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‘A Banana? At This Time of Night?’: Lessons from Yasuaki Shikano, the physically disabled man who chose freedom

“What do doctors know about life?” he asked.

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A year ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, in July 2019 Japan made a historical leap forward: two wheelchair-bound politicians, Yasuhiko Funago and Eiko Kimura, won the Upper House election, becoming the nation’s first lawmakers with severe physical disabilities. Late in November the year before, a tech research company launched a trial pop-up café in central Tokyo where robots, remotely controlled by disabled people, served coffee and chatted with customers — a groundbreaking endeavor to test how technology can act as a proxy for people with difficulties to leave their homes. In both cases, Japan, a country where an estimated 7.4 percent of the population lives with disabilities, showed a drastic improvement in its efforts to provide social integration, employment opportunities, and more than anything else, a voice for disabled people.

Yet, despite all ongoing efforts, the stigma surrounding the lives of people with disabilities is still a pressing problem in most modern societies, including Japan. Key topics such as employment and infrastructure security, life choices — and the society’s respect for those choices — still remain not thoroughly addressed.

Timely enough, A Banana? At This Time of Night? (Konna yofuke ni banana kayo: Itoshiki Jitsuwa), a movie inspired by the life of Yasuaki Shikano, a bedridden man who helped promote independent living for disabled people in Japan, was released in Japan at the end of 2018. Both a comedy and heartwarming drama, the film, based on a book compiled by Kazufumi Watanabe who spent years interviewing Shikano, questions exactly this stigma about caring for people with disabilities and living as one and offers solutions we can all learn from.

“Inconveniencing” others is part of being alive

“Water!” “Newspaper!” “My back itches! Lower! There!” “Ramen!” The movie opens with a close up on Shikano (Yo Oizumi) and a group of volunteers who patiently hover around him like busy bees as he blinks with yet another request. Shikano is fully paralyzed, with the sole exception of his neck and hands — and a big mouth that knows no quiet. Order after order, complaint after complaint, at a glance Shikano appears to be a ruthless, self-centered man who takes for granted the fact that he relies on the help of volunteers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

“What can I do,” he often says, “I can’t do it myself. I have to ask someone.” It sounds as a used and abused excuse, especially when he requests something obviously ridiculous — like sending a volunteer to buy him a banana at past 2 a.m. or asking another to watch adult movies with him.

As the movie progresses, however, we witness the relationship between Shikano and his volunteers exceed this of caregivers and a care receiver and turning into a bond formed by the mutual wish of wanting to learn from and help each other. Shikano becomes a fatherly-like figure to many young volunteers, most of whom, as we come to learn, have something missing in their lives.

In a country like Japan, where the harmony of the group is often prioritized over individual needs, causing “inconvenience” to others is still considered a social taboo. As a result, however, many choose to live a secluded life in an attempt to hide their vulnerability, leading to nothing but isolation. In contrast, A Banana? At This Time of Night? shows Shikano openly using his vulnerability as a tool to communicate with others.

“We are all equal,” he says.

As we watch, we are reminded that, physically disabled or not, we all rely on others to continue living and there is nothing shameful to ask people for help. In a scene showing a volunteer quoting Shikano speaking at a symposium, he reasons his wish to rely on others (and not being even slightly concerned by it) as follows: “I push people around because I want to show timid young people that asking others for favors is part of being alive.”

Indeed. As Shikano says, “it takes courage to ask other people to help you.” Yet, this is how we all survive and the natural and humorous way Shikano goes around it is only a reminder that life is a give and take and that “inconveniencing” others is nothing but an essential part of our evolution.

“Independent living” is the freedom to choose

Shikano was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at the age of 11, a disease which forced him to spend his childhood at medical facilities away from his family and home. At the age of 23, inspired by U.S.A.’s “independent living” movement to promote equal opportunities, self-determination, and self-respect for disabled people, he bid goodbye to his welfare facility life and moved into in-house care equipped home.

Groundbreaking at the time in Japan, Shikano had to start from scratch, recruiting and training volunteers himself. Despite the major difficulties in building this new life for him, Shikano was determined to create a lifestyle model that calls for freedom to choose one’s lifestyle and respect for disabled people’s decisions.

“What do doctors know about life?” he tells his doctor in the movie after being urged to return to a hospital under intensive medical care. Having spent most of his youth at medical facilities, Shikano fought throughout his adult life to prove that being free to decide how to live his life and being able to return to his community, could benefit him more than hospital care.

Throughout his lifetime, Shikano spent years addressing the benefits of independent living, setting up the grounds for a change in Japan. Four years after his death, as a result of the efforts of physically disabled people, many of whom directly influenced by Shikano, in 2006 Japan enforced the Services and Supports for Persons with Disabilities Act, which required municipalities’ to actively provide benefits and welfare services for people with physical, mental and intellectual disabilities toward achieving independent living in their own communities.

Unlimited possibilities

The greatest message Shikano’s story has, however, is that life can be full of opportunities regardless of what we are deprived of. In the movie we see Shikano talking about his dreams — to pass an English exam, go to the United States, fall in love … We see him enjoying a barbecue, going to karaoke, attending symposiums and private parties. While not all of his dreams were eventually achieved, his constant strife to enjoy life and keep going is one of the greatest reasons why this movie stays with the audience long after its end. Shikano passed away in 2002 at the age of 42, having spent time with some 500 volunteers altogether, leaving a legacy behind that is to date affecting the Japanese society.

Now, a year ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, we see this urge for life, respect for individual choices and strife to make the most of life going stronger perhaps more than ever before. Be it in politics, sports, or technology, A Banana? At This Time of Night? gives us reasons to be assured that there are thousands of Shikanos out there not waiting, but working hard to be heard. And yes, the time to acknowledge these voices has come.

Cast: Yo Oizumi, Mitsuki Takahata, Haruma Miura
Director: Tetsu Maeda

Text by Rose Haneda

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