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Two years ago, living in Japan as a student with visual impairment, I felt like I was in paradise. I was in a place where I could march independently on my own two feet. Constantly comparing my life there and back home, I thought that I was better off in Japan. In Osaka, nothing was holding me back from doing what I wanted.

Due to Japan's low crime rate and accessible transportation system, I could travel short distances with ease, such as to and from the supermarket, or even across prefectures. In South Carolina, where I come from, public transportation is out of reach. I would have to call an Uber or Lyft to go anywhere. Riding alone in a stranger's car made me anxious, and my dad constantly nagging me about possible dangers in my travels did not help. I felt like Ariel from The Little Mermaid who just wanted to see a different part of the world for myself. Unfortunately, my fin, or rather my disability, and my loving but over-protective father kept me from going places farther than the waters could reach. People also made me feel helpless, saying comments like "You poor thing." Sometimes, I would even get unsolicited grabby "helping hands" who'd volunteer to be my sighted guide when I was looking to get from point A to B on my own. In the end, unnecessary helpers would just get in my way. People's lack of understanding about my needs burdened me. But, in Japan, I felt liberated. No unsolicited helpers and no constrictions in this paradise.

Call it naivety or ignorance, but I was shortsighted in my perception that living in a different place would solve all problems related to my disability. Back then, I did not realize that I was living in Japan only as a guest. Being able to speak the language and understand social cues does not necessarily make one a bonafide member of their society. Actually, I did not have a full grasp of what it is like to be a special needs individual in the Japanese community. This realization prompted me to search for answers to my question: What are the plights of Japanese people with special needs?

In my quest for answers, I researched this topic and interviewed Japanese people with and without disabilities. After reflecting on my findings, I came to this conclusion: wherever we are, our problems are the same. We are living in a time where movements for equality and multifarious advancements abound. However, we are still facing challenges our predecessors went through for generations --accessibility, lack of awareness, and inequality--hurdles that are nothing new to the special needs community. It often seems as if we are alone, but people from around the world are fighting the same battles. This is exactly why it is important to take time to understand the commonalities we have with our special needs comrades beyond our borders.


Barriers aplenty across the sea, the problem of accessibility is definitely a commonality. Non-availability of public transportation where I live in the US is just the tip of the iceberg. Charleston is a hotbed of inaccessibility. It is hard for a wheelchair user not to feel like they are in a busted, wooden rollercoaster with Charleston's narrow, jagged, and bumpy roads. Forget about feeling safe when crossing the streets as a visually-impaired person. Street lights are too hard to see and often malfunction, leaving people to guess whether they will be crossing--to the other side of the street, or to the afterlife.

In contrast, Japan has made great leaps in making sure their country is as accessible and barrier-free as possible. According to Japan Times, one in every twenty individuals, within a population of over 126 million people in Japan, have a disability. (1) To improve the lives of these people, Japan passed their Barrier-Free Act in 2006. According to

It standardized measures for developing barrier-free environments at public transportation hubs including train stations, airports, and passenger ship terminals, shopping centers, public buildings, and public spaces including roads, parks, and outdoor parking facilities. (2)

All interviewees commend the Barrier-Free efforts, such as the yellow tactile blocks, also known as tenji blocks, that line the streets in urban and suburban parts of the country. These blocks guide people who are blind and visually-impaired. Along with these tenji blocks are street lights with distinct sounds that warn pedestrians when to cross the street. Furthermore, sidewalks are wide enough for wheelchair users to pass through. These and many other accommodations in public areas are clearly one of Japan's strong initiatives.

Nevertheless, Japan's endeavor to make the country accessible is a work in progress. As Camille Miller from Metropolis Japan states: Infrastructural change, especially within the private sector, continues to be a challenge for a country rooted in traditionalism. While new legislation and accessible public spaces are clear signs of progress, Japan has a long road ahead to truly becoming a friendly place for people with disabilities. (3)

While all interviewees acknowledge Japan's efforts to make public facilities accessible, they express that more should be done, such as installing elevators in stairs-only buildings, or spreading the Barrier-Free campaign in the less-urbanized areas.


Disability unawareness are the turbulent waves that crash into the lives of the special needs community. It inundates society with issues such as inequality and discrimination. Lack of understanding lies in the heart of inequality, causing problems to build up like red tides from algae, tainting our views of one another. Because of this misperception, people without disabilities do not understand or even notice the struggles of those with disabilities.

Koji Onoue, in Tomoko Okake's article "Is Disability Still a Dirty Word in Japan?" states, "Despite improvements in such areas as "barrier-free" infrastructure over the last few decades, many people with disabilities are systematically rendered invisible by and from society." (4) Indeed, this does seem to be the case for our fellow community members. Almost all of the interviewees reported rarely seeing people who have disabilities in public. College students like Ryuusei, 22, Kosei, 24, and Nao, 20, mentioned that they would see only two to three people with either chitekishougai (intellectual disability) or shintaishougai (physical disability) in public areas such as on the train every week or two.

