Two candidates with severe disabilities belonging to the opposition group Reiwa Shinsengumi won seats in the Upper House election on Sunday, scoring an important victory for disabled people in a country where they have long been encouraged to stay in the shadows.
In addition, the wins by Eiko Kimura, 54, and Yasuhiko Funago, 61, marked the first by candidates not belonging to a so-called political party since the open-list, proportional representation system was put in place in 2001, the Asahi newspaper said on its website. It is also a sign of society’s changing attitudes toward such people.
Reiwa Shinsengumi was set up in April, but it still does not have accreditation as a political party.
Kimura, who has cerebral palsy, did not even know how to buy train tickets when she chose to move out of a facility for the disabled and live in a Tokyo suburb at age 19. At the time, she would keep her head down to avoid rude stares from strangers.
During the campaign, she found herself addressing thousands of cheering, boisterous supporters from her wheelchair at an election event ahead of Sunday’s Upper House vote.
Funago has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — a progressive neurological disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease in which patients gradually lose control of their muscles. He required support from several people just to get on stage for election speeches.
According to the Japan Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association, it is the first time for an ALS patient to win a national election in Japan.
A larger opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, also backed a hearing-impaired candidate, Rie Saito, in the election.
Taro Yamamoto, head of Reiwa Shinsengumi, said that sending disabled politicians to the Diet itself can be an effective way to advance disability-related policies.
“Japan ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2014. Five years have passed since then, and we are finally starting to see tangible results,” said Hosei University professor Satoko Shimbo.
“To live up to the slogan ‘Nothing About Us Without Us,’ it is best for disabled people themselves to become politicians,” Shimbo said, referring to a rallying cry often used by people with disabilities.
The convention requires ratifying nations to adopt laws banning discrimination against those with disabilities, from the blind to those with mental illnesses.
Two years later, Japan implemented a law requiring that “reasonable accommodation” be offered to meet the needs of the disabled.
Parliamentary officials said there were no wheelchair-using politicians with hearing loss in either Diet chamber. Disabled people account for 8 percent of the population.