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ALS patient represents party in Diet session with text-to-speech reader in Japan 1st

Yasuhiko Funago of the Reiwa Shinsengumi party asks questions at a plenary session of the House of Councillors at the Diet on Jan. 27, 2023. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- A lawmaker at the House of Councillors who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) responded to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's policy speech in the Diet by using a computer system that read aloud his questions -- the first such case during a plenary session.

    Yasuhiko Funago, a member of the minor opposition party Reiwa Shinsengumi, was elected to the upper house for the first time in July 2019. During a Jan. 27 Diet session, he became the first member of the party to ask the prime minister representative questions since its establishment in 2019, touching on budget spending and other issues. According to the secretariats of the House of Representatives and House of Councillors, it is the first time that questions took place in such a form.

    As a general rule, factions with five or more members are granted permission to ask questions in an ordinary session of the House of Councillors. As Reiwa Shinsengumi gained three seats in the 2022 upper house election, it now has a total of five members and became eligible for representative questions.

    In committee and other meetings to date, Funago has made comments using a device that converts text entered in a computer into speech, while also having his secretary read questions on his behalf. On Jan. 27, he took the podium with assistance from others, and had an automated computer program read aloud comments he had prepared in advance.

    To open his remarks, he stated, "It is the first time in Japan's constitutional history that representative questions have taken place in such a form. This will open the way to make it commonplace for others using ventilators and those with speech impairments to ask questions at plenary sessions." This invited applause from other lawmakers of both ruling and opposition parties. Addressing Kishida, Funago also said, "The government should decrease the defense budget and divert funds into budgets that are directly linked with the enhancement of people's lives."

    A senior official of Reiwa Shinsengumi commented, "Funago is a symbolic figure of the party's formation. I hope that when people see someone with a severe disability, who had few chances to attend Diet sessions, on the podium, they will feel the conviction to push for a diverse society."

    (Japanese original by Shihoko Abe, Political News Department)

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