April 6 2023
NAGOYA – A Japanese couple with intellectual disabilities, whose relationship blossomed some three decades ago, finally tied the knot at the age of 62, overcoming resistance from family members and many others who believed they could never get married.
Shunsuke Watarai and his wife Kikuyo, who now live together in Nagoya, central Japan, met in their early 30s through an acquaintance. Although they hit it off from the start, family and welfare support staff arbitrarily decided that a romantic relationship was out of the question for them, according to Watarai.
“There are quite a few things we can do on our own if we try,” said Shunsuke, who has a mild mental impairment. “Instead of unilaterally deciding ‘No,’ we want people to explain to us why something cannot be done.”
Kikuyo, who is the same age as her husband, has a moderate mental disability. “He was gentle and dependable,” Kikuyo said, recalling the time she first became attracted to Shunsuke, which eventually led to them dating.
They later started working together in a youth group formed by people with mental disabilities, which was connected to a larger support association made up of parents with mentally disabled children. They would organize trips and study groups amongst themselves.
“We learned all sorts of new things from our club activities, which gave us the confidence to think that there are many things that we can do independently,” said Shunsuke.
Kikuyo had thought about marrying Shunsuke for many years, but “I could never say anything because I knew people would be against it,” she said. It wasn’t until they were about 50 that they began thinking realistically about getting married.
As the years went by, the possibility that one of them may suffer from the death of a parent, or need to put them into care, increased. Living together so that they could support one another, therefore, began to seem like a smart move. At that point, Kikuyo lived in a group home, while Shunsuke received support from a welfare office.
But when they finally revealed their intention to get married to their families and support staff, “they fiercely opposed the idea. They told us, ‘It’s impossible for the two of you to live together,'” Shunsuke said.
However, as the dementia Kikuyo’s mother was suffering from gradually worsened, Shunsuke began to help out with her care. They obtained lawyers through the adult guardianship system, and eventually, those around them relented to their strong desire to be together.
They got married on Shunsuke’s 62nd birthday last year, Nov. 22, known in Japan as “Good Marriage Day.” In February, they made a big announcement in front of over 30 well-wishers and supporters, receiving their blessings.
Naoko Nagata, 68, a former board member of the parents’ support association who counseled the couple for more than a decade, said, “I think that the perseverance of these two, which never wavered and their determined appeals to those around them, ultimately changed the minds of family and supporters.”
The couple lives in an apartment building in the city with Kikuyo’s mother. A helper from a disability welfare service visits the home once a week.
Shunsuke works as a janitor at the city’s water department, and Kikuyo has a job in a workshop. They can make ends meet by pooling their wages together with their disability pensions.
A Kyodo News nationwide survey conducted early this year found that nearly 70 percent of respondents who were families of persons with intellectual disabilities want a system to support their children’s relationships, marriage and childbirth.
The survey, conducted after it came to light that a group home in Hokkaido, northern Japan, had required residents with mental disabilities to undergo sterilization treatment if they wanted to get married or live together, also showed that about 20 percent of such people have been restricted from marrying and having children.
“We want many people to know that there are people like us out there,” Shunsuke said.
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