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Mutual support website for social minorities in Japan launched by group with same barriers

Nao, center, who has bipolar disorder, and other founders of the web portal "Ikizurasa Japan," are seen in Tokyo, on Sept. 25, 2019. (Mainichi/Aya Shiota)

TOKYO -- A group of people that includes members who find it difficult to fit in with society, or who experience discomfort in life due to issues around mental illness or sexual identity, have launched a web portal for those experiencing similar hurdles to connect.

The website "Ikizurasa Japan" was launched in September by a group of four people: Nao (pseudonym), 43, who lives in Tokyo's Arakawa Ward and has bipolar disorder, Gakincho (pseudonym), 49, a resident of the same ward who is a sexual minority and has a developmental disability, Tatsuki Hirano, 36, of Yokohama, who had secluded himself from society -- known as a "hikikomori" in Japanese -- for more than 10 years in total, and Maruimai (pseudonym), 24, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). "Ikizurasa" literally translates to "finding it hard to live."

Part of the message on the website's front page reads, "The reasons people find it difficult to fit in can be diverse; physical, mental and developmental disabilities, shutting oneself in, chronic absenteeism, sexual identification or orientation, battling cancer or living with a disease that is hard to cure. We don't think of these factors contributing to one's difficulties as divisible single issues."

The web portal's main function is its search engine, where users can look up self-help support groups and events such as mutual aid meetings and lectures for different circumstances.

From disorders such as depression and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), to life issues such as homelessness and shutting oneself in, the website offers 58 different categories for users to look up information relevant to them. The group says they are able to add more if users request it.

Twenty-seven groups and individuals had registered on the portal as of Nov. 6. As part of attempts to have members share their stories and life hacks for living, this month saw the introduction of a thread page, where users can answer questions that are posted.

The group also plans to interview people living in rural areas where mutual aid meetings are not held often, and to support the launch of virtual gatherings using online meeting app Zoom.

Self-help movements for those with mental and developmental diseases are spreading throughout Japan. These are not just organizations linked to clinics, employment support businesses or parents' associations; many of them are operated solely by people with these disabilities.

While managers of these groups can face a heavy burden in paying consideration to relationships among the participants and holding regular meetings, there is high demand for platforms where people can talk proactively about topics such as the characteristics of their conditions and how to interact with others. In the field of developmental diseases, there are programs to train people in the operation of mutual aid groups.

Nao, who proposed the idea of launching the portal, developed depression in 2002 when working as a system engineer at an IT company where overnight work and long overtime was the norm. He left the firm after his diagnosis and stopped seeing his friends so he wouldn't have to talk about his illness. In 2011, Nao went for the first time to a meeting in Tokyo with other people who had depression.

"I had been lonely for a very long time, but (when I went to the meeting) I felt for the first time like I wasn't alone, and it made me feel a little better," Nao recalls.

He managed a mutual aid group for people with depression until last year. There, he found himself becoming positive about himself as he listened to other participants' recovery stories, thinking, "Even if I'm not alright now, I'll recover someday."

He received specific advice on how to regulate his lifestyle, which tended to become choatic due to the symptoms and side effects of his medication. It also made him feel like he was being useful to someone when he gave advice to other participants.

Nao says, "Even if a person is living with a handicap, some of the factors that make life difficult can be eased by meeting with people and getting information. I hope people will come to realize that through this portal."

While mutual aid groups are usually divided by categories, such as type of disability, in reality a great number of people live with multiple diseases and difficulties. When the Mainichi Shimbun carried out a survey in January and February this year aimed at people aged 20 and older with developmental disabilities, 45.5% of the 1,072 respondents said they have been diagnosed with depression.

Moreover, in a study conducted by the association of chiefs of national mental health and welfare centers in 2016, where health centers nationwide were asked about their consultation work with people who secluded themselves from society, 71.7% of the 353 centers that responded said their workers felt that existing developmental disabilities were behind many cases.

Research also shows that women with disabilities are more likely to fall victim to domestic violence or sexual abuse. Under such circumstances, those involved in the field are facing challenges to protect the rights of "double minorities" who have multiple conditions and circumstances that make them socially vulnerable.

Gakincho, one of the founders of the web portal, has ADHD and ASD, and identifies as gender non-binary. They went through a shut-in period before divorcing their husband; in the period leading up to the split, their relationship with him worsened and they were unable to leave their room.

"There are different kinds of difficulties in life that cannot be explained by one type of disorder, but that could be why people can understand each other even if they have different conditions," Gakincho says.

Hirano also was diagnosed with depression. He was attending a college prep high school when one day in his second year he felt nauseous while taking a math test, a subject he was good at. After that, he became unable to get on the train to school and dropped out before graduating. Hirano then became an on and off shut-in for about 10 years.

Because of their own life experiences, the group wrote on its own website that they don't think about their difficulties as isolated, single issues.

On the definition of difficulties living or fitting in, Hirano said, "I believe there is this illusion of a "majority person" in society that is created as a result of combining an average of all the people and majority groups. This person doesn't exist, but everyone tries to be them. The more you are not like them, the more difficult it is for you to live."

He then said that to remove these difficulties, "We need to stop affirming this idea of a majority person. It's important to see individuals as they are, not to worship the majority person."

Gakincho says, "Those who are caught right in the middle of emotional distress can't really see that they are having difficulties. They blame themselves for everything and believe they deserve to suffer. I was the same way.

"But when you have a place where you can vent your suffering, you start seeing why you're hurting so much. If people could open up about their weaknesses, it would help them explain their pain in their own words, and they could empathize with other people."

They added, "In the LGBT community, we call those who are not an LGBT person but who support us an 'ally.' I want the web portal to be a media outlet that is an ally to those who are going through difficulties living."

(Japanese original by Aya Shiota, Integrated Digital News Center)

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