Japan’s Transit System Gets Serious About Disability Access

Trains and subways in Tokyo and other cities have long posed a challenge for disabled riders. As Japan prepares to reopen to tourists, here’s what’s changed. Allan Richarz
June 2, 2022

In many respects, Japan’s extensive network of rail stations is a triumph of contradictions. Chaotic, yet possessing its own internal logic that provides a striking degree of order. Heavily trafficked, but still able to remain remarkably clean.

This is perhaps most evident in how it serves riders who are disabled. For all its success as a modern marvel of high-speed mass mobility, Japan’s rail system has historically been perceived as inaccessible for those with physical disabilities.

Case in point: During one train ride from Tokyo to Yokohama in 2016, I once observed a wheelchair-using passenger trapped in a train car because no attendant was present to deploy the small foldable ramps used to help disabled riders reach the platform. Finally, noticing his plight, several passengers were able to hold the door and assist the man by lifting him and his wheelchair out onto the platform.

Accessibility is an issue not just for train and subway stations, but across the capital’s buildings and tourist attractions: parking spaces too small to accommodate wheelchair users; multi-story school buildings with no ramps or elevators, and a traditional perception that those with disabilities should be hidden from public view. Such features have helped give Japan something of a negative reputation – sometimes unfairly, sometimes not – in terms of disability access.

Slowly but surely, however, change has come to make Tokyo, and Japan in general, more broadly accessible, spurred in part by the city being awarded the 2020/1 Summer Olympics in 2013. The pandemic blocked the crowds of international visitors expected for the Games, and Japan’s borders have remained largely closed since March 2020.

But the nation is expected to reopen to group visitors on June 10. That presents an opportunity for the country’s municipal and transit leaders to demonstrate how much progress has been made – and how much improvement is still needed.

Modern Japan’s experience with disability access has been something of a mixed bag. On one hand, it is the country that invented the idea of “tactile paving” – blocks installed on floors and sidewalks to provide guidance to the visually impaired. Indeed, bright yellow tenji blocks, as they are known, have been common in train stations and buildings across the country (and now around the globe) for decades. In keeping with the considerable detail that goes into subtle aspects of train station design, it is also common to find touches such as handrails with braille printing on the underside to serve as a guide for visually impaired riders.

On the other hand, it is also a country where the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare will host a meeting on disability issues but schedule it in a second floor space accessible only by stairs, meaning at least one committee member in a wheelchair was unable to attend. Until recently, the Japanese Diet also had accessibility issues, forcing some members to use a proxy to cast votes. People with disabilities are notably underrepresented in the Japanese workforce, compared to the US, UK and EU states: Only 19% of working-age people with disabilities are employed, Bloomberg News reported in 2021.

Japanese lawmaker Eiko Kimura is assisted into the Diet building by guards in Tokyo in 2019. Two lawmakers with serious paralysis took their seats in Japan’s upper house, marking the first time people with severe disabilities have served in the body.

Conceptions of disability also play a role. In Japan, children’s wheelchairs often resemble baby carriages, which has led to issues of denied accessible service where staff took a strict definition of wheelchair. Similarly, scooter-style mobility aids popular in the West have generally not been permitted on many trains, including the famed shinkansen bullet train, in the past.

In January 2014, four months after the Olympic announcement, Japan became the 140th country to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. A spate of new disability and anti-discrimination laws followed, including a requirement that all train stations in Tokyo handling more than 3,000 passengers per day be accessible to those with physical disabilities. According to Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, over 90% of stations meeting that passenger threshold are considered barrier-free; in Tokyo, the number is estimated at 96%.

“There have been huge changes in the last 10 years, particularly in terms of transportation,” says Canadian-born Josh Grisdale, a disability rights advocate in Tokyo who runs the Accessible Japan travel website. Grisdale, who took Japanese citizenship in 2016 and has used a wheelchair from a young age as a result of contracting cerebral palsy, has also written a travel guidebook on accessible travel in Japan.

Careful planning is still required for wheelchair users before taking the train, Grisdale notes, and in some of Tokyo’s more labyrinthine stations, one must often take a circuitous route to find an elevator or chair lift. Outside of major cities, it is not uncommon for stations to remain accessible only by stairs. But the number of train carriages with dedicated space for wheelchair users has seen a sharp uptick in recent years, and barrier-free ticket gates are now common.

Grisdale cites in particular the improvements made to the shinkansen. Previously, a car on the bullet trains might have only a single space reserved for foldable, manual wheelchairs, but recent updates have been made to include multiple spaces on the popular Tokyo-Osaka route, including those for powered wheelchairs. Rail operators have loosened the rules regarding mobility scooters, though some restrictions remain for larger devices.

The system that station staff use to assist disabled riders is also undergoing a makeover, says Grisdale. In the past, workers relied on handwritten instructions for staff to coordinate coverage for a rider. Now, operators such as Tokyo Metro use QR codes and tablet or smartphone-based systems, allowing for a more seamless experience between stations and allowing staff to assist larger volumes of disabled riders.

Importantly, public conceptions of disability are also improving, according to Grisdale. “[Physical] infrastructure is maybe ahead of the mindset at the moment,” he says, “but the two work together in tandem.”

To that end, as infrastructure accessibility improves, more people with disabilities will use it, creating more interactions between disabled and non-disabled users and fostering greater understanding of the need for barrier-free access. Grisdale cites annual “accessibility mindset” training sessions now required for rail operators and other organizations as creating greater understanding and awareness of social barriers for staff members, as well as the general public through related PR campaigns.

In response to the access issues regarding children’s wheelchairs, for example, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism distributed informational posters to rail stations. Similar measures were taken by local metro authorities with instructions given to public transportation staff on handling children’s wheelchairs.

In April, Tokyo Metro announced modest fare increases – the first in 28 years – with the funds allotted specifically for upgrades and maintenance aimed at improving accessibility. In an email, a Tokyo Metro spokesperson said that a new “barrier-free fare system” will include elevator and platform-screen door improvements at all stations. Beyond the infrastructure improvements, the rail operator is also hiring service assistants and conducting training for staffers on the new barrier-free features. A new bilingual website called “Smooth Metro” offers route maps focusing on barrier-free accommodations to help guide disabled riders through the vast network of stations. “When [disabled] foreign visitors return to Tokyo,” says Tokyo Metro’s spokesperson, “we would like them to use the subway with peace of mind.”

Beyond the transit system, disability advocates like Grisdale do note that there remains room for improvement. Traditional restaurants and shops, especially those found outside of larger shopping malls, continue to lag in accessibility, often to the disappointment of tourists. The entryways of older establishments, for example, commonly have genkan – a small recessed space for removing one’s outdoor shoes – which can pose difficulties for wheelchair users or others with mobility issues. The Japan Tourism Agency, in conjunