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Sunday, Feb. 12, 2006

COUNTERPOINT

Building scandals expose society's uncaring foundation


Special to The Japan Times

Japan is in the throes of two scandals that highlight a stunning flaw in the social order. For all its much-trumpeted national cohesion and the lip service paid in Japan to the people's sense of nasake (compassion, sympathy, mercy), these scandals are stark reminders that public welfare and the common good are actually low priorities for Japanese people.

In November last year, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport exposed the Aneha Design Office for concocting false data on the construction of condominiums and a hotel in the Kanto region. In most cases, an earthquake of magnitude 5 on the Japanese scale of 7 would bring down these buildings. In the interests of profit-making, serious corners had been cut in constructing them, and the whole shoddy affair had apparently gone unnoticed by inspectors.

Since the end of last year, news has come out that thousands of buildings in Japan have probably been built to substandard levels, and that many lives lost in the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 might have been saved if proper legal procedures had been followed.

The man behind the flawed design of the buildings in the Kanto region is Hidetsugu Aneha; and his name has come to be mockingly associated with Japanese jerry-building. Oh, this country loves a scapegoat! All of the other people connected with this huge scandal -- a scandal that may affect tens of thousands of lives -- immediately pleaded ignorance. Other designers, architects, construction industry executives and government inspection officers went to great, tongue-sucking lengths to say what amounted to three little words: "I never knew."

I wouldn't be surprised if the entire incident, with its enormous repercussions for all of us, were not dumped onto Mr. Aneha's head. Sweep it under the tatami, call the house clean and let's move on.

Demeanor far from contrite

A second, and similar, scandal broke into the news at the end of January.

It came to light then that a large hotel-chain operator, Toyoko Inn Co., had been engaging in illegal building practices in some of its 122 properties. In one of their Yokohama hotels, they had originally provided special-purpose parking spaces for the disabled; but once the building had passed official inspection, these were removed. A room for visitors with disabilities was converted into a linen closet and an ordinary room.

In a Toyoko Inn in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, raised yellow tiles on the ground alerting the blind to hazards had been removed. Wheelchair access signs had also been taken away in places.

What struck me in January was the attitude of the company's president, Norimasa Nishida. While admitting that these practices were against the law, his demeanor was far from contrite. "Well, it's like driving at 67 or 68 kph in a 60 zone," he said, cavalierly. "I mean, we only get one or two disabled people a year."

The worst thing about these two building scandals is what they tell us about social behavior in this country.

It is often said that the primary barrier to social progress in Japan is erected by politicians and maintained by bureaucrats. According to this analysis, politicians are only interested in and supportive of cynical self-serving and/or crony-friendly policies. As for the bureaucrats, the popular image is of faceless, conscienceless, unreconstructed technocrats whose notion of the public interest was conceived in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and has been set in stone ever since.

The immediate postwar period, with its collapse of the prewar order, offered a chance for Japan to create a different kind of state, one based on fostering public welfare and caring for the disadvantaged. But Japan chose to reinstate its prewar business ethos and model its social system on that of the most powerful nation that conquered it, the United States.

The countries of northern and western Europe emerged from a similarly devastating war to instigate a new idea: that no citizen can be secure unless the welfare of all citizens is looked after. The modern European welfare states were created, among other considerations, to ensure that people with physical and mental disadvantages have total access to the amenities of the community.

Appalling disregard

Back in the mid-1970s, a Japanese writer friend of mine spent some months in Canberra, Australia, with his family. His daughters went to the local primary school. I remember them being shocked that children with disabilities attended the same school. In Japan, such children are commonly separated from "normal" children -- supposedly to give the former special care.

What is at work here, and in the appalling disregard of the Toyoko Inn Co. of the needs of disabled people?

Japanese people, by and large, do not want to be obliged to have dealings with disabled people. They generally shy away from interaction with them. Many simply do not see the logic behind giving people with disabilities "privileged" access. In fact, it is not logic at all. And it is not a privilege either. It is the right of these people to have such access, both by law and according to common human sense. In consequence, people without disabilities also learn that the disabled do not require special treatment -- they only require the same free access as others to all amenities and facilities, public and private.

Some people have said, over the years, that traditional Japanese discrimination against the disabled stems from the Buddhist belief in karma: that disabled people somehow are to blame, by virtue of the sins of their ancestors, for their state. I tend to believe that this is no longer the case, and that the absence of a practical sense of the public good is to blame. Japanese people tend to draw their circle of concern very small. They can be wonderful to those whom they know and feel close to, and aloof to those "on the outside."

Aneha the Designer and Nishida the Remover are not to blame for Japan's disregard of ordinary people, be they non-disabled condominium- dwellers or disabled hotel visitors. They are only the witless vehicles for this disregard.

The fault lies with the nation that sadly knows how to react to the disadvantaged with little more than disdain and feigned compassion.



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