Guide dogs in Japan kept out of sight

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The Independent Online
TAKASHI KIKUCHI is a rising viola player in Japan. He is a graduate of the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music. He is currently touring the country, giving charity concerts on behalf of the disabled. Mr Kikuchi also happens to be blind, and when he tried to check into a hotel in Shizuoka, south of Tokyo recently, he was refused - because of his guide dog.

Mr Kikuchi, 23, explained that his guide dog was properly trained, and would not dirty the hotel or annoy other guests. He also told the clerk that he was playing a charity concert in the locality. But the clerk said there was a ban on animals, and would not allow him in. He finally ended up staying with a friend 40 miles away from the concert hall.

Mr Kikuchi's experience is, unfortunately, common in Japan. According to a survey of 44 Tokyo hotels by the Japan Hotel Association, only 26 would allow guide dogs. Seventy-seven per cent of the blind people surveyed by the Kansai Guide Dog Association said they had been rejected at hotels because of their guide dogs. Despite efforts by the Health and Welfare Ministry, blind people with guide dogs are regularly refused entry to hotels, restaurants and even taxis.

The reason usually given is a fear that the dogs are not properly house-trained, or that they might interfere with other guests.

Physical handicaps are a liability throughout Asia, where prejudice and ignorance make most disabled people prisoners in their own homes. Handicapped people are a rare sight in most Asian cities, and there are few public facilities for them.

But in the last decade the Japanese government has gradually tried to improve services for the disabled - particularly the blind.

Special floor strips help blind people around underground stations, many pedestrian crossing lights have beepers, and even banknotes have small indentations by which their denominations can be identified. The government's campaign has yet to spill over into the private sector.

The rehabilitation division of the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare says there is no law against refusing blind people with guide dogs entry into hotels or restaurants, but that they have been giving 'guidance' to such establishments to avoid such discrimination. Many hotels do not want to hear what the government has to say.

Miho Ito, a company employee from Mie prefecture in central Japan is blind and has a guide dog, named Paru (Japanese for 'Pal'). She has been turned back by several hotels and restaurants because of Paru. 'It is not just me - it is embarrassing also for the friends I am with, if everyone has to change their plans.'

Last November, Ms Ito was booked into an inn with hot springs in the mountains along with a group of her colleagues from work. The day before they were due to go, the inn suddenly said she could not bring her guide dog. Despite her pleas, and the intercession of the Kansai Guide Dog Association, the inn would not back down. Finally Ms Ito went without Paru, 'but I missed him - he is my alter ego'.

'These cases are usually caused by ignorance of guide dogs,' said Sadakazu Shimojiyu, head of the Kansai Guide Dog Association. Guide dogs have been only relatively recently introduced into Japan, and there are about 750 in the country. 'Up to now, we have been promoting guide dogs to blind people,' Mr Shimojiyu said. 'From now on, we need to promote understanding of guide dogs among seeing people.'