National / Politics

Opposition lawmakers with severe disabilities make Upper House debut after steps taken toward creating barrier-free Diet

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

A special five-day Diet session following the July 21 Upper House election kicked off Thursday, marking a momentous occasion for two opposition lawmakers with severe disabilities, who entered the Diet building for the first time.

The first post-election session chose Akiko Santo of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to be the new Upper House president and Toshio Ogawa of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan as vice president.

But much of the public’s attention has focused on Yasuhiko Funago, 61, and Eiko Kimura, 54, both of whom are severely disabled and were elected as members of Reiwa Shinsengumi, an anti-establishment party founded by actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto.

Funago is paralyzed due to the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease, while Kimura has cerebral palsy, causing her limbs to be mostly immobile. The pair are the first people with such severe disabilities to be elected as Diet members in Japanese history and some of the buildings and facilities of the Upper House were renovated so that the two lawmakers can attend parliamentary sessions on bed-like wheelchairs. A makeshift ramp was installed and three seats were removed near the doorway to allow the lawmakers to enter the chamber as part of frantic preparations.

“Since it was the first time people with severe disabilities were elected to the Diet, we faced some problems before today,” Kimura said upon arrival at the Diet, referring to services that needed to be arranged to accommodate the lawmakers’ needs.

The pair have called for reforms to social welfare services that support severely disabled people. Public services currently only allow for the dispatch of a nurse to take care of such individuals at home, a regulation that’s often criticized as an obstacle toward employment.

Currently, if a severely disabled person goes out “for economic activities” — which includes Funago and Kimura’s jobs as lawmakers — he or she can’t receive publicly funded care services.

As a special measure, the Upper House will shoulder the costs of hiring care workers for the pair “for the time being.”

The issue for the lawmakers came to light last week, when Kimura quoted the health ministry as saying that care services won’t be made available to her while she commutes and engages in “economic activities” at her workplace.

“We can’t do anything without care workers,” Kimura stressed on Thursday.

The situation at one point prompted her to declare she “can’t attend” Thursday’s inaugural session, but the Upper House eventually agreed that it will temporarily finance services both for Kimura and Funago while they are on duty as lawmakers, according to an Upper House official.

The official said that after prior deliberation between ruling and opposition parties, it was also decided the two will be allowed to bring their laptops and medical equipment to the chamber and committee rooms, and that they won’t be bound to a strict dress code.

Their care workers will also be permitted to accompany them into the chamber, the official said. On Thursday, the two were able to vote on the election of Santo and Ogawa by having their care workers sign their names on their behalf before the ballots were given to Upper House staff, who then proceeded to vote.

Although Funago, who is unable to speak and chiefly depends on his caregiver and laptop in order to converse, requires an extra amount of time for communication, whether Reiwa Shinsengumi will be afforded a larger share of question time than officially designated remains subject to further debate, the Upper House official said.

Thursday also marked the first time that Emperor Naruhito, who ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1, attended the opening ceremony of a Diet session to announce its start.