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Candidate with ALS guaranteed to win seat in Japan upper house

Yasuhiko Funago

TOKYO -- The historic election of Yasuhiko Funago, 61, a new candidate for the Reiwa Shinsengumi political group who is largely paralyzed due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), was assured at the count for the July 21 House of Councillors election.

His election as the country's first ever National Diet member under paralysis who uses a medical ventilator would bring Japan a little closer to his stated aim on the campaign trail to realize a society that does not define between disabled and non-disabled people.

Diagnosed with ALS at age 42, Funago now has very limited movement available to him. Through the use of an apparatus to assist in his breathing and communication, he serves as vice chair to Earth, a nursing and care service company in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, where he is partly responsible for some 70 members of staff.

Funago was elected as a first priority proportional representation candidate for the Reiwa Shinsengumi group under the new "special quota" system that allows specific candidates to receive precedence. The electrical mechanism was introduced under 2018 revisions to the Public Offices Election Act.

Yasuhiko Funago, left, is seen on the campaign trail with his colleague Misako Sazuka, who is helping to deliver the speech he prepared, outside JR Shinagawa Station in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on July 12, 2019. (Mainichi/Takashi Yamashita)

Funago and his supporters watched over the vote counting from a hotel in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. When his assured victory was announced as the first candidate on the Reiwa Shinsengumi's proportional representation list, Funago was enveloped in applause and cheers.

He first found himself leaning toward activism when the care center he lived in from 2003 to 2011 abruptly reduced its longstanding policy of three bathing services a week to just two, citing the time and labor it required.

The center also lied to patients, using claims about a change in the law to make those under its care pay for nutritional supplements at about 50,000 yen a month for around two years.

Following his experiences and news reports of high-profile discrimination cases, Funago resolved to spark a revolution in the care and nursing sector, which he felt looked down on patients.

He first received contact from Reiwa Shinsengumi's leader and upper house member Taro Yamamoto, 44, in mid-June through an acquaintance. On June 24, Yamamoto visited Funago at his home in Matsudo, and asked him to consider competing for office.

Yasuhiko Funago is seen communicating through a letter board in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, on July 12, 2019. (Mainichi/Takashi Yamashita)

He agreed to become a candidate after finding common cause with Yamamoto, who told Funago he believed productivity is no way to measure people's value, and that it is the role of politics to create a society in which existing is enough to have worth.

At the time of his ALS diagnosis in May 2000, Funago worked at a business selling jewelry and luxury-brand watches. When his doctor told him the disease has no effective treatment and that without respiratory support a patient would die within three to four years on average, he lost hope and wanted to die. At one point, he refused life-extending treatment because he didn't want to be a burden on his family.

But he changed his mind after reflection at the time: "I thought, have I loved my family to the fullest? Have I got joy and happiness through love?

"If I had, then there's no way I can cry with regret through the night, thinking that were it not for this diagnosis I could have attended my daughter's wedding, and shared that happiness with my wife.

Yasuhiko Funaga's electric guitar, along with pictures of him in his high school days, is seen adorning a wall at his home in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, on July 12, 2019. In his youth it was his dream to become a pro guitarist. (Mainichi/Takashi Yamashita)

"Until I achieve what I want to achieve in life, I don't want to die from this disease."

Around the same time, he was asked by a doctor in charge of his care if he would consider advising others who had recently been diagnosed with ALS. Seeing the soothing effect his words had on the plight of others, he found renewed purpose through activism, and accepted treatment to extend his life. From 2002, he began using an assisted breathing apparatus.

In 2011 he returned to living at home, and began life there under 24-hour care. It was then he met Misako Sazuka through a care visit. She told him she wanted him to make his voice heard as a person who needs care facilities, and he joined her company Earth's management.

In 2014 he became its vice chair. The same year, his daughter got married. At the ceremony, his wife pushed him in a wheelchair as they accompanied the bride down the aisle together. At their home, photos of their two grandchildren can be seen adorning one of the walls.

"ALS gave me one piece of bad fortune, but in exchange for that, it gave me innumerable good fortune, too," he says.

Following his assured election, it now remains to be seen how the man Yamamoto describes as "the front-runner for bedridden citizens" can help change the worlds of healthcare and even politics.

(Japanese original by Takashi Yamashita, Integrated Digital News Center)

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