The Diet has always placed a high value on precedent and formality, but because of that many of its rules and regulations seem out of place in modern Japan.
Article 209 of the Upper House regulations, for example, says lawmakers cannot wear a hat, coat or scarf, or bring an umbrella or a walking stick, when they enter the Upper House chamber. Because of this strict regulation, ex-professional wrestler Antonio Inoki had to give up wearing his signature scarf when he became a member of the Upper House. The chamber also requires male lawmakers to wear a suit and tie.
In addition to the dress code, other examples of the rigid rules include barring personal computers and people who aren’t Upper House members or officials from entering the chamber. As the special Diet session kicked off last week, however, those rules were eased for two new lawmakers, Yasuhiko Funago and Eiko Kimura, who have severe physical disabilities.
Funago, 61, suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. He has had no mobility in his limbs since 2008. Kimura, 54, has had cerebral palsy since she was 8 months old. To ensure they have barrier-free access, the Upper House Steering Committee decided to remove three seats from the chamber to create space for them to attend in their electric wheelchairs, and power sources were installed in the chamber and committee rooms to charge their wheelchairs and medical equipment. The new lawmakers will also be allowed to vote via caregivers during plenary sessions, and Funago will be able to use his laptop computer to communicate.
The easing of the regulations was accomplished not by revising the current regulations but through the Upper House Steering Committee’s flexible implementation of the rule. Despite having no precedence, the quick response deserves praise.
Wheelchair access in the Diet has improved over the years. The building now features elevators and rest rooms for people with physical disabilities. But experts point out that situations surrounding people with disabilities can be drastically improved by just changing the Diet’s archaic rules and perceptions toward people with disabilities.
People with severe disabilities are eligible to receive publicly funded care services at home but not at work under rules set by the welfare ministry. Since Funago and Kimura need care workers when they commute and work in the Diet, the issue of who will pay for their care services captured the public’s attention. This time the Upper House offered great flexibility in dealing with the issues in a timely manner and decided to shoulder the costs as a special measure.
It is an important task for politicians to create a work environment friendly to those with special needs. According to the labor ministry, the number of people with disabilities who work in private sector companies rose 7.9 percent to a record 534,769. The figure represents 2.05 percent of the total workforce. Considering that the number is expected to increase in coming years, regulations, such as the one involving publicly funded care services for people with severe physical disabilities, must be reviewed and amended to accommodate the changing needs of society.
Japan also needs to consider the fact that it will be tested next summer when it holds the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and many paralympians come to the nation’s capital.
When comparing the accessibility of subway stations in major cities, Tokyo and Osaka surprisingly enjoy high marks as barrier-free developed cities. Osaka and Washington came in at the top with 100 percent accessibility at their stations, and Tokyo came in at 97 percent with 134 out of 138 stations. New York scored 25 percent with 118 out of 472 stations, while Paris stood at 3 percent with nine out of 303 stations. But according to Toshiya Kakiuchi, president of Mirairo Inc., a company that offers consultation, training and other services to improve access for people with special needs, reactions to people with disabilities are polarized. “People are either indifferent or overreacting to those with special needs,” Kakiuchi, who is a wheelchair user, says.
To eliminate this perception gap and provide better accessibility for disabled people in society, the role of the two newly elected Upper House members will be critical. The pair’s participation in the Diet will certainly raise public awareness in this area. It is time for politicians to show what needs to be done to bring our society up to date.