By Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) - Eiko Kimura, who has cerebral palsy, did not even know how to buy train tickets when she chose to move out of a facility for the disabled and live in a Tokyo suburb at 19. She kept her head down to avoid rude stares from strangers then.
Thirty-five years later, Kimura, now 54, found herself addressing thousands of cheering, boisterous supporters from her wheelchair at a campaign event ahead of Japan's July 21 upper house election.
"I was astonished at my not knowing anything about the outside world. At the same time, I was enraged that no conditions had been put in place for severely disabled people to live in that world," Kimura said.
Kimura is one of two seriously disabled candidates running from a small opposition group. A larger opposition party is backing a hearing-impaired candidate.
The rare candidacies are a highly visible sign of changing attitudes toward disabled people in a country where they have long been encouraged to stay in the shadow.
They are also intended to signal that greater change is needed, even as Japan prepares to host the Paralympic Games next year.
"Japan ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2014. Five years have passed since then, and we are finally starting to see tangible effects," Hosei University professor Satoko Shimbo said.
"To achieve the slogan 'Nothing About Us Without Us' it is best for disabled people themselves to become politicians," Shimbo said, referring to a rallying cry often used by disabled people.
The convention requires ratifying nations to adopt laws banning discrimination on the basis of any form of disability, from blindness to mental illness.
Two years later, Japan implemented a law requiring that "reasonable accommodation" be offered to meet the needs of the disabled.
Seiichiro Shirai of the Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples' International said disabled people had come to realize they can ask for reasonable accommodation in running for public office and working at parliament.
"And parties and parliament have come to realize they need to offer it," Shirai said.
Both Kimura and Yasuhiko Funago, the other disabled candidate from the same political group, the Reiwa Shinsengumi, are wheelchair-bound, and require support from several people just to get on stage for election speeches.
Funago has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) - a progressive neurological disease in which patients gradually lose control of most of their muscles.
Despite improved attitudes and laws, people with disabilities in Japan can still suffer from stigma and shame, another reason supporters see the candidacies as vital.
In a recent speech, Kimura referred to the killing of 19 people by a knife-wielding man at the Tsukui Yamayuri-En facility for mentally and physically disabled in 2016, Japan's worst mass killing in decades.
"To change the situation where a thought can be formed that people with disabilities are not worth living ... it is important to implement inclusive education where people with and without disability can learn together," she said.
Taro Yamamoto, head of the Reiwa Shinsengumi political group, said that sending disabled politicians to parliament itself can be an effective step to advance disability-related policies.
"Whatever takes place at the highest authority of the state will trickle down to other regions. This can be a great trigger for making progress in policy measures for the disabled," Yamamoto said.
"After all, Japan will be hosting the Paralympics."
In another incident that casts doubt over Japan's progress on rights for the disabled, the central government was found last year to have falsely registered 3,700 employees to meet quotas for disabled workers, instead of hiring disabled people.
"They are making various excuses. But this is a spectacular, government-made exclusion of the disabled," said Katsunori Fujii, head of the Japan Council on Disability.
"Society and political parties can be more conducive now to disabled people running for office, but I believe they are running because they just cannot sit and watch what's happening."
Parliamentary officials say there are no wheelchair-bound lawmakers, or politicians who cannot hear, in either the lower or upper chambers of parliament, while disabled people account for 8% of the Japanese population.
(Editing by Linda Sieg and Robert Birsel)