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Working Towards a Barrier-Free Japan

The key word here is ‘universal design’—designs that can be utilized by anyone, regardless of age or physical condition.

By 4 min read

It’s no secret that Japan’s population is graying rapidly. In recent years, both the public and private sectors have been thinking more seriously about a truly barrier-free society. This will benefit not only the elderly, but also those coping with physical disabilities. In tandem with the 2020 Olympics, Tokyo will also be welcoming athletes from around the world for the Paralympics, making this a timely topic.

One of the most visible areas where improvements are being made is the city’s transport system. The Tokyo metropolitan government offers subsidies to railway companies to help improve access at the labyrinth of stations that crisscrosses the city. According to a spokesperson for the Bureau of Urban Development’s transportation planning section, a major goal is to have at least one “barrier-free route” from platform to street at every station serving over 3,000 passengers per day.

a major goal is to have at least one barrier-free route from platform to street at every station

“In other words, at least one elevator from the platform to the wicket level, and then up to street level,” he said. “We are aiming to achieve this by 2024. Another project is installing platform doors at stations with more than 100,000 daily. There are 78 such stations in Tokyo and we hope to have all of them done by 2023.”

Another department at the metropolitan government is working to disseminate information about barrier-free services, as well as educate the general public about the importance of the topic. Kaiichi Nakamura, manager of the community development section at Tokyo’s Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health says the two areas go hand in hand.

“The key word here is ‘universal design’—designs that can be utilized by anyone, regardless of age or physical condition. There is a lot of useful information out there but we are currently working on setting up a website which brings it all together on one site.” An English version will also be made available.

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Nakamura says his section places emphasis on education, particularly for the younger generation. People with physical disabilities are being invited to speak to children at public elementary and junior high schools. “Having the chance to hear directly from someone about the challenges they are facing is a useful starting point for youngsters to start recognizing the importance of a barrier-free society.”

Raising awareness among the general public is key to improving access for all, says Takako Nakamura (no relation), a representative for the Japanese Association on Disability and Difficulty. The group advocates for the needs of those with disabilities and promotes research.

Nakamura notes that the capital has made great strides in improving facilities in stations over the past decade. “The stations are much easier to use, with more elevators and better signs to point out where they are,” she says. “Many stations have wheelchair accessible toilets, with handrails and lower sinks. However, the general public still requires educating.”

Take escalators, for example. If you happen to get off your train at the opposite end of the platform from the elevator, then it might be easier to take the escalator up. “People in Tokyo generally stand on the left, and those in a hurry walk on the right. However, there are elderly and disabled individuals who might find it easier to stand on the right, due to their particular physical condition.”

If someone is really fit enough to walk on the escalator, perhaps they could take the stairs, Nakamura suggests tactfully. “This would allow those who truly need the escalator to ride in safety without having to worry about which side of the handrails to grab on to.”

Another example are the raised blocks set in the ground at stations and on some streets to guide those with vision problems. Known as “tenji blocks”, they were invented in Japan and are generally painted a highly visible bright yellow. “This makes them very easy to see. However, recently we’ve had some places installing the blocks in more muted colors. This is to make them fit in better with the surroundings, and is more visually pleasing for the majority of people. The trend is completely understandable,” Nakamura says.

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“To people who are completely blind, it doesn’t really matter what color the blocks are. However, we’ve had those who are partially sighted saying they much prefer the yellow blocks because they are easier to see,” she points out. “It is wonderful to have the blocks, but changing the color does a disservice to the very people they were intended to help.”

Dr. Michael Gillan Peckitt is a British academic based in Osaka. He has lived with cerebral palsy since birth, and comments on and writes about disability awareness in the media. In Peckitt’s opinion, major Japanese cites like Tokyo and Osaka are already fairly well set up for the elderly and those with disabilities. “It’s the countryside which needs work. Not only more disability accessible railway stations but more trains.”

How can Japan draw on the 2020 Paralympics to improve barrier-free access and raise awareness? Peckitt suggests bringing in the media machine. “Make Japanese Paralypians famous. Have them on NHK shows. Make the Paralympics as cool as AKB48.”

  • Tessa Clairmontt says:

    This is a fantastic article! I was born with Spina Bifida and am permanent confined to a whee

  • Yuuzuki says:

    I suffer from deforming arthritis in my knee from an old injury, which makes stair climbing difficult. Some train stations in Tokyo ONLY have stairs which makes getting around painful :/

  • Nigel Martin says:

    Louise we are so pleased to see this information! My wife and myself have been to Japan for the last 8 years and we have a great love for the country and its people.
    We have wanted to do a disabled blog on Japan as my wife suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and is confined to a wheelchair, but every year my wife makes the effort to go through the long journey from the UK and back again because we love Japan so much as do I ! The one thing we find is trying to find suitable barrier free accommodation and if we do at an affordable price. We have been lucky to be adopted by a Japanese family who we stay with other wise we would have maybe have only visited Japan once ! The travel infrastructure is much better for us than the ones in the UK
    In the long term we wish to move to Japan but we would like to do a disabled guide to Tokyo to help with upcoming 2020 Olympics to help people he around but no one seems to want to help ! Could you think of a way ?? Thanks again for the info

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