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Accessibility Lessons in Japan 

Accessibility Lessons in Japan 

By Alida Schefers (written in Summer 2019)  

Traveling internationally to Japan can feel like a daunting trip for anyone, let alone for wheelchair users. Before my trip to Osaka, Tokyo, and Kyoto through EnviroLab Asia in May 2019, I heard traveling with a wheelchair in Japan can be difficult. The difficulty seemed in part due to Japan’s old infrastructure and only recent implementation of ADA-type regulation. It was only in 1994 that “The Act on Buildings Accessible and Usable for the Elderly and Physically Disabled” was implemented, which requires semi-public buildings of 500+ sq. meters to provide accessible entrances, corridors, and restrooms. This was augmented in 2008 when the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Tourism introduced the new “Barrier-free” law to improve accessibility in everyday life. Its main goal was to ensure safety for the elderly, but it provides accessibility for all disabled persons. Therefore, I was happily surprised to observe some innovative ideas being implemented in Japan (some of which may be inspiration for improving US accessibility as well).   

I immediately noticed that accessibility in Japan is primarily provided by the support of official staff. For example, when boarding a train in the city, a station employee will accompany a wheelchair user to the train, lay down a ramp, and send word to the destination station to have another employee meet the rider with a ramp. Accessible train platforms (with no platform height gaps) would be better for independent travel, but this assistance is a great second best. The station attendants were committed and knowledgeable on how to assist a wheelchair user using public transport. The outstanding efficiency of trains and ubiquity of them in cities opens up places for many disabled people. In comparison, few taxis or car services in Japan can accommodate a wheelchair (or are more expensive), so it is very helpful that other public transportation options in the city are so accessible. However, the number of accessible taxis in Japan is increasing, from 800 in 1997 to at least 28,000 “Universal Design” taxis by 2020 due to a governmental initiative. These accessible black taxis can be hailed like regular taxis and cost the same, although not all drivers are trained in securing a wheelchair. Current accessible taxis that need to be reserved in advance (Kaigo taxis) are more expensive than regular taxis (3,000-4,000 yen per half hour, or approximately double the normal taxi rate). I also experienced personal assistance at urban stores and restaurants; for example, a staff worker carried hot ramen to my table for me. 

During my trip, I saw cities in Japan making improvements in accessibility in their planning and construction. Here are some more examples of accessible aspects of Japan. I also saw many innovations in accessibility which go beyond these measures. 

Accommodations  

As for any traveler, but particularly for the disabled traveler, hotel facilities are important. 

I stayed at The Big-I International Communication Center for Persons with Disabilities, a facility in Osaka which functions as a hotel and a creative space. Opened in 2001, this facility was built to commemorate the UN Decade of Disabled Persons (1983-1992). It is unique in its specific goal to be a model of inclusivity and accessibility (and therefore is not representative of most buildings in Japan). Here are some notable accessible hotel features I observed:   

Rooms 

The Big-I has several types of “barrier-free” rooms (listed here), including one with a Hoyer lift from the bed to the bathtub. The bathrooms have space for a wheelchair to maneuver, easy sink access, grab bars, and the bathtub has a built-in seat. Most hotel bathrooms in Japan have a large drain in the tile floor. That means, if necessary, a disabled guest could shower outside of the bathtub if maneuvering into the bathtub or on the seat is too difficult. 

One of the most attractive parts of travel includes experiencing different cultural traditions, which can sometimes limit accessibility. I observed how two hotels adapted cultural customs to maintain accessibility. 

The Big-I has several types of rooms, including “Japanese-style” rooms with tatami mats, similar to a traditional Japanese room. Although Japanese custom dictates that people remove their shoes and put on slippers before going on the tatami mats (for cleanliness and to impede wear and tear), the hotel allows a wheelchair user to go on the mats, which the hotel will wash again after their stay. The temples and shrines I visited also had accessible ramps and allowed wheelchairs onto the tatami mats. 

Sleeping on futons placed on tatami mats is a beloved Japanese tradition, but it may be difficult for disabled guests to lower themselves to the futon and then stand back up again. Although the Big-I did not have this, the ATC Ageless Center in Osaka displayed the Francebed’s Floor-bed, which can be electronically lowered to the floor to simulate a futon, and then raised again to allow the guest to get up easily. 

