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Is Japan's upper house ready for new lawmaker with ALS?

Taro Yamamoto, leader of the political group Reiwa Shinsengumi, right, bows to Yasuhiko Funago after reports that the latter had secured a seat in the House of Councillors, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on the night of July 21, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

TOKYO -- On the morning of July 22, hours after Yasuhiko Funago, vice chairman of a nursing and care service provider and an ALS patient himself, learned that he would be serving in the House of Councillors as a member of the Reiwa Shinsengumi political group, he said, "It's starting to hit me that that I'm going to be a legislator."

Just hours prior, when it became certain that the 61-year-old man was headed to the Diet, a comment that he had prepared was read out to the crowd that had gathered at a hotel in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. "I don't want fellow people with disabilities to go through the same pain I did," the statement said. "I want to create a system in which people will rethink what people with disabilities truly need." The crowd cheered. Funago's caretaker gently wiped a tear that had rolled down his cheek.

Now that Funago is prepared for the Diet, the Diet must prepare itself for him. According to the secretariats of the House of Councillors and the House of Representatives, there have been no precedents of Diet members with severe disabilities which prevented them from hardly moving their bodies, and who use a ventilator to breathe. The National Diet building will be forced to adopt universal design for Funago and his colleague, Eiko Kimura, who also has a severe disability and is headed to the Diet from the same political group, Reiwa Shinsengumi.

There has been an instance in the past in which the Diet responded flexibly to a Diet member who became paralyzed from the waist down due to an accident prior to becoming a politician. Eita Yashiro, 82, served for approximately 28 years starting in 1977 as a House of Councillors lawmaker and then a House of Representatives lawmaker, and was at one point appointed to the minister of posts and telecommunications. Based on decisions handed down by the rules and administration committees of both chambers, the upper and lower houses made it possible for Yashiro to sit at his assigned seat in the plenary sessions in his wheelchair, and installed ramps and other assistive equipment to allow Yashiro to take the stage when it was his turn to ask questions. When others were required to stand or remain sitting as a way of voting, Yashiro was permitted to raise -- or not raise -- his hand.

Accompaniment by a caregiver is allowed if the rules and administration committee of the relevant chamber agrees to it. In 1955, then Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama was accompanied to the Diet by a secretary citing temporary trouble with walking.

The difference between the previous cases and Funago is that the latter does not only have issues with mobility, but does so with speaking as well. Rules at committee meetings dictate that members of each parliamentary faction must speak within a certain amount of time. But Funago, who uses a special apparatus to communicate, would likely need more time than others, or have others read his remarks for him. He is likely incapable of voting by pressing a button, so something must be done to provide him with another option.

Furthermore, Funago's wheelchair is larger than the standard, and tests may become necessary to ensure that a slope will allow Funago to reach the podium when he is required to do so.

"We will give the utmost attention to (Funago's) requests, based on what the rules and administration committee decides," the House of Councillors secretariat said.

(Japanese original by Kenta Miyahara, Political News Department; and Takashi Yamashita and Aya Shiota, Integrated Digital News Center)

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