While recent years have seen an explosion of studies related to age, race, class, and gender in Japan, the topic of disability remains relatively unexamined. To date, only a handful of studies have been published about disability in Japan in English, most of which focus on the circumstances of individuals with specific disabilities (i.e. blindness, deafness, and schizophrenia) or offer general overviews of disability-related laws and policies. My research expands upon this body of literature by offering the first English language history of accessibility in Japan. Its value cannot be overstated for scholars seeking to understand Japan’s social hierarchies, economic entanglements, and modes of cultural production.
In his authoritative historiography, “Research Trends on Disability Studies and Disability Movements in Japan” (2014), Katsunori Watanabe suggests that existing research on disability in Japan can be divided into eight general categories: 1) research about the social model of disability, 2) research about disability and applied social sciences (i.e. law and policy), 3) research about disability and social welfare, 4) research about the history of specific disabilities, 5) research about the history of disability movements, 6) research about social workers and caregivers, 7) research about disability in specific locations, and 8) research that reconsiders the objectives of disability studies from the perspective of disability movements.
My research engages each of these bodies of literature while addressing at least two additional areas of inquiry: 1) the relationship between disability and media production in Japan, and 2) the relationship between disability and assistive technology in Japan. By investigating the relationship between disability and media production in Japan, I demonstrate how local ideas about disability reciprocally shape and are shaped by global flows of information. And by interrogating the relationship between disability and assistive technology in Japan, I reveal how assistive technologies designed to help persons with disabilities may also harm them in many cases. Both of these insights have broader significance for the field of Disability Studies as a whole, which could significantly benefit from the comparative perspective offered by my research.
Over the past few decades, media specialists like Azuma Hiroki, Ōtsuka Eiji, Ian Condry, Deborah Shamoon, Saitō Tamaki, and Mark McLelland have interrogated the contexts and motivations behind the production and consumption of anime, manga, and related goods in Japan. Their analyses have largely focused on the activities of a few key players, including but not limited to the otaku consumer, the animation studio, and the production company, who are often held responsible for the circulation of ideas about class, gender, and sexuality. While a nascent body of literature linking the actions of these players to media (re)presentations of disability exists, many questions remain to be asked (and answered). For example:
1. How do persons with disabilities produce and consume media?
2. Do their modes of production and consumption differ from those of their abled and debilitated counterparts?
3. What coalitions are facilitated and foreclosed by their actions?
By addressing these sorts of questions, my research illustrates how constructions of disability and barrier-removal projects in Japan have influenced the production and consumption of various kinds of media on the global stage at different points in time.
Perhaps even greater than the academic contributions of my research are its practical applications. By establishing a theoretical framework for thinking through the relationship between disability, barrier-removal, media production, and coalition formation that may be exported to other cultural and temporal contexts, my research allows policymakers and public intellectuals to make informed decisions about how to build ‘truly’ accessible societies characterized by inclusion, diversity, and respect. It furnishes its readers with the tools necessary to reimagine global standards of accessibility and participate in ongoing conversations about the ways in which accommodation is (re)defined.
Such conversations are of critical importance to Japan, as the nation’s rapidly aging population will undoubtedly present challenges to its physical, cultural, educational, and bureaucratic infrastructures in the future that we cannot imagine in the present. But they are equally important to countries like Italy, Greece, and Germany, which also boast greying populations. By theorizing the (un)intended consequences of access-making projects and exploring how we might grapple with them in my dissertation, I aim to assist such countries in creating communities where no-one is excluded.
Another significant contribution of my research is its capacity to unite activists, scholars, and policymakers operating in otherwise disparate fields for productive conversations about social change. My investigation of barrier-removal projects and processes of debilitation in Japan demonstrates that we cannot truly understand the history and politics of disability without examining institutional frameworks, aggregate practices, public perceptions, and individual experiences. It suggests that no single approach – be it that of a legal historian, a gender theorist, a media specialist, or a politician – can adequately identify and resolve the hardships that persons with disabilities face each day. Rather, the only viable solution appears to involve cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary collaborations that transcend the confines of the academy. By pursuing such collaborations, we might draw one step closer to the creation of an accessible society characterized by diversity, equity, and inclusion.