 
Francebed’s Floor-bed, as exhibited in the Ageless Center in the Asia-Pacific Trade Center in Osaka, Japan. (English pamphlet for the Ageless Center is here.) 

In Kyoto, a barrier-free room at the Vessel Hotel Campana Kyoto Gojo incorporated the traditional design of a genkan. A genkan is an area which separates the interior from the exterior (typically) using a step up. At this hotel, it is incorporated in a visual, more symbolic, and accessible way. They used a metal divide and different types of flooring material, to represent the genkan. Finally, I noticed the slippers were placed in the doorway path (obstructing the path for wheelchair users). However, this placement may be useful for elderly patrons who may have a hard time turning to put on slippers put to the side. 

  
A genkan of a Japanese residence with a step up An accessible genkan-style entrance in the Kyoto hotel 

Auditorium/Performance Space 

The Big-I has a multi-purpose hall/auditorium as part of its recreational space. In contrast to other performance spaces I have been to in the US, this hall allows a number of customized seating layouts, including accommodating a large number of wheelchairs simultaneously. (The image below shows a layout in which all the front seats are wheelchair-accessible.) 

In comparison, the typical US performance space has only a limited number of wheelchair-accessible spaces (usually 2-4) and are fixed. This makes going to events difficult for disabled patrons. In my experience, often all accessible seats are sold out even when numerous regular seating tickets are still available. If they hope to attend an event, disabled patrons need to be one of the first buyers. Also, many auditoriums do not have accessible seating near front or other preferred locations. The Big-I facility addresses these obstacles.  

Fire Escapes 

For me, the most impressive feature of the Big-I was the unique fire escape. From my experience in the US, hotels will occasionally place their accessible room(s) on the ground floor so the guest can evacuate quickly and/or independently in an emergency. However, more often than not the accessible rooms are on higher floors. This means the disabled guest must go to the closest stairway/area of refuge, call emergency services themselves to report their location, and then simply wait there until emergency personnel arrive. Once emergency personnel arrive, the disabled guest must rely on them to help either carry/assist them down manually or with the aid of a special evacuation chair. 

However, at the Big-I hotel, every room on the upper floors has a sliding glass door that can be opened to a shared balcony in an emergency. This balcony leads to either 1) a series of ramps that go directly down to the ground or 2) stairs. The diagrams on the balcony floor show which direction guests should exit. In stark contrast to other hotels, this allows all guests, even those with no or severely limited walking ability, to escape from all floors independently and in a timely matter. It certainly gives disabled guests peace of mind. 

Hotel addresses: 

Big-I (国際障害者交流センタービッグ・アイ) 

1-8-1 Chayamadai, Minami-ku, Sakai-city, Osaka, 590 – 0115 

TEL +81 72-290-0900 FAX +81 72-290-0920 

Vessel Hotel Campana Kyoto Gojo 

498 Shimonjyuji- cho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto Prefecture 600-8180 

TEL: +81 75-353-1000 FAX: +81 75-353-1001 

Disability Discounts 

Japan offers disability discounts for public transportation, attractions, and public facilities. The Japanese disability ID card (shogaisha techo) entitles the bearer to reduced fees. For example, the Big-I hotel offers a 20% reduction in room price for a disabled guest and the Nara Park Tōdai-ji temple reduces the entrance fee of ¥600 by 50%. Unfortunately, this ID is not available for foreign visitors, although some venues extend the discount to a visibly disabled person. 

Public Restrooms 

In the main cities, I found accessible bathrooms in most bigger buildings: large department stores, train stations (including on the Shinkansen “bullet train” itself), and popular tourist destinations. There is even a Check A Toilet phone app which shows the nearest accessible toilet in your area (in English).  

In sum, whereas Japan has only relatively recently taken up the mission of accessibility, it seems to be addressing the need earnestly and is allocating significant resources towards making up for lost time, at least in major metropolitan areas. I saw several creative and successful solutions.  

As we in the US continue to advocate for more and better accessibility, I believe we can also look to Japan for innovative solutions to potentially adapt.  

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Alida Schefers was a ’22 linguistics major at Pomona College and has studied Japanese, Korean, and German. She travelled to Japan as a fellow in the “Accessibility in Japan” lab with the EnviroLab Asia Program, which encourages interdisciplinary study of the environment and sustainability in East and Southeast Asia, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.  

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