Every year for the last three years, Shunji Kadota has taken a trip that is an everyday affair for most Japanese. But he makes the 372-mile journey from Osaka to Tokyo in a wheelchair. The annual tour is Mr. Kadota's way of drawing attention to what he feels are grossly inadequate transportation facilities for Japan's disabled population. Kadota wheeled along the road for 40 days, stopping at train stations to point out the difficulty in simply boarding a train.
Historically the Japanese attitude toward disabled people has been that they should be taken care of out of sight, away from the rest of the population. Now Kadota and other disabled activists are challenging that attitude and the inadequate facilities that they feel discourage their full participation in Japanese life.
``[Japanese authorities] understand the disabled also want to travel, but they seem to have no idea that we also have to commute or go to school,'' Kadota argues. ``Some even wonder whether it is okay for a disabled person to go out alone.''
Kadota says he did not realize how far behind Japan was in its treatment of disabled persons until he traveled to Europe and the United States a few years ago. ``I was so shocked when I found that it was easier to live in Europe for two months, even with the language barrier, than to stay in Tokyo for only a week.''
In Europe, people were willing to help him go up and down the stairs. But, when he visited Tokyo to see a friend, ``I had to avoid rush hours and felt hesitant to ask busy, hurrying people for help.''
And in San Francisco, he learned to enjoy moving around almost entirely by himself. An elevator at every subway station made it easier for wheelchair users to reach the platform and there was no gap between the height of the platform and that of a train door. Such access usually is not available in Japan.
Most Japanese live their daily lives without seeing the disabled. Since the war, the main policy of the Japanese government has been to place such people in special homes where they either live full-time or spend most of the day engaged in therapy, training, and other activities.
Eizaburo Maejima, a member of Japan's parliament, tells a story to illustrate how little Japanese people understand the disabled. One day he deliberately fell out of his wheelchair in the middle of the crowded Ginza shopping area in Tokyo.