Disability Rights and the Sagamihara 19: A Dialogue with Mizuki Hsu

My friend and colleague, Mizuki Hsu, is about to conclude her tenure as a Visiting International Research Fellow at Syracuse University's Burton Blatt Institute (BBI). This essay is a collaboration between us. Soon, Mizuki will be returning to Japan to continue her advocacy work in the Japanese and international disability rights movements. In her blog, Moon Rider 7, Mizuki shares her public intellectual work in Japanese and English. While at BBI, she researched the employment of people with disabilities in Japan and the United States. Beginning in October of 2015, Mizuki traveled to cities throughout the U.S., interviewing activist-scholars, company employees, organizational leaders, and governmental representatives (among her projects, she interviewed me).

Mizuki and I talk openly about empowerment, oppression, culture, and self-expression. Unsurprisingly, we discussed what she experienced on July 25, 2016, the day she found out that 19 people with disabilities who were living in a Sagamihara institution were murdered in their sleep by a former employee (due to the time difference, it was the 26th of July in Japan). The perpetrator seriously injured 26 others.

Mizuki shared with me that she was in Washington, D.C., attending the National Council on Independent Living's (NCIL) conference. On the first day of the conference, a group of leaders from several Japanese disability rights organizations teamed up to report to the participants their approaches toward meeting the needs of Japanese people with disabilities. They highlighted their collaboration with various Asian countries, specifically nations with far fewer material resources than Japan. This year, Japan and the United States collaborated, as well; as part of this initiative, a group of American young adults visited Japan. Some of these individuals attended the NCIL conference and described their experiences to the audience.

Mizuki was inspired by what the young people reported. The American group noted that people in Japan seemed to be very kind toward people with disabilities. Given Mizuki's experiences living most of her life in Japan, the young Americans' descriptions of Japanese hospitality toward the disabled were surprising. Mizuki perceives that, in Japan, people without disabilities often understand people with disabilities as belonging to a distinct, and separated, human category. Growing up in Japan, Mizuki rarely met people with disabilities in her everyday life; she was the only person with a visible disability in elementary and secondary school who was not in a segregated classroom. People with disabilities did not seem to be living in the community with everyone else, and Mizuki wondered where they lived and where they were.

Leaving the conference session with a lot on her mind, some "new views," and happy as well as intrigued to have heard what the Americans said about her home country, Mizuki returned to her hotel room and opened the Japanese Yahoo News app on her smartphone. She learned then of the violence that had occurred in Sagamihara. Her shock and disbelief were deep. It seemed impossible that this had happened. One of the reasons she felt this way was because Japan is known to be a very safe country. This crime was the most violent event to have occurred in Japan since World War II. The fact that the victims were targeted because they were all people with disabilities was particularly disturbing and abhorrent. Mizuki was struck by the stark contrast between what the Americans had just said during the conference session and what was now being reported in the news. She reflected upon her own upbringing and was even firmer in her resolve to do something, daily, to raise awareness of the rights of Japanese people with disabilities, and the rights of all people with disabilities. To live, period. To live full and meaningful lives.

Mizuki did not expect the Japanese news to spread internationally or to receive sustained attention. Social media and mainstream news' (including the New York Times) discussions in the United States about this horror continued, although some believe that the crime has received relatively little attention compared to what is clearly warranted. As an example, refer to blogger Jessica Z. S.'s "Someone Murders 19 Disabled Japanese Individuals, But No One is Outraged?" Prof. Rachel Adams' recent commentary is helpfully entitled, "Why Has Japan's Massacre of Disabled Gone Unnoticed? For Answers, Look to the Past."

Meanwhile, the focus in the Japanese media that Mizuki has read has largely been on the regulation of hospitalization and other forms of institutionalization, protecting the general public from presumably dangerous people, access to facilities by the public, and the rights of the victims' family members. Making the lives of Japanese people with disabilities safer and better has not been the priority of much of the mainstream Japanese news, it seems. Nor has there been much acknowledgment of the ongoing segregation of people with disabilities in Japan. Although many people have been shocked, and certain Japanese disability rights organizations have issued statements and calls to action, some in Japan agree with and support what the suspect did. The victims' names have not been disclosed, largely due to fear that non-disabled family members could be stigmatized by media exposure.

Measurements of productivity and what is considered valuable in Japanese culture underscore many of the news stories in Japan and what is and is not getting coverage, Mizuki observes. Disturbingly, some of the news has emphasized claims that the suspect is mentally ill, furthering the stigma against people with psychiatric labels, who are far more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence.

And what of the victims? Why is there so little discussion about their lives being taken, being lost? Disabled lives are worth living. As Rooted in Rights leaders and many others assert, "Disability rights are human rights." Mizuki, a Rooted in Rights storyteller, recently co-created a video about the Sagamihara 19.

What happened to the Sagamihara 19 is not (just) a Japanese story. The mass murder's occurrence interfaces importantly with international debates surrounding assisted suicide and euthanasia. In the wake of the Sagamihara tragedy, it is possible and necessary to believe in self-determination, to be empowered and infuriated, to champion the rights of people with disabilities, and to be against assisted suicide legislation. For more information about how to take action, visit Not Dead Yet.