Samurai and contemporary Japanese social perceptions of disability
January 30, 2013 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend: "I'm researching for my current WIP, and I'm stuck. I need to build a comprehensive picture of the social perceptions of disability in Japan, both currently and within Samurai culture. Help, anyone?"
posted by daisyk to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The meme of "blinded samurai often become itinerant masseurs" was an actual thing and not just from Zatoichi
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:11 AM on January 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

It may help if you could clarify which eras you're referring to (the period of samurai dominance runs from the 12th century to the late 19th century), and whether you're just referring to general cultures within those time periods across all social strata, or just within the samurai (the top social stratum).

In terms of perceptions of disability in modern Japan - what kind of disabilities? In my general experience, though, Japanese culture tends to be quite hush-hush about people who differ from the average, and it's not as disability-friendly as other countries I've lived in (in terms of e.g. step-free access).
posted by pikeandshield at 9:26 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Um, ok, I'm the friend daisyk was asking for. I know a little about modern Japan's approach, and you're right, there's a strangely high level of token support, but things aren't talked about at all. I still want to know more.

And I know basically nothing about the historical perceptions. It doesn't *really* matter too much which era, as long as the info I have is correct. I want my Japanese MC (who becomes rapidly ill/ reliant on others) to be able to research it/ start writing a paper, as a way of responding to his situation. Knowing a little about differences across social strata would be useful.

I suspect there was, to some degree, a 'get on with things' attitude, as long as the person was still able to contribute to society/ the family somehow, but maybe there was also some level of guilt/ disgrace placed upon those who couldn't pull their weight, especially amongst those who fought?
posted by SWrites at 9:46 AM on January 30, 2013

My friend has just made a MeFi account and I've asked her to chime in and clarify those details, pikeandshield.

In a similar vein to Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey's answer, I've found some information on the social status of blind people in the Wikipedia page for biwa hōshi, lute priests.

On preview: hello, SWrites!
posted by daisyk at 9:47 AM on January 30, 2013

Just about the only way your friend is going to get any answers is by reading Japanese. A good place to start researching is to check out the citations on all the Japanese-language Wikipedia entries on visual impairment.

Google Scholar may also be worth exploring for English-language entries.

I have a friend (he's from Texas!) who teaches at Tokyo University who specializes in Japanese sign language and is engaged with that community in Japan who may have some insights, if you want to MeMail me.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:48 AM on January 30, 2013

This looks promising: Tateiwa Shinya, Disability Movement / Studies in Japan. I found it through a Google Scholar search as suggested by KokuRyu. I also found Vol 28, No. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly, which has a special feature on disability in Japan and is all free online.
posted by daisyk at 11:05 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you have a nearby university, call or email the reference desk and ask for the subject/reference librarian that specializes in history, Asian studies, and/or disability studies (this would be the social sciences librarian at ours, but may be another title elsewhere). They should be able to point you in the right direction to look for stuff, and if you can get to campus, they'll often have a subsection of journal databases you can access within the building. Or you can get enough information to get your local library to interlibrary loan articles and books for you.

Most university libraries happily serve the public, although they prioritize students, faculty, and staff so you may wait a little longer for a reply to your email or have to come in at a time when it's not busy to be helped in person.

Our university also allows a certain level of Friends of the Library membership to have remote access to a chunk of our databases, which some researchers and writers consider worth it. Your mileage may vary.
posted by telophase at 11:16 AM on January 30, 2013

(Disclaimer: I'm definitely not an expert!)

The two conditions that feature most prominently in Japanese history would be leprosy (think of the sanctuaries in Princess Mononoke perhaps) and blindness. In particular, special guilds and schools were established for blind people from the early samurai period/middle ages (~14th century), allowing them to have a role in society - the most famous examples would be the biwa hoshi and their lute-performances of the Tale of the Heike (every schoolkid in Japan would know about those people). During the Edo period (17-19th century) the hierarchies became more pronounced (into 4 levels), with the top level (Kengyō) getting almost samurai-like treatment. Some kengyos have had successes in things like massage therapy, others in areas like music; lower down the hierarchy many of them were government-approved moneylenders. The guild system was abolished after the Meiji restoration, but its legacy can still be seen in some early 20th century musicians.

Of course, many of these people were the top of the crop - the majority of the disabled probably led lives in the shadows, with some having to join semi-nomadic circus people as performers (kugutsu-shi); in the richer/nobler families 'unwanted children' may just be killed off/abused/locked away. Indeed, during the edo period a fair few of the hinin caste (literally meaning non-people, treated almost like animals and made to do jobs noone else wanted to do) were probably disabled, as they were thought to be 'unclean' by shinto standards (触穢、shokue) - I guess similar to the 'untouchables' kind of idea in Western society.

On the other hand, the disabled do feature in some aspects of Japanese mythology - the firstborn of the Adam and Eve equivalent was said to have physical disability, while physically deformed characters also appear in many legends. Because of this, one could argue that there was at least some form of cultural (if not actual) reverence towards the physically malformed.
posted by pikeandshield at 11:20 AM on January 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oops, forgot the modern bit.

After the war and the huge surge of physically disabled people from injury, there was a greater impetus to provide more structured social welfare for the disabled. A number of laws were passed since; the most prominent is probably the one in 1970, which has since been amended several times to encompass mental and learning disabilities as well, especially things like Asperger's, autism, ADHD etc. There's also welfare benefits and stipulations for employers to provide a certain percentage of their employment to the disabled. Disability has also been a topic of some popular culture as well, such as Hirotada Ototake and his bestselling book, or mangas like Real.

I personally don't think that modern Japan is as tolerant of the disabled as many other countries. The UK, for example, makes a huge point of equality and accountability in ANY process (university admissions, employment, etc). In Japan, I find that such mentalities are far less institutionalised nor culturally ingrained, and one often hears rather flippant remarks that would be considered a little discriminatory if it were in English. (I find that this is also true for things like racism, sexism etc.)
posted by pikeandshield at 11:47 AM on January 30, 2013

Eunjung Kim studies disability issues in South Korea -- which is obviously not Japan, but perhaps she might have some good resources for you.
posted by Madamina at 12:02 PM on January 30, 2013

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