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Editorial: 5 yrs after care home massacre, Japan failing to grapple with discrimination

July 26 marks the fifth anniversary of the murder of 19 people and the wounding of 26 more at the Tsukui Yamayuri En care home for people with disabilities in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture.

    Satoshi Uematsu, the former Yamayuri En worker convicted of committing the massacre, withdrew an appeal against the verdict filed by his lawyer in March last year, and the death sentence handed down in his first trial has been confirmed. In that trial, he repeatedly made discriminatory pronouncements against those with severe disabilities, including, "People who can't communicate are a burden to society."

    There were many people with disabilities and their families seized with fear, as though the mass killing had happened to them. The reason: they all know what it is like to be on the receiving end of discriminatory looks from the people around them.

    Most of the victims of the 2016 Yamayuri En massacre were kept anonymous during Uematsu's trial. Only seven of the 19 dead have their names inscribed on the memorial at the facility. All the victims were innocent of any crime, and yet their families still felt they could not reveal their names. This is a stark expression of how deeply rooted discrimination is in this country.

    And the way society looks at the disabled has not changed. There are numerous cases of plans to build care facilities for people with disabilities being altered or even canceled outright due to local opposition. In fiscal 2019, there were 2,202 documented cases of abuse against disabled people across Japan.

    The horror that unfolded at the Yamayuri En facility five years ago has sparked a reexamination of the lives and lifestyles of people with disabilities.

    The judgment at Uematsu's trial stated that his time working at Yamayuri En became the "foundation" of his motives for the massacre. After the killings, a Kanagawa Prefecture investigation found that some of the facility's residents were locked in their rooms for long periods, and sometimes inappropriately restrained.

    Many large care homes like Yamayuri En have been built in Japan's suburbs and mountainous regions since the 1960s. However, it has been pointed out in recent years that having people with disabilities live together in distant places could create both health complications for the residents and invite abuse by staff.

    There is a growing international trend to take the ideas of the disabled people themselves into account when deciding what kind of environment would be best for them. Increasing numbers of people in need of care are moving to regional group homes, and there are also home visit nursing services.

    Kazuya Ono, who was seriously injured in the 2016 massacre, began living in his own apartment last August, with a home care nurse visiting regularly. His father Takashi Ono says that Kazuya's face has become much more expressive compared to his days living at Yamayuri En.

    However, many people with severe disabilities must depend on large care facilities, because living support in regional Japan is insufficient. Both the national and local governments must expand measures in this area.

    We must move toward a society where anyone can live next to anyone else. That is connected to ridding Japan of discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities.

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