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Trial of Sagamihara massacre suspect spurs debate on what society may think about people with disabilities

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

The trial of Satoshi Uematsu, who is accused of killing 19 people with disabilities at a care facility in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 2016, began on Jan. 8 and is expected to end in March. Uematsu admits to the murders. His defense team is trying to convince the judges, who include lay judges, that he carried out the killings with “diminished capacity” owing to marijuana use. This seems to be the only strategy his lawyers could think of to keep him off death row. An evaluation of Uematsu concluded he has “narcissistic personality disorder,” but prosecutors argue he can be held criminally responsible for his actions.

The focus of media coverage is Uematsu’s mental competency, a consideration complicated by the defendant’s own statements as well as the public’s general attitude toward people with disabilities. Uematsu claims he killed for the good of society, since those whose disabilities prevent them from communicating are “not people” and thus somehow “harmful.” His comments have drawn disgust, but they’ve also sparked reflection in the media as to how prevalent this sentiment is. Just because it isn’t virulent enough to compel others to do what Uematsu did, that doesn’t mean it isn’t widespread.

In December, the Mainichi Shimbun ran a feature about a neighborhood protest against the opening of a care home for people with disabilities in a residential area of Yokohama that was described by the magazine Shukan Josei as “celeb town,” meaning it’s well-to-do. The facility is operated by a company called Moana Care, which, following approval for construction in March 2018, held explanation sessions for nearby residents in late 2018 and early 2019. 

Many attendees were strongly against the developer, saying that property values would drop and the facility’s residents might threaten the safety of local children. In March, protesters submitted to the local government a petition with around 700 signatures, demanding construction be halted. Two months later, Moana Care and families of future residents of the facility went to the local government asking it to act as a mediator in the dispute, claiming that the petition violated a city regulation banning discrimination against people with disabilities. Authorities told the protestors to remove the banners surrounding the construction site, since the messages they contained were discriminatory in nature. The protesters refused.

Since then people have moved into the care home, and neighbors continue to protest. One told the Mainichi Shimbun that she opposed the facility because “we don’t know what (those people with disabilities) are going to do.” Although the statement is purposely vague, the implication is that people with disabilities are unpredictable and thus potentially dangerous. According to a 2018 government study cited by the Mainichi Shimbun, 0.08 percent of people with mental or developmental disabilities committed crimes, while the portion of nondisabled persons committing crimes was 0.2 percent. 

Another aspect of the case that points to discriminatory attitudes is the anonymity of Uematsu’s victims. Of the 48 persons he killed or injured, only one will have their real name used in court. For the rest, the trial will use pseudonyms. According to a Jan. 10 article in the Asahi Shimbun, families of the victims are worried the victims will be discriminated against if their names and other personal particulars are revealed. The Yokohama District Court has agreed to their request. In principle, the names of defendants and victims are openly used in trials except when minors are involved. However, in 2007, the relevant law was revised as a gesture to protect victims. Under special circumstances, courts can now decide to mask the names, addresses and faces of victims if they think the victims’ or their families’ well-being could be adversely affected by revealing such things. The Asahi Shimbun says these special circumstances were conceived for cases involving sexual assault or organized crime. Between 2008 and 2018, about 4,000 trials applied this exception each year. The Kanagawa Prefectural Police has also said it will honor the wishes of victims’ families by not providing the media with names.

One man who was injured in the attack, Kazuya Ono, has insisted his real name be used in court because, according to his father, he wants to fight discrimination. To Ono, not using his real name amounts to surrendering his very existence to the unfounded fears of the public. Uematsu himself said during the trial that keeping the victims anonymous reflects society’s attitude toward people with disabilities.

However, the people who really seem to worry about discrimination are not so much disabled people but rather their families, who presumably don’t want others to know they have relatives with disabilities. The Asahi Shimbun points out that 30 of the 84 seats in the courtroom for the Uematsu trial are reserved for victims’ families, and that they are in a section isolated by a 2-meter high curtain. The families also travel to and from the courthouse on a special bus with tinted windows.

In a discussion of the trial on NHK radio, documentary filmmaker Tatsuya Mori made connections between Uematsu’s mindset and the public’s general attitude. Uematsu verbalizes and acts on his feelings toward people with disabilities, which appear to not be informed by hate but rather by a kind of horrifying logic. If we are made uncomfortable by Uematsu’s pronouncements, it’s not so much because we find them repugnant, but because we realize we don’t necessarily disagree with his basic position. Mori gives the example of someone in a coma whose loved ones silently wish the stricken person would die in order to be relieved of their own burden.

The difference is that the people Uematsu killed were not unconscious and their inability to communicate does not preclude the possibility that they had inner lives just as rich as anyone else’s. Mori’s point is that by resenting, openly or tacitly, the perceived imposition a person’s disability has on our own lives, we effectively reinforce Uematsu’s reasons for erasing them.

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