Sometimes a very significant event in the life of a country passes largely unnoticed, particularly if it occurs away from the center of power. Just such a thing happened on the 11th of this month.

There is a saying in Japanese: Todai moto kurashi (It’s dark under the lighthouse). Well, in Chiba Prefecture, deep in the shadow of the towering lighthouse that is its Tokyo neighbor, a minor revolution is in progress. It deserves not only national but international attention.

On Oct. 11, the Chiba Prefectural Assembly passed a wide-ranging law prohibiting discrimination against disabled people. The law, which goes into effect on July 1, 2007, is Japan’s first piece of legislation banning such discrimination and enabling disabled people to seek legal redress when they feel they have been wronged. In a country where the rights of minorities have traditionally been neglected — if not blatantly trampled on — this is a great step forward.

However, it’s not just the passage of this legislation that ranks as a major event; the way it was formulated and promulgated also sheds considerable light on the democratic process at work in a way that truly suits the Japanese community. That process itself has national significance.

When I first arrived in this country in the 1960s, disabled people felt profound unease, not to mention extreme physical discomfort, when going out in public and traveling from place to place. Even mildly disabled children were encouraged to go to special schools. In fact, if there was “special treatment,” it indicated the presence, not the absence, of public embarrassment and private bias. The vast majority of Japanese people wanted to have nothing to do with the disabled, as if ignoring their plight would somehow ameliorate it. In a classic case of “out of sight, out of mind,” many just wished the whole problem would disappear.

Claims and opinions

In the 1990s, the Chiba prefectural government took the lead in the fight against this insidious social bias, when a Disabled Welfare Section was formed in its Health and Welfare Division. Its remit, clearly announced, included the goal of “getting rid of discrimination against the disabled,” along with the desire to create “a new approach to regional welfare, in which 1) anyone 2) can live a normal and productive life 3) in the Chiba region.”

The prefecture began devising this new approach in the autumn of 2004, gathering data on prejudice and analyzing how to deal with it. From January 2005, at town meetings and in focus groups, claims and opinions were aired from people across the widest possible spectrum.

Then, this February, a bill was drawn up whose title translated into English is: The Bill to Create a Chiba Prefecture Where the Disabled and Nondisabled Can Live in Harmony. Once again, meetings were held, garnering reactions from every section of the community.

The bill was debated and substantially revised on the basis of the information supplied from these community meetings; and last month it was put before the Prefectural Assembly.

On Oct. 5, the Welfare Committee of the Assembly approved the bill, paving the way for it to be passed into law. This bill covers eight areas of community life, including schools, workplaces, real-estate transactions and so on. It provides for those not according equal treatment to the disabled to be dealt with harshly by the law.

Finally, on Oct. 11, the Assembly passed the bill — setting July 1, 2007 as the date it will come into effect. From then on, Chiba prefectural law will ban discrimination against the disabled, and give them the means to make claims against institutions and businesses that have demonstrated prejudice against them. Claims are to be taken up by an official prefectural committee established for this purpose; and the governor will be empowered to step in and take measures where discrimination has been shown to exist. Those aggrieved will have recourse to the courts, and may claim compensation not only from the wrongdoer but also from the prefectural government itself.

Cities in Chiba Prefecture have also been active on the front line of anti-discrimination and welfare. Chiba City has, for 10 years, been implementing its Comprehensive Welfare Plan to deal with the rising number of elderly people, a falling birthrate and the needs of the disabled.

This plan instituted a massive 15-year program to improve the health system, housing and home care of the city’s citizens. To date, it has seen the number of rehabilitation centers for the disabled increase from three to six. More day-care centers for single working parents have been built. The number of home helpers, people providing bathing services to the infirm and nursing staff at nursing homes has also been dramatically increased.

Matsudo City in Chiba Prefecture is not far behind. There they are providing needy single mothers with subsidized housing and cash grants to facilitate day care and child education. All doctors’ fees and pharmaceutical costs are paid by the city for single mothers who cannot afford them.

Sham in-house debates

Meanwhile, on the national level, Japanese political activity is often a sham, having the trappings of democracy without the content.

The government, dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party, institutes legislation, conducts what are no more than sham in-house debates, then railroads it through the Diet accompanied by an officious ceremony of pseudo-modest bowing. The media duly reports on this as if it were a democratic process — even, on occasion, making so bold as to “harshly criticize” the government for its proposed policies. But it is all too little, too insincere and too late.

With television talk shows generally being no more than an amusing variation on a shouting match, in Japan as a whole there is rarely any meaningful public debate, save perhaps on Internet blogs and occasional television debates courtesy of NHK.

The Japanese public is at once cynical, yet meek and mild. Both attitudes add up to the same thing: grudging acceptance of new laws. It may be grudging, but it is acceptance nonetheless. It looks like democracy, and may at times sound like democracy — but it is no more than a harmless quack at it.

In the case of the welfare legislation in Chiba Prefecture, though, we can see new policies and laws growing up from the grass roots. Such laws are bound to produce genuinely progressive attitudes and humane interrelationships in society, because they are founded in a democratic consensus. There is community involvement from the word go.

The light from the lighthouse that is Tokyo is focused on distant Pyongyang, Beijing, Seoul and Washington. Perhaps an occasional beam directed down close to home might teach politicians on the national level that their primary obligation to their citizens is the guaranteeing of their welfare. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has professed a wish to create a “beautiful” Japan. It is being created at his feet, and if he were to look down, he may just see the light.

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