Most of the interviewees without disabilities stated they have seen some form of discrimination, but have little understanding of the impact of inequality which the special needs community members face. They talked about their experience in either elementary or middle school when children would tease schoolmates who have a disability. Shougo, 23. talked about the time he saw a few children being mocked for having difficulty speaking and hearing. "Some kids in the playground were teasing the boy who couldn't speak, but I had a feeling he just had a disorder."

Even more alarming is that five of the interviewees who were closely associated with or related to someone with a disability still did not have a clue of what their loved ones are going through. A famous saying in Japan goes, "The nail that sticks out always gets hammered down." Unlike our culture, it seems that those with disabilities in Japan do their best to blend in to not burden others while we stick up for ourselves to be accommodated. Though this is a noble act, they miss out on being understood and accommodated. Ryuusei said, "My dad has Asperger's disease. I didn't even think anything was wrong with him because he functioned well in society, and I don't think he dealt with discrimination. So, I never really thought about it much." Minako's, 50s), sister is another individual with this mindset of blending in:

"My sister and I went to school together when we were young. She was only a couple years older than me but she mostly hung out with my age group. That's why kids kept asking me if my sister was stupid because she couldn't get along with kids who are the same age as her. As an adult, my sister has trouble going to the supermarket on her own. At checkout, she would simply hand all the money she has to the cashier and ask if what she has is enough. Other than that, she is doing fine. She can even put on makeup on her own."

Shougo's grandfather has polio but Shougo. too. thought that his grandfather was able to do everything in his daily life without many problems.

"Jii-chan (grandpa) had Shounimahi (polio) but I didn't even know until my dad told me. He had difficulty moving some muscles but he seemed fine. He even played golf every weekend. He didn't use a wheelchair and walked fine. That's why I didn't know about his condition until my dad told me."

Although the interviewees without disabilities reported seeing minimal occurrences of discrimination, interviewees with disabilities have a different story to tell, one of them being Kenichirou, 33.

"Yes, I do think there's discrimination here. For example, people who use wheelchairs like me still get refused in taxis because it's too troublesome for them. The same goes for trains, too. It takes time for people with wheelchairs to go into trains so people behind the line look at them wrongly. It is as if we are keeping them from doing what they need to do. Even though it's called "barrier-free", it isn't."

Akemi, 37, has bipolar I disorder, and she also finds it difficult to deal with the discrimination she says she faces.

"I do face discrimination. In my opinion, discrimination for people with seishinshougai (mental disability) is worse than for people with physical disabilities. I applied for so many jobs. Applications include a question that lets us disclose whether or not we have a disability. We have to choose to face the reality of getting turned down for a job, or struggle doing our job without support. Usually, those who don't disclose their disability are judged incapable."

Akemi believes that people look at those with mental disabilities as half-baked, normal on the outside but sick on the inside. Despite having a graduate degree, she was turned down by multiple companies because of her bipolar disorder. Akemi was left with no choice but to rely on seikatsu hogo (welfare), which is not enough for her to live on. Consequently, she was forced to get involved in nightlife jobs. Hajime. 28. one of the interviewees without a disability, also commented on this problem. "The government needs to focus on providing more support because those with disabilities worry about getting a job. We should establish a system that guarantees work and vocational support for them."


Legislations may be in place, but without educating the public about our special needs, initiatives fall short. It takes understanding to change the hearts and minds of people to embrace individuals with special needs. All interviewees agree that the younger generation is getting more educated and becoming more aware about the special needs community. This generation is the key to eliminating stigma and spurring us into acceptance. Akemi shows us these people are willing to lend a helping hand in the right way.

"I recently came across a support group through this guy I found on Twitter. He had a friend who committed suicide because he was struggling with his mental disability. The man felt so sad about his friend's death and regretted not being able to do anything about it. That's why he's spreading awareness about mental disabilities on Twitter, letting those who need help know that he's there for them to talk to if they want. He helped me a lot."

This generation has the power to turn the tides to a future of a more understanding Japan and a more accepting world. Personally, this journey of understanding Japan's special needs community has made me realize one important thing. The true paradise that we should go towards is a barrier-free mindset.

Jem Mabalot, born with aniridia and legally blind, is a fresh graduate of the College of Charleston with a B.A. in International Studies. Her passion is teaching the youth and learning languages such as Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. She loves exploring different cultures and wants to be a media influencer to inspire and lead the youth from different backgrounds and abilities to pursue their dream. Her calling is to establish a nonprofit organization for talent development and empowerment for children in Asia. Currently, she is teaching ESL online and working on her Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA).


(1.) "Barrier-Free Design in Japan.", May 30, 2020.

(2.) Disabled World, N/A. "Disability in Japan: Overview and Statistics." Disabled World. Disabled World, October 27, 2018.

(3.) Miller, Camille. "Is Japan Friendly for People with Disabilities?: Living." Metropolis Japan, September 11, 2020.

(4.) N/A. "Japan--Disability:IN: Global Directory" Disability. Accessed March 7, 2021.

(5.) Otake, Tomoko. "Is 'Disability' Still a Dirty Word in Japan?" The Japan Times. The Japan Times, August 27, 2006.
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Author:Mabalot, Jem
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Apr 1, 2021

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