On February 15 and 16th, a coalition of disability groups including DPI-Japan, the Japan Council on Independent Living Centers (JIL), and People First Japan staged their fourth major protest in front of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare in Tokyo. The coalition was angered by the Ministry's pushing forward of a disability welfare bill (humbly) called the Grand Design that would make major changes to how people with severe disabilities would receive social services such as attendant care. This bill was written without full input from the people that it would affect the most. There were no public hearings, only closed door meetings with select members of the disability community known to be sympathetic to the government position.
This event followed similar protests in June, October, and December (follow links to my earlier articles). The February event was perhaps the largest of all of the protests with around 2,000 people with disabilities and their supporters travelling from all over Japan. Some of the largest groups came the furthest, from Sapporo on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, to a group from Okinawa, the southernmost.
On the first day, about 1200 people crowded the front of the Ministry building. Unlike earlier protests, the Ministry had told the building police not to interfere with the protesters and to allow them to use the Ministry's toilet facilities. This was a major point of contention during the October protest
One of the hallmarks of this coalition is that it included members with severe physical, psychiatric, and intellectual disabilities as well as people with chronic diseases (nanbyo
which are not considered disabilities) and other people who find themselves left out of the disability categorization system. Most disability groups in Japan and elsewhere tend to be single disability or if they are cross-disability, restrict themselves just to physical disabilities or to just intellectual disabilities (mental retardation, etc.), for example. It is rather unique to have a pan-disability movement with such broad reach. This is both a strength and weakness
Even though their impairments made it difficult for some members to speak, a major effort was made in making everyone's voice heard. In some cases, translators were used for speakers with severe cerebral palsy or intellectual disabilities.
Each group designed their own placards and signs that they wore on their chests or backs. This one reads: "The lives of people with disabilities are in danger! We thank you for understanding and supporting this movement of and for disabled people." Some of the other signs were a bit more dramatic, reading: The Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare is killing disabled people.
The protesters staged an all-night sit-in in front of the Ministry building. The group from Nagoya brought in propane gas stoves, blankets, and enough cardboard boxes to rival the box shantytowns in Ueno Park. Another group even brought in band equipment including drums, an electric guitar, and amplifier system. People were invited up to the mike to sing and for a while, it was karaoke night at the Ministry.
All was fun and games until 3:00am when it started raining and the temperature dropped below zero. At that time, there were about 50 protesters sleeping in front of the Ministry building. The cardboard box shelters became drenched. Large tents were quickly erected and the protesters huddled in them for warmth. To make things worse, at 4:46am, a strong magnitude 5 earthquake struck the Tokyo area. The shaking was apparent even to people on the ground level. Buildings in Tokyo are built to handle a tremor of that size, so there was no property damage, but it shook the spirits of the protesters a bit.
The next morning, the leadership of the protesters met with various political party members. Here, one of the members from the Hyogo area is listening to a lower-house representative from the Japanese Social-Democratic Party. The Social-Democrats are against the Grand Design, but with only 4% in the lower-house, they have no power to block it. The other political parties that the group met with with the Japanese Communist Party (against the Grand Design), the Democratic Party of Japan (wishy-washy) and Komeito (for the government's plan). The opposition parties do not have enough votes to defeat the Grand Design. The protesters are hoping that they might be able to put the brakes on it so that it is not immediately implemented.
After meeting with the party representatives, the protests marched to the main Diet Building and presented their formal complaints to the Diet. This presentation of complaints is a ritualized process in Japanese politics. Unfortunately, I was in the main representatives building and wasn't allowed to take close-up photographs of the formal petition process.
What will happen? The bureaucrats in the MHLW are pushing this bill through, emphasizing that there is not enough money in the government budget to continue expensive attendant care programs. They have the support of the political parties in power (LDP/Komeito). The general trend in Japan (following the USA) is to cut money on social welfare and emphasize "individual responsibility." In this case, individual responsibility means greater co-payments and reductions in social welfare pensions for the elderly and disabled. It's hard to be optimistic about the situation.
Editorial: As with previous protests, there was no major print or television media coverage of this event. According to the protesters, the Ministry has made it known that it will not be tolerant of journalists who cover the issue from the protester's perspective. Indeed, one of the major dailies apparently temporarily lost its seat in the Ministry Press Club for straying beyond the party line in its coverage. That is not likely to ever occur again. There was a news crew from Fukoka covering the protest, but they were apparently doing a documentary on one of the individual protesters from the area and not the larger issue. In general, no one in Japan knows that 2,000 protesters had gathered in front of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare on these two days. Even this small blog will reach more people than all of the nonexistent reportage from the mainstream media. This is not good. Democracy depends on a free and open distribution of information. In this regard, the mass media in Japan are fundamentally failing their job. And unfortunately, this is a worldwide phenomenon.
- Karen Nakamura