Taro (not his real name) shrieks with laughter, awkwardly clapping his hands and honking as I flip a variety of faces down. We are playing “Guess Who?”, the classic American board game. It’s a game that has great ESL value as it teaches students about facial features, how to ask questions, and improves listening comprehension. It’s Taro’s favorite game, and he always runs over to grab it whenever prompted about playing a language game. Little kids love this game. Only Taro isn’t a kid. He’s a university student, about to turn 21, and on track to graduate next year.
Taro is not alone at my school. There are at least 20 students with varying levels of mental handicaps, from autism spectrum disorders to genetically inherited mental retardation. Some students are high functioning and are able to act in a facsimile of “normal;” others (like Taro) are here in theory for integration into normal society but are in actuality here to give them something to do. The university gets the parent’s money, and the parents get a babysitting service that has the added benefit of proving to their friends that their child is normal. Taro is an Economics major that can’t tell you in Japanese what Economics is, which is fine by him. He will graduate anyway.
Physical and mental handicaps have long been a taboo subject in Japan, where the ideal of normalcy is stubbornly clung to regardless of circumstances. Osamu Takahashi, a physically disabled man who runs a center helping those with similar disabilities, recounted his rosy childhood in a New York Times article :
When my brothers and sisters had friends visiting our home, they would tell me to get lost. Their friends never even knew I existed.
Takahashi never went to school, rarely was allowed to leave the house, and was banished from the family dinner table. While times are in theory different now, Japanese with physical disabilities are still openly gawked at on the train. Takahashi describes how his wheelchair had to be carried (with him in it!) up any stairs at train stations because they don’t have handicap access. While the article what written in 1996, I can tell you that 18 years later this is still widely the case. And at my job, while I can name many students with mental handicaps, I’ve never seen a single student or faculty member with a physical disability.
Mental handicaps are even more taboo than physical disabilities because they can be hidden. Somebody without the use of their legs cannot hide this fact, but parents can easily deny that there is a problem with their child if the problem isn’t visible, like schizophrenia. Kazuhiro Soda investigated this taboo in his documentary “Mental.” Soda was inspired to film the therapists and the patients at a mental health facility after he himself once sought treatment.  Soda wondered why people with mental health issues or disabilities needed to suffer in silence, and wanted to draw back the curtain society had imposed on mental health issues, exposing it to the public in the hope of greater understanding and acceptance.
Mental retardation was once treated as an inconvenient truth. Children with physical or mental handicaps were placed in special schools (if they were put in schools at all), never to interact with normal children. Upon graduation, their choices were limited; work for government run programs that paid as little as 30,000 yen a month (around $300 USD), or stay at home. [3, 4] Neither were very good options, so Japan began implementing a series of programs and laws meant to benefit handicapped individuals. This includes the integration of disabled persons into the public school system.
While it is clear that for the most part the programs have had little or no effect (there is a noticeable absence of disabled people in jobs such as banking, real estate, public transport, ect.) and for the most part the future of disabled people remains uncertain, one area where there has been change is with the youth of Japan. By exposing “normal” students with students with disabilities, it changes their perceptions on what mental and physically disabled students can accomplish. By integrating disabled students, Japanese kids today aren’t growing up with the stereotypes that their parents did, such as intellectually disabled students are disruptive, or that by including them their own education will suffer.
A study funded jointly by the American CDC and the Special Olympics called “The Japan Youth Attitude Summary” sought to qualify the changes in attitude. During the study, one middle school student remarked “It is no problem that a student with intellectual disabilities studies with regular students. I’m aware that he/she needs special assistance, but I don’t think it will lead to disturbance of the whole class. Rather, boys in my class are much noisier and are causing much more disturbance.”  Japanese students also felt that special needs students should learn in a normal classroom (55%) instead of a special classroom (28%) or a special school (17%). Compare that with Japanese adults, who for the most part believe that such students belong in a special school (66%). While the present is pretty dismal for adults with disabilities, the next generation seems set in place to help change Japan.
That same study, however, showed that while the youth were willing to accept the intellectually disabled, they weren’t will do to more than say hello to them outside of school. When compared to U.S. Youth, the Japanese students were rather stingy with their social interactions.
“What I would do in school”; Japan Youth vs U.S. Youth
- Greet the student: Japan 69% USA 81%
- Share a textbook with the student: Japan 56% USA 91%
- Talk with the student at lunch: Japan 40% USA 61%
- Choose a student with intellectual disabilities: Japan 36% USA 55%
- What I would do out of school: Japan Youth vs. U.S. Youth
- Spend time with the student out of school: Japan 17% USA 43%
- Talk about personal things with the student: Japan 20% USA 29%
- Invite the student out with friends: Japan 22% USA 38%
So what does this mean for students like Taro? It’s a mixed group. At my University, one or two of them have “normal” friends, about half of them are friends with each other, and the rest have no social interaction at all. For the most part, the mentally disabled students who are more in control of their actions fair better, with the majority of the students saying that they are “cute” or “kind.”
Hiro is one of these students; he is very outgoing, very happy, and very kind, so for the most part other students enjoy his company (but fall short of including him in activities). He recently announced that he wanted to be a television celebrity, and the other students encouraged him to try it. Hiro always has something nice to say; he complements the ladies on something they’re wearing, and does it with such a genuine heart that the girls aren’t put off or scared of his praise. While his social life outside of campus is questionable, everybody (faculty included) greet him with a hearty hello.
Hiro is, unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule. One student I call “Daruma” (because of the way he stares without blinking) manages put off very nearly everybody. While he is every bit as perky as Hiro, he also likes to try to touch girls and tell them they’re beautiful. I’ve tried without success to teach him to respect social boundaries, but he just doesn’t understand. Boys openly jeer at him, and girls flee if he’s around. When his class had a field trip to see how 5 star hotels are run, Daruma was told by his professor to study in the library and they left without him. I feel a little sorry for him, since he doesn’t seem to understand why he doesn’t have any friends. But then he’ll try to grab my arm and start petting me and suddenly any sympathy vanishes. His major is Business Administration, and luckily for me he’s also set to graduate on time this year. I tell you, it’s really hard to respect University degrees in this country with students like the ones I see every day.
Taro has only one speed, and that’s “full blast.” He runs everywhere he goes, always in straight lines, and always in complete disregard for any person or object that might be in his way. He often is screaming nonsense words on various corners of campus, and lacks anything that passes for manners. I often wonder what his home life is like; Japanese apartments are way too small for the way he flings his body around.
While Taro got to grow up in a system that allowed him to be out in Japanese society, because he is not high functioning he will never truly be a part of it. It is likely that after he graduates, Taro will live at home and passed off as the “shy” son. Now that I’ve seen the intellectually disabled students at my university (and what a mixed bag of functionality they have), I wonder now at how many make up the NEETs of Japan (adults who are Not in Education, Employed, or in Training). Taro will certainly be one of them. Does he benefit from the education he’s receiving? Not really. But he seems to be having a lot of fun anyway.