led good lives — lives that we should emulate. I hold the writings of Osamu Dazai in high esteem, but the fact that he committed suicide suggests his life, as a whole, is not one to be envied and copied.
When I read about Hirotada Ototake’s fall from grace, my feelings on the matter were mixed. As a person with a disability, I enjoyed his 1998 memoir, “Gotai Fumanzoku” (“No One’s Perfect”), a great deal. His behavior — the “inappropriate relationships” he has admitted to having with five women — is indefensible. So yes, I was disappointed with Ototake. However, I was even more disappointed with the way the media presented Ototake, since the media, as far as I am concerned, turned him into a “Supercrip.”
A Supercrip, for those who are unfamiliar, is a term used by disability rights writers and activists. It refers to a certain way the media presents people with disabilities. The Supercrip is an individual who “overcomes their disability” or “triumphs over adversity,” or who does well “in spite of being disabled.” Or, as disability writer Alison Kafer, puts it: “Supercrips are those disabled figures favored in the media, products of either extremely low expectations (disability by definition means incompetence, so anything a disabled person does, no matter how mundane or banal, merits exaggerated praise) or extremely high expectations (disabled people must accomplish incredibly difficult, and therefore inspiring, tasks to be worthy of nondisabled attention).”
The media turns someone into a Supercrip by using certain language and employing specific terms. I am not suggesting that such terms are consciously chosen — that it is the author’s intent to condescend or demean — but that the effect is the same: the perpetuation of a particular negative image of people with disabilities. The disabled person in question is often described as “inspirational,” and Ototake was no exception: “LDP ponders bid by inspirational sports writer in Upper House election” was how this newspaper’s website headlined one recent story about the man.
Let’s examine that headline. How are we to understand the phrase “inspirational sports writer”? Is it because Ototake is really good at explaining baseball to his readers? Is his writing about sport so good that he can make you feel like you are right there at a sumo bout? No, the message being conveyed here is that Ototake is, because of his disability, an inspirational man, who happens to be a sports writer. His being a Waseda graduate, an author, a sometime teacher, sports writer and potential Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker are treated as secondary to his being a disabled person. Or, at the very least, Ototake has accomplished these things “in spite of his disability.” With this caveat, his casting in the role of a Supercrip is complete.
Once the media has bestowed Supercrip status on you, certain expectations are also made of you. People are confused or annoyed if you dare to assert that not all of your life is about having a disability, or that you never see yourself as being a potential role model. It is not possible that there are many aspects of your life where your disability is not a relevant factor.
It is wrong to cheat on your spouse, whether or not you are disabled; it is not somehow made morally worse by the fact that Ototake has a disability and is therefore a “bad role model.” I cannot help but feel that along with the moral transgression of cheating, Ototake is also guilty of violating the terms of his Supercrip status, by doing something wrong that a nondisabled person might do. How dare he behave like a fallible human being, instead of the inspiration we all so wanted him to be?
Writing about disability in the media is difficult. I would not say that there is no context where Ototake’s disability is relevant; he is famous for writing about disability, and that fact, whether he likes it or not, is what he will likely be known for, for the rest of his life. If he writes or speaks about disability, mentioning his own disability is not only pertinent but necessary.
It is of course quite right that he not stand for election after behaving in such a way, and right that the media report about his affairs. How the media covered his affairs is the issue. Both disabled and able-bodied people are capable of having affairs; reminding the reader of his disability seems irrelevant, unless you are consciously trying to invoke the “bad role model” narrative.
I know many in the media attempt to present disabled people in a positive light, and it certainly does not help when a beloved figure acts so foolishly. In giving an account of his affairs, you cannot just conveniently forget that Ototake is disabled, but you can be attentive to the language used to describe his offense, and ask whether it is relevant to make a point of highlighting his disability.
A headline sets the tone of an article. You have to mention his disability in the actual article, but you can avoid using condescending terms like “inspirational” and “disability champion.” My choice of headline: “Famous author and LDP hopeful admits affairs.”
Examining the coverage, I am still left with this question: How is Ototake’s being an “inspirational disability champion” relevant to his having sex with women who were not his wife?
Michael Gillan Peckitt is an academic living in Kobe. His e-book “Gaijin Story: Tales of a British Disabled Man in Japan” is available on Amazon. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan. Comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org