AKITA — A remote town nestled among the cedar-covered mountains of Akita Prefecture was suddenly in the spotlight recently due to its unique efforts to protect the rights of its senior citizens.
The Takanosu town assembly approved legislation in December that clearly defines the actions that nursing-care providers can and cannot take to force their charges to do something that goes against their will — measures that have in the past included binding them to their beds.
Under the ordinance, which was proposed by Mayor Tetsu Iwakawa and took effect on April 1, such actions are allowed only in emergencies or when the mayor gives approval.
“I’m afraid the human rights of elderly people who receive day-care services have been abused all too easily in Japan,” Iwakawa, 53, said. “The main purpose of the ordinance is to reduce to almost zero actions that ignore the will of service recipients.”
Iwakawa said he was driven to draw up the rules by the strong desire among citizens to live a life free of worry as Japan’s society ages rapidly.
Before deciding to run for mayor 10 years ago, Iwakawa talked with town residents and found that they wanted the municipal government to provide them with security in their later years.
The rights of the elderly are at times violated in Japan, such as when care recipients are bound to their beds to prevent them from wandering around, he said.
Iwakawa said the new ordinance is particularly aimed at protecting those who suffer from dementia, as they cannot express their desires clearly.
Iwakawa’s principles come from his experiences during a trip to Denmark after assuming his post. He said his policies have been greatly influenced by the Scandinavian nation, where the socially weak are treated equally.
He also learned how to draw up policies that reflect the voices of voters and he has tried to put this into practice in his town. The latest ordinance is one example.
After returning to Japan, Iwakawa set up a group in Takanosu in which citizens — from teenagers to the elderly — have the opportunity to gather to discuss how to form policies by making proposals to and cooperating with the local government.
“I always tell people that I am just a machine that transforms the voters’ will into specific policies,” he said.
Politics, however, has not always been the goal of his life. “On the contrary, I was brought up being told not to enter politics,” he said.
Iwakawa’s great-grandfather served as Takanosu mayor more than 60 years ago, with his family suffering financially during his time in office. Given this unpleasant experience, his parents did not want him to become a politician. He himself was interested in the world outside Japan and wanted to work for a trading house.
Iwakawa is now planning to set up a school for adults seeking specialized knowledge and skills in social welfare, which should eventually help children in the town learn the importance not only of social welfare but also of treating others equally, he said.
Iwakawa observed that Japan’s top priority since World War II has been to increase productivity and economic strength — but he warns that there are risks to this national policy.
“As a result, the value placed on human beings has declined,” he said. “Old people in particular tend to think they serve no purpose (in society) unless they can contribute to productivity.”
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