Law graduate Yusuke Hatsuse says he thought his college degree and national sports success would make him an attractive recruit for Japan’s best-known employers. When none invited him for interviews, he applied for virtually every job he could find.

“I only heard back from two companies, and only one offered me a position,” Hatsuse recalls of his hunt for work in Tokyo nine years ago.

Legally blind, the 34-year-old learned firsthand the reluctance of Japanese companies to interview disabled job candidates, let alone hire them. The judoka Paralympian eventually established his own consulting company, Universal Style, which has helped more than 30 disabled people find work.

For the disabled, getting a job is not easy. The majority of companies in Japan flout decades-old laws that require them to hire a minimum number of disabled workers. Now their unwillingness to take them on is clashing with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to increase and diversify Japan’s dwindling labor force.

Abe created a new position in his Cabinet this month, putting a minister in charge of bolstering the shrinking labor force by enabling more of the population to work. An advisory panel under the new minister, Katsunobu Kato, includes Paralympic alpine skier Kuniko Obinata.

“I want to work to realize a society where everyone’s character and individuality can be respected, regardless of disability,” Kato told reporters in Tokyo Tuesday. “I want to press forward with discussions, including in the advisory panel, to enable such people to fulfill their dreams.”

The panel will work on policies to help the disabled become more independent and to play a greater role in society, he said.

“We need to create a society where everyone — the youth and the elderly, men and women, those carrying illnesses and disabilities — have opportunities,” Abe said on Oct. 15, when the office was created. “We need to change Japan into a society where everyone can take a step forward for a new chance.”

The employment rate in Japan among working-age people with disabilities is among the lowest, the World Health Organization and World Bank found in their 2011 World Report on Disability, with fewer than 1 in 4 disabled people working in 2003, compared with a population-wide employment rate of 60 percent.

Finding jobs for those who are willing and able to work “is essential” to maintain the vitality of the nation’s economy and society in the face of a low birthrate and aging population, according to the Japan Organization for Employment of the Elderly, Persons with Disabilities and Job Seekers, also known as JEED.

With its working-age population shrinking, Japan will have to rely on productivity gains as the main catalyst for economic momentum, McKinsey & Co. said in a report in March, noting that the nation’s productivity growth has stalled at less than 2 percent for much of the past 20 years.

“As the country at the leading edge of the global demographic challenge, Japan will have to pioneer policy solutions to increase labor force participation,” the authors, led by Georges Desvaux and Jonathan Woetzel, wrote. Employers already report more difficulty than their international counterparts in filling job openings.

That is making it increasingly important for Japan to tap diverse sources for talent and skills, said Nancy Ngou, a partner with Ernst & Young Advisory Co. in Japan, which started a diversity and inclusion advisory service last year.

Companies from Hewlett-Packard Japan Ltd. to Nippon Pharmaceutical Chemicals Co. have workplace diversity plans that include people with disabilities, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said in a report on best management practices last year.

“Perhaps some companies aren’t feeling the strain of a declining workforce yet, but we also see some companies realizing that they need to go beyond where they have traditionally looked to find people with diverse talent,” Ngou said.

A failure to respond could result in higher labor costs, she said.

“It’s going to be harder to find people for employment,” said Ngou. “As goods become more expensive, we’ll start to lose competitiveness. Companies may not feel some of these macroeconomic impacts now, but overtime we will all feel this.”

People with disabilities are among the most marginalized groups in the world. Worldwide, about 800 million are of working age, yet face significant obstacles in finding employment — from attitudinal and physical, to informational barriers, the International Labor Organization says.

Japan will implement a revised law next April that prohibits employers from discriminating against disabled people, and requires them to make reasonable adjustments for disabled staff in the hiring process and the workplace.

Private companies are currently required to ensure disabled workers account for at least 2 percent of their workforce, and to provide regular status reports to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. The most recent filings showed 52 percent did not meet the requirements, according to JEED.

Hatsuse, who competed in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, sees the 2020 Tokyo Games as an opportunity to demonstrate what disabled people are capable of.

“When people see us compete, pity is not usually the first thing that comes into their minds,” he says. “People are just in awe at what we can really do.”

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