How Do You Say “People with Disabilities” in Japanese?

May 17, 2021
Image Description: Three Japanese characters representing three ways to say "people with disabilities". Image by Amanda Narumi Fujii.

The Japanese language consists of two writing systems known as hiragana and katakana based on Chinese characters. Together, they’re known as kana. Hiragana and katakana are easily pronounced just like the English alphabet. Chinese characters have meanings. They also have certain emotions or feelings attached in a way that basic or simple letters do not.

The way the Japanese language references people with disabilities has varied over time. At the moment, it describes people with disabilities in one of three ways. This article dives into each of the three ways to write this word and the opinions on each one.

3 Ways Japanese Says “People with Disabilities”

In Japanese, “People with disabilities” is “障がい者 (Sho-gai-sha).” “障がい(Sho-gai)” means disability and “者(sha)” means person. You can write this word in three different ways with the same pronunciation: “shou-gai-sha” All three options start with shou, but the second character has different interpretations.

  1. 障害者 (害: interfere)
  2. 障碍者 (碍: hindrance)
  3. 障がい者 (phonetic)

The meaning of each character is as follows.

All three start with “障 (Shou)”:

  1. To be in the way
  2. Something that prevents or separates.

Here are the search engine results for each word:

  • First word: 447 million
  • Second word: 195 million
  • Third word: 78 million

The first is the original word, but the third is trending up more than the second according to Google Trends. It looks like people are gradually shifting from first to third.

People disagree on which is the most appropriate for everyday use. In 2010, the Japanese Cabinet Office published “Results of a Study on the Use of the Term ‘障害 (shogai) — Disability.” It looks like everyone has a different opinion about which word gives the impression of the social model instead of the medical model of disability.

Here’s a quick recap on social and medical models of disability. The social model believes society puts up barriers for people with disabilities. The medical model wants to fix or cure the person’s disability.

According to the report, in the 1600s, people used the second Japanese word for “disability.” It comes from a Buddhist term meaning “a demon interfering / being an obstacle.” Around the 20th century, the first term replaced it. And the religious connotation has since been lost.

The Cabinet Office collected opinions on the three words from the general public, private companies, mass media, NPOs, and local governments.

The First Method: Interfere

The first method 障害 (interfere) contains these components:

障 (Shou): 1. To be in the way, 2. something that prevents or separates.

害 (Gai): 1. Misfortune, disaster, 2. interfere, damage, worsen, 3. attack, hurt.

“The cause of limitations on the social participation of people with disabilities does not lie in their impairment,” writes Japan National Assembly of Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI-Japan). “But instead, it lies in the relationship between impairment and the barriers created in society. Thus, people with disabilities themselves are not 害 (gai) obstacles or harms. Instead, it is the many obstacles and barriers in society that have created people with disabilities ‘shougaisha’. For the time being, we should focus on reforming the system and shifting the concept of disability from a medical model to a social model.”

So, the organization thinks people’s perspective on the word needs to change. Therefore, they want to keep the word but reclaim a positive perception of it.

There were positive reactions, but the people with disability’s organization Tokyo Aoishiba no Kai had a different viewpoint:

“The letter #1 害 (gai) is used in words like pollution, harm, pest, murder, and many other bad words. The letter has contributed to the bad perceptions that the existence of people with disabilities is harmful.”

The Second Method: Hindrance

The second method: 障碍 (hindrance) consists of the following two parts:

障 (Shou): 1. to be in the way 2. something that prevents or separates.

碍 (Gai): 1. to hinder; 2. to support.

“The word 碍 (Gai) means ‘barrier’ or ‘hurdle’ … We believe that society is forming a ‘hurdle’ and that it is necessary to raise awareness to all the people to remove these hurdles,” writes Tokyo Aoishiba no Kai. “In China, Korea, Taiwan, and other countries where Chinese characters are used, ‘shougai’ is written as #2 障碍. While the word #1 障害 (shougai) is the medical model, the word #2 障碍 (shougai) is the social model.”

By the way, the letter 碍 is not commonly recognized in Japan as much as these other countries, so it does not effectively convey the message. DPI and Asahi Shimbun, a mass media company, argue in favor of that.

“The reason for changing from #1 to #2 may be because #1 害 (gai) gives a bad impression and should not be used for people,” says DPI. “However, #2 碍 may be subject to the same or more critique than #1 because of the ‘demon’ etymology.”

“Since 碍 is not a typically used character, the general public may not understand the meaning,” states Asahi Shimbun. “It is essential to discuss emotional factors and how people perceive them, not just the meaning of the characters.”

The Third Method

The third method “障がい (Shou-gai)” means the following:

障 (Shou): 1. To be in the way 2. something that prevents or separates.

がい (Gai) written in Hiragana. It can mean either 害 or 碍. Hiragana is a syllabary like English alphabets.

As of this writing, local governments, private companies, and many other organizations support the third option.

“As it turned out that some people feel uncomfortable due to the negative connotation of the word #1害 (gai), we as Iwate prefecture decided to change the word #1 to #3 in administrative documents,” writes Iwate Prefecture, a local government organization. “So far, we have not received any complaints.”

“The word #1 害 has a negative image of causing harm to others,” states Sony Corporation. “Taking the opinions of local governments, many other private companies, and various organizations into consideration, we decided to replace #1 with #3. However, if a more appropriate expression appears in the future, we will change it accordingly.”

Still, this wording doesn’t make everybody happy.

“Replacing ideographic Chinese characters with hiragana will make it difficult for the general public to perceive the word’s true meaning,” explains Tokyo Aoishiba no Kai. “The meaning of ‘society is creating barriers’ and ‘confronting barriers’ will be lost.”

“The idea of changing the word from #1 to #3 on the grounds that it is inappropriate to use the word #1 害 to refer to people is based on the individual model (medical model) that the cause of limitations on social participation of people with disabilities is their functional impairment,” states DPI Japan Council.


The Japanese Cabinet Office has conducted a survey and these are its findings.

It seems like it is impossible to come to a conclusion that makes everyone happy. However, in doing this research, I found one thing in common with all comments. That is, there is a medical model and a social model of disability, and everyone is looking for a word that fits the social model.

Indeed, some people believe in the medical model. Nonetheless, if people understood disability as a social model, it might compel more people to take action to remove barriers. If discussion about the third term (shogai) “disability” can create such a change in consciousness, then this discussion is worthwhile.

Whichever word the government chooses or whatever new words emerge in the future, I hope that society becomes a place where everyone accepts the social model and feels the need to remove those barriers. Maybe we can start the change just by thinking about the use of language.

For now, I will use the third term because the first has a bad connotation and leaves me with an uncomfortable feeling when I see it. And as a Japanese speaker, I don’t see the second option anywhere else. Thus, it doesn’t make much sense. The third is just easy to read. And finally, while writing this article, Google Docs kept auto-suggesting the third.

Accessibility Consultant and Business Manager in Japan | Kyoto
Business Manager for Equal Entry's operations in Japan and work to evangelize the company, establish new business partnerships, and create success.

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