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Disability and Welfare as Personal Experiences

I’m exploring LET’S again for the first time in a while, continuing the “Bring Along a Visitor” series that began in my previous article.

Last time I brought along editor Yuki Kageyama-san. This time my guest is Shota Seshimo-san, a talented young writer and editor who specializes in criticism and design. He also runs the NPO “Bootpia” which operates a dorm for high school students in Tsuwano Town, Shimane Prefecture. The team behind the critique magazine “Rhetorica” that Seshimo-san works with actually helped design the website that hosts this Hyōgen Miman Web Magazine. Seeing as how his work is connected to LET’S, I decided to invite him to come visit at least once to have a look around.

We’ll be seeing an essay from Seshimo-san any day now.

On the first day of this visit I took a fifteen minute or so taxi ride from the Hamamatsu Station by the Takeshi Cultural Center in Renjaku-cho to Sanarudai Elementary School. I’d heard that LET’S clients and staff members were going to borrow a classroom at the elementary school during the noon recess and turn it into a “Visiting Classroom” (demae kyōshitsu) as part of a hyōgen miman project. Now this I had to see.

Just as I expected, when I arrived I found the room was filled with a cheerful atmosphere. The LET’S All Stars gathered together for this event. When I visited the facility before, the only time I’d ever seen everyone all gathered together like that was for the “It is delicious twice at once” (Ichido de nido oishii) event.

Kawa-chan stood at the entrance to the classroom and Hirako-kun and Tsuchiya-kun were inside. Both Take-chan and Ryoga-kun were in exceptionally good moods and even Ko-chan was grinning. Kengo-kun shouted “Hey!” even louder than usual and, before I knew it, I was getting extra excited about this event, too.

The sign reads, “Let’s Imitate”!

Just around afternoon recess, staff member Mizukoshi-san played a musical instrument and shouted “It’s Ars Nova time!”, inviting the elementary school children to come to the classroom. They came from every direction. Some of them came into the room, while others just looked in from the outside. Some children drew together, while others created something in silence. It was a total mess.

The staff let the children do what they wanted to without intervening. They invited the children to come to the classroom, but they did not tell them what to do or urge them to try certain activities. They left it up to the children to decide what they wanted to do.

In no less than five minutes, the children who had been standing still, wondering what to do, began finding their own place in the classroom to do whatever they wanted to do. And by this, I don’t necessarily mean that they interacted with LET’S clients. Some children just hung out in the classroom, watching the others or daydreaming, and that was totally okay.

Take-chan walks around while Hirako-kun sits in a chair.

The chaos and mess only increased when a crowd of children burst into the room. Outside, Kawa-chan was so overwhelmed by the crowd that he couldn’t come in. Inside, Hirako-kun couldn’t find a comfortable space and sat facing the wall. Ryoga-kun got so excited that he began jumping higher than usual. Tamura-kun drew pictures on the blackboard, delighting the crowd of children.

It was complete anarchy. I was strangely inspired by each disparate movement. It made me realize that it’s possible to create uncontrolled spaces like this even in schools, which are usually so tightly controlled.

The Power of Accepting and Appreciating Differences

I was impressed when the principle came to visit and remarked, “this classroom is great just the way it is, too”. She never once said the sort of thing you would expect to hear a principal say, like “We should have a diverse variety of spaces in schools”, or “We should take this opportunity to learn something”. Of course, the principal may not have been so receptive if she hadn’t thought this event was necessary in the first place. Nonetheless, I really appreciated that she emphasized how important it is to be able to accept and appreciate different spaces and people.

I think this is important because when you acknowledge the existence of something and say it’s also a good thing, it basically affirms the idea that different people and ways of living exist and that each is valuable. If you were to emphasize instead that only one way of being is good or acceptable, you are thereby excluding other ways of existing in this world. So when the principal positively acknowledged the space created by LET’S as also being good, she summarily expressed the guiding principles of her school, and I feel that those principles may be similar to what LET’S is trying to do. I was really heartened by this thought.

