Disability, Culture, and Development: A Case Study of Japanese Children at School delivers more than a description of special education practices as they emerge in Japan. Instead, authors Misa Kayama and Wendy Haight theorize and present an alternate model of disability, one that defines and integrates a Japanese sociocultural model with the American medical model, while interrogating the policy implications of both. Thus, the text is of value not only to special education teachers and educational policy makers, or to those working within Japanese cultural contexts, but also to theorists or those interested in understanding disability as a social construct.

The study captures a critical moment of cultural transition, using case studies at a model campus as well as historical and contextual documentation. In 2007-2008, Japanese educators were first asked to provide formal, individualized support to students with a broad range of invisible disabilities. Kayama, a Japanese cultural insider who has done graduate study in the US, was able to take on the role of a teaching assistant and volunteer at a Japanese elementary school during 2009-2010. In this role, she was able to closely observe and interview teachers, students, and parents as they were impacted by the school's efforts to implement specialized education. These observations form the heart of the text. Haight, a cultural outsider and American social work researcher, worked with Kayama to disambiguate and clarify Japanese concepts and practices that seem obvious to an insider, but opaque or improbable to Western eyes. Thus, the text also includes a wealth of information to set the context of education in Japan, including a history of the country's disability education, information on current practices, and a glossary of untranslatable terms important to understanding the Japanese educational milieu.

From a disability studies perspective, this book is hampered by the authors' apparent lack of grounding in theories of neurodiversity and the Western social model, which positions disability as the product of interactions between individual conditions and societal structures. Since, according to Kayama and Haight, the Japanese educators "located and responded to children's difficulties within sociocultural contexts focusing on interpersonal interactions," the authors were essentially describing an alternate social model of disability, which further confuses terminology (194). The lack of the neurodiversity paradigm was especially significant as the focus was solely on students with what the Japanese term "developmental disabilities," a legal catch-all for learning differences, processing differences, ADHD, and ASD. Still, the text is of great value to those interested in understanding social constructions of disability.

The authors offer cogent criticisms of the policies which flow both from the Japanese sociocultural and the Western medical models, and offer insight into how each special education system might learn from the other. In fact, the discussion of cultural contexts helps observers see how decisions that are ethically problematic in one culture are protective in another. The Japanese focus on protecting students from stigma and obtaining parental consent, to Western eyes, significantly slows the process of getting students their accommodations or interventions. However, in Japan, any difference may keep a student from being accepted, bias and ableism are not always culturally condemned, and individualized education has never before been offered. Further, learning is understood to happen through social interactions, and student autonomy far exceeds American standards. Thus, what might be unacceptable delays to American eyes can be understood, in Japan, as necessary steps to preserve a student's protective connections with peers and family. The authors rightfully identify ruptures in the fabric of social relationships as deeply damaging sites of disability and as the cause of secondary disabilities. This concern of the Japanese sociocultural model is often missing from the Western medical model, with its focus on prescriptively treating biological deficit, and its indifference to consent. On the other hand, until the Japanese were introduced to the Western medical model, difficulties had been located morally and socially in students who were considered selfish, troublesome, or slow; there was little sense of valid difference.

One of the text's most outstanding features is the work it does to give readers a sense of the Japanese normate—in this case, how the culture conceptualizes key things like learning, school, and classroom. After all, from a social model perspective, until the normate is understood, it's impossible to know what is or isn't disabling, much less how disability is constructed. Thus, an expanded vision of the Japanese norm clarified the Japanese sociocultural model of invisible disabilities. Initially, I was dismayed by the profusion of details, including national curricular summaries, calendars, maps, and daily schedules. However, it is out of these details that I began to see how fundamentally the Japanese approach to education differed from my assumptions, which, in turn, illuminated how certain conditions are differently disabling there. It also pushed me to reconsider my assumptions about education, learning, and disability.

As a case in point, consider the autonomy Japanese educators give to students. From the glossary, I learned the concept of mimamori, which is a practice of "watch[ing] over children with affection and empathy while allowing them autonomy to freely explore activities, interact with others, and learn" (xviii). From the daily school description, I learned that Japanese elementary school students are often relatively unsupervised. For example, after lunch, students break into multi-grade work groups to clean the school, with older students supervising younger ones. There are free periods built into the day, where no individual adult is responsible for knowing the location of a given child. Under mimamori, groups of children are left to solve their problems together as an educational practice. Kayama's case notes detailed an instance where a teacher was only called to a room after an argument led to tears. Further, students who don't want to go to school are allowed to refuse. The case notes give insight into an autistic student's refusal and the adults' gentle attempts to motivate the child. The approach to education is thus non-coercive and student-driven in ways I can't imagine at an American school.

On the one hand, mimamori leaves vulnerable students at the mercy of their most socially adept peers. Teachers are less protective and less sympathetic for children who, until 2007, were simply difficult or troublesome. Social interaction becomes a learning modality that replaces aural or written instruction at times. The implications are troubling for autistic students or those with dysphoric reactions to rejection or social conflict. On the other hand, the emphasis on non-coercive education and the centrality of student consent is a breath of fresh air. The medical model seems, reflexively, to strip agency from the "patient," as American public education does from the student; both tend to model the "recipient of care" as lacking volition, self knowledge, and the capacity for appropriate self-direction. Allowing students and families input and agency into their classification and educational plan seems like a welcome change, even if mimamori is differently disabling. In sum, the text allows one to envision how a single condition might be constructed differently, and thus differently disabling or enabling, depending on the surrounding culture.

The text serves as an excellent corrective to Western-centric, culturally narrow discussion and analysis, theoretical gaps not withstanding. While it is not the only cross-cultural study, the extensive contextualizing of the Japanese norm, along with the formulation of a Japanese model of disability makes it valuable. Since one of the researchers is a cultural insider, it resists the chauvinism and moral judgement that could easily slip into such a study. I hope to see work that builds on this text, especially from DS theorists expanding their conceptual models of culturally-determined disability.

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Copyright (c) 2020 Ellen Birdwell

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