Asia-Pacific

Japanese lawmakers with disabilities take maiden seats in parliament

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Japanese politicians with severe disabilities have taken their seats in parliament vowing to meet the expectations of their supporters.

Yasuhiko Funago and Eiko Kimura have entered Japan's parliament for the first time to a crowd of supporters cheering their arrival.

The pair has become the first politicians with severe disabilities to take seats in the body's upper house following their election last month.

Yasuhiko Funago and Eiko Kimura are both mostly paralysed and rely on caretakers for support.

Wheelchair-bound Mr Funago has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Yasuhiko Funago sits in his wheelchair as he is assisted to prepare to enter the front entrance of the parliament building in Tokyo, Japan.
Yasuhiko Funago sits in his wheelchair as he is assisted to prepare to enter the front entrance of the parliament building in Tokyo, Japan.
EPA

A progressive neurological condition in which patients gradually lose control of their muscles.

The 61-year-old communicates by blinking to his caretaker or uses a computer system operated by his mouth.

“I’m surprised to see that so many people have come,” Funago said through his caretaker outside the parliament.

“I’ll try to meet people’s expectations.”

Ms Kimura, who has cerebral palsy, is paralysed from the neck down with the exception of her right hand.

The 54-year-old was diagnosed at eight years old and has become an advocate for people with disabilities.

Both their election campaigns raised concerns that Japan only pays for caretakers if a person with a disability is not working.

“It will take a long time to change the system, but we will work hard in parliament to correct this big problem,” she said to cheering supporters outside the parliament.

The pair’s election was seen as a major step forward for the visibility of people with disabilities in Japan.

Some activists say many remain marginalised in the country.

Japan's cabinet office says there are 9.63 million people in the country with physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities.

While Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare reported a record 3,544 disabled people were abused at home, welfare facilities or in workplaces, according to statistics from 2017.

Eiko Kimura sits in her wheelchair in front of the front entrance of the parliament building to attend an extraordinary parliamentary session in Tokyo, Japan
Eiko Kimura sits in her wheelchair in front of the front entrance of the parliament building to attend an extraordinary parliamentary session in Tokyo, Japan
EPA

51-year-old Yumiko Watanabe, who is paralysed from the chest down, told AFP the lawmakers victory had inspired her hopes.

“I want them to make a breakthrough. A vast majority of people don’t know what seriously disabled people are like,” she said.

“I hope we can start with letting people know.”

She wants the politicians to push for a more inclusive country.

“I want people to know that those of us with serious disabilities are not bed-ridden if care is provided,” she said.

Newly-elected lawmakers in wheelchairs, Eiko Kimura, center left, and Yasuhiko Funago.
Newly-elected lawmakers in wheelchairs, Eiko Kimura, center left, and Yasuhiko Funago.
AP

61-year-old Mr Funago was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2000.

He became aware of his condition after beginning to drop his toothbrush and when he lost an arm-wrestling match against his 11-year-old daughter, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The doctors reportedly told him he would likely die within three to four years.

Mr Funago spoke of the adversity he had overcome following his election in July.

“I am full of emotions that this moment has arrived,” he said.

“I may appear weak, but I have more guts than others as it has been a matter of life and death for me.”

The politician is vice president of a company that provides elderly and patient care.

Newly elected lawmaker Yasuhiko Funago, watches on as his aide presses a button on the attendance board at the parliament building in Tokyo.
Newly elected lawmaker Yasuhiko Funago, watches on as his aide presses a button on the attendance board at the parliament building in Tokyo.
KYDPL KYODO

The two lawmakers won their seats as candidates for a small opposition political group.

Their special reclining wheelchairs have required Japan’s upper house to undergo renovations to allow their access.

The lawmakers are not the only people in the senate's history to use wheelchairs but are the first considered severely disabled. 

Their election comes as Japan is preparing to host the Paralympics games next year.

Additional reporting: AFP

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