Remembering Sagamihara

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Today is the first anniversary of the Sagamihara massacre. Mostly when I speak about Sagamihara – which I do a lot – people don’t know what I’m talking about. They don’t recognise the name Tsukui Yamayuri En, the residential home where 19 disabled people were murdered while they slept and 26 more were injured, some grievously. They don’t know the name Satoshi Uematsu, the murderer. They certainly don’t know the names of the 19 people murdered, because contrary to Japan’s usual protocols the names were not released, for fear of embarrassing the families who did not want their association with a disabled person to be revealed.

Uematsu worked at Tsukui Yamayuri En before deciding that he could no longer stand the “tired faces of guardians, the dull eyes of caregivers working at the facility”.

He wrote in a letter to a politician some months before the murder about his intentions: “I envision a world where a person with multiple disabilities can be euthanized, with an agreement from the guardians, when it is difficult for the person to carry out household and social activities.”

He was very specific. “The Plot: It will be carried out during the night shift, when staffing is low. The target will be two facilities where many multiply disabled people reside… The act will be carried out speedily, and definitely without harming the staff. After wiping out the 260 people in two facilities, I will turn myself in.” He wanted to be rewarded for his act with 500 million yen and a new identity. He considered the murders to be “for the sake of Japan and the world”, “to revitalize the world economy”.

There is a bill currently being introduced in the Victorian parliament, with MPs to be granted a conscience vote, on what has variously been termed “euthanasia”, “assisted dying”, and “assisted suicide”.

Euthanasia is a word coined by the Nazi Aktion T4 program, meaning “good death”. It referred to the murders of disabled people by the Nazi regime, of “patients who, after a most critical diagnosis, on the basis of human judgment [menschlichem Ermessen], are considered incurable, can be granted mercy death [Gnadentod]”.

70,273 people we know of were murdered, although the actual numbers are likely higher, and 360,000 disabled people were sterilised. The difference between the Aktion T4 program and other Nazi death programs was that the first victim, Gerhard Kretschmar, a four month old child, came to be killed because his parents petitioned Hitler for his death.

The wikipedia page on Aktion T4 calls this “involuntary euthanasia”, to be contrasted with “voluntary euthanasia”.

There is no such thing as voluntary euthanasia. The Victorian bill, regardless of what it is named, is for assisted suicide. It is not for assisted dying – that’s called palliative care, end of life care, and advance care directives. Dying people in unutterable pain are already given options around refusing treatment and quietly ending their lives assisted by morphine. I should know, I’m one of them.

Currently the proposed bill only applies to terminally ill people, such as myself, although it has been criticised for not including chronic illness, degenerative disability, or any kind of permanently disability. If it passes the bill will likely be extended to at least those groups, as has happened elsewhere. In the Netherlands, where euthanasia and assisted suicide have been legal since 2002, it has been applied to children, a trans man who still felt dysphoric after surgery, an elderly woman who felt that she was not beautiful anymore, people experiencing depression and no other disability, and other people experiencing what the Dutch government considers to be “hopeless and unbearable suffering” or who are otherwise “tired of life”. This is not a “slippery slope” argument, it is the logical and planned extension of the law.

The question remains as to whose suffering is considered “hopeless and incurable”. A friend of mine who is a wheelchair user was told in an Australian emergency mental health ward that “of course you want to die, you’re in a wheelchair, we’d understand if you want to go home and do that”.

Supposedly the question is about pain, and yet for some reason the optimal solution to physical pain is not pain medication but death.

And what of the social barriers inhibiting quality of life, such as the lack of decent curb cuts in my area, the lack of accessible transport, the lack of accessible education? Why is my life considered the worst kind of suffering possible, by people who have never lived it?

Or is it just that we are a burden on society? As Uematsu said, after all, “the disabled can only create misery”.

[Image description: a Japanese flag shedding one red tear drop. The universal symbol fir disability is in the middle of the flag. The text reads “Mourning those killed at Tsukui Yamayuri En. End hate against disabled people’. The black triangle logo, an upturned white triangle on a black background, is beside the text.]

Image by Samantha Connor.

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