The principal talks with Take-chan.

Hamamatsu has a diverse, international population and this is reflected in the children who attend the schools in this area. While walking the hallways of the elementary school, I noticed any number of children who seem to be of diverse ethnicities. Perhaps this diverse student body especially calls for diversity education and it may help create an environment where such education is easier to establish.

Of course, all schools should ideally contain a variety of spaces for a variety of people. However, in reality, the children in elementary who excel in athletics as well as academics are basically invincible and there are not as many spaces for other types of people as there should be. For example, there may be students who excel in a single subject such as art or science, or there may be Japanese children who find they prefer to be friends with children from other parts of the world. There may be some students who are especially good at taking care of the kindergarteners, or children who shone with delight when they got to spend time with the people from LET’S. But the reality is that society does not create spaces for these types of people to excel in school environments. 

On the other hand, we have the space created by LET’S’ classroom visit where a bunch of grown adults are doing whatever they want. Society says that adults ought to contribute to society by working and earning money, but these adults are lying down on the floor, single-mindedly jumping around, looking depressed and tearing up paper, and so on. They provide an example of “freedom” to model.

If you suddenly stuck a bunch of kids in an empty classroom and told them that they were free to do whatever they wanted to, they might not know what to do. But because the adults in the room were doing whatever they want, the children saw them as role models. They might think acting that way is okay because the adults in the room are doing it, or they might see what the adults are doing and realize that they wanted to do the same thing. Whether or not they could put it into words, this experience is valuable to some children. Of course, it’s fine if the children don’t get anything out of it, either, but all the same I think there are abundant opportunities to create these spaces in schools.

This event made me feel a great sense of security. Maybe it’s because I saw something of myself in the adults from LET’S. Like Ryoga-kun, I felt happy listening to the cheerful chatter of the children. Sometimes when I’m meeting with a group of strangers, I also end up sitting in the corner like Hirako-kun. I was overcome with emotion. I identified with their feelings, thinking how I’ve often wanted to do the same things they were doing. Because the LET’S adults doing what they wanted was unconditionally accepted, I also felt my own presence was accepted, and I think the children sensed the same thing. 

Another thing about this classroom visit that left a lasting impression on me was the fact that the class didn’t sing songs together or create something together. It didn’t feel like some stereotypical “social event with disabled people” or create a dynamic of “people with disabilities” versus “children who accept disabled people”. It was simply a group of people that happened to be together in the same space. The elementary school students didn’t need to have a welcoming ceremony for the people from LET’S and the LET’S clients were under no obligation to show off or prove anything. All they did was exist together in the same place.

The goal here wasn’t to speak on behalf of those who are socially vulnerable nor to “defend” people who are seen as socially vulnerable. Perhaps because it was a space that existed outside of these sorts of goals and intentions, it provided an opportunity to get closer to the hyōgen miman and heart inside each participant.

But not everything in this space was experienced as positive or comfortable. Especially since it was a place where people’s personalities are laid bare, “just existing together” isn’t always easy. There must have been children who felt confused, dubious, or shocked when confronted with the question of what they wanted to do.

Ryoga-kun looking very happy.

Imagine something that feels comfortable but is also difficult. A space that is established but is simultaneously messy and all over the place — chaotic, but not uncomfortable. When you’re told you can do whatever you want, you freeze up and find that you can’t do anything. The freedom of not being controlled brings with it insecurity. 

What I’m trying to say is that the classroom visit is hard to explain because it’s such a mysterious mixture of contradictions. Maybe this inscrutability, epitomized by LET’S, is what draws me to their work.

The “Visiting Classroom” reminded me of an art collective project in Iwaki that I once participated in. That project really dug deep into Iwaki’s culture and history, unapologetically showcasing bold conjecture, wild ideas, and spatial compositions. It gave me quite a shock and honestly completely changed my impression of Iwaki. (I cover this experience in further detail in my 2018 book, Shin fukko ron.)

In showcasing one attractive side of Iwaki, that exhibition showed me I didn’t know a thing about my own city’s culture or about how the citizens of Iwaki had abandoned their own rich culture. The collective scathingly exposed the failure of the government’s restoration efforts after the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Essentially, it sharply criticized society, and LET’S’ “Visiting Classroom” brought that feeling back to me.

By utilizing an elementary school and involving children and people with disabilities, LET’S drew out the potential of the community and created a rich space that both revealed and criticized the current lack of diversity in school education systems and the drawbacks of spaces designed for a single type of user. LET’S’ projects constantly criticize the current state of social welfare.

Furthermore, the people of LET’S (both the staff members and the clients), the elementary school principal, and the children all formed a very artistic sort of “partnership” that I couldn’t have imagined previously. This partnership was not a one-way service from a “giver” to a “receiver”. Just like a work of art that can only be created when both audience and actors participate, everyone there was a “co-conspirator”.

I also appreciate that the LET’S staff members weren’t planning all this with some clear intention in mind. I didn’t feel as if they set out to prove they were undertaking some great effort that should take place in society, or that they claimed to have some grand method or plan. It may be similar to how, in a single sentence, the principal voiced her acceptance of the people and spaces of LET’S.

LET’S doesn’t promote the mindset that we need to do such and such for this and that reason; the staff members always face struggles and doubts over these projects. Because there’s no clean-cut, simple solution like “new and improved diversity education!” for every issue, each project always gives rise to new questions and they have to keep on thinking things over. My experiences at LET’S and all the art projects I’ve been involved in share this factor.

LET’S Projects and Art

On the afternoon of my second day during this sightseeing tour of LET’S we visited another school campus. Miho Nakamura-sensei, associate professor of cultural policy studies at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture (which is a ways away from Renjaku-cho), invited LET’S representative Kubota-san and poet Mura-King to participate in one of her lectures. Mura-King is known as a “romantic fantasy” (renai mōsō 恋愛妄想) poet. The students in Nakamura-sensei’s class attended Mura-King’s poetry workshop and then listened to a lecture by Kubota-san.  

Kawa-chan, Ko-chan, Ken-kun, and Oga-chan also came to the lecture. Since Oga-chan doesn’t do well with crowds, he avoided the classroom and instead walked around the university campus with staff member Takabayashi-san. I thought they must have left, but then Takabayashi-san called me and told me that Oga-chan said he wanted to wait for me so we could all go back to Renjaku-cho together. “Oga-chan sure is a nice guy!”, I thought to myself. So after the class ended, Oga-chan and I decided to take a walk together. But little did I know what I’d signed up for…

We walked all over the campus and climbed up twelve flights of stairs. I was completely worn out. When I’d tell Oga-chan I was tired, he’d just give his fearless grin and run away. He knew I was exhausted and thought it was terribly funny to run off. I’d cry, “Come on, Oga-chan, cut me some slack!” but his grin would just grow even wider and he’d say, “What’s that? This too much for you?” and start off running again. This guy!

We took a photo in front of this sculpture we found on campus.

Maybe Oga-chan was just messing with me. Or maybe teasing me was his way of welcoming me, of showing that we’re friends. Well, I guess it’s not something Oga-chan can easily explain either, so I’m just giving my own interpretation of things. But whatever the case, I felt like his playfulness was a lot closer to two friends hanging out than anything like a “supporter / supported” or “disabled / able-bodied” dynamic. I’ve crossed over the line of “companion” into something else. My role has gone beyond “keeping an eye on Oga-chan to avoid getting into trouble or causing any problems for the university”. I took Oga-chan up on his invitation, going with him wherever he wanted to go, barging into professors’ offices and surprising them. I became an “accomplice”. The memory gives me a pleasant thrill even now, like a fresh breeze whistling its way through my heart and mind.

Translator : Koya sato, Anna schnell

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