Japan's Emperor Naruhito reads a statement to open formally an extraordinary session at the upper house of parliament in Tokyo Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. Naruhito delivered his first opening speech since ascending to the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

New emperor opens Japan's Diet, now wheelchair accessible

August 01, 2019 - 3:17 am

TOKYO (AP) — Emperor Naruhito delivered his first opening speech to Japan's Diet on Thursday after recent elections and a renovation at the upper house to improve its accessibility for two new lawmakers who use wheelchairs.

Naruhito rose from a chair decorated with gold and a chrysanthemum emblem and declared to lawmakers from both houses gathered at the upper house assembly hall: "I earnestly hope that the Diet, as it handles various domestic and overseas issues, will sufficiently carry out its responsibility as the highest institution of sovereignty and respond to the people's trust."

The 59-year-old Naruhito ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1 after his father retired.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling bloc secured a majority in the July 21 elections but fell short of the two-thirds threshold in the house needed to reach his long-cherished goal of amending the constitution. The parliamentary session ends next week before a fuller session reopens in the autumn.

Two lawmakers in the upper house use wheelchairs, Yasuhiko Funago, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and Eiko Kimura, who has cerebral palsy. They represent an opposition group led by actor-turned-politician Taro Yamamoto.

Ahead of Thursday's session, dubbed "barrier-free Diet," the government installed a slope and created enough space to accommodate the two lawmakers whose conditions require larger wheelchairs and caregivers.

Their presence is a sign of a change in the country where disabled people are encouraged to stay home or at special facilities removed from ordinary workplaces, education or communities, and also a test if Japan's conservative world of politics is ready to promote a more inclusive society for everyone ahead of Tokyo's hosting of 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

"I'm thankful to the upper house for their effort to remove physical obstacles, but there are many other things that have been left undone," Kimura said as she arrived at the upper house entrance, where she was welcomed by dozens of her cheering supporters. "We will tackle those issues at the parliament."

Funago, through an aide who translated his words by tracking his eye movement as they scanned a character matrix on a transparent sheet, said he wants to "live up to expectations of everyone."

Kimura and Funago said they would seek reforms in education and caregiving for the disabled to promote a more inclusive society.


Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

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