Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the ethical problems surrounding the relatively risk-free prenatal blood test that the Japan Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has just approved for expanded use. Though the ethical considerations are mainly concerned with the high abortion rate for positive genetic abnormality results, the basic meaning of the column is whether Japanese society has yet to be fully accepting of people with disabilities, be they physical, mental, or intellectual. The column mentions the documentary Michikusa, which is about mentally disabled people leading relatively solitary lives, a situation that is not only very rare in Japan, but very rare in other countries. The main reason for the success of the program explored in the film is that the subjects of the program are not expected to be “useful” or “productive,” terms that seem simple enough but which are really loaded with added values. Because the disabled are considered “unproductive,” they are also considered burdens on society, and thus may attract resentment from so-called abled persons. This is certainly true of the sentiment behind the Eugenics Law outlined in the beginning of the column, as well as many of the comments received by Dr. Tadashi Matsunaga when he was writing a column about pediatric medicine for the Yomiuri Shimbun.
During an interview with the Asahi Shimbun in April, the director of the film, Masahiro Shishido, described the inspiration for the documentary and the theory behind the title, which translates directly as “path grass.” The mentally disabled persons in the film walk around, sometimes by themselves, sometimes with helpers, for no particular reason, he says. This, in fact, is often the nature of walking, a time when the individual is only asked to contemplate their surroundings. There is no need to do anything useful. Humans, he says, tend to be obsessed with “the purpose of life,” and fail to appreciate life as it is. The mentally disabled are no different in this regard: They can walk and think their own thoughts, whatever they may be. If people were aware of this facet of existence, they wouldn’t be so concerned with disabled persons’ value to society, because they should only have value to themselves. This is the “hurdle of independence” that many disabled people face. Those who are physically disabled, or have mild intellectual disabilities can actually function more or less the same as so-called abled people. It’s just that society still doesn’t see their inherent value as human beiings. “Everyone should have the option to live outside [of facilities],” Shishido says of disabled persons, “where life is unpredictable.” There is no reason to be surprised or dismayed when you see a disabled person living on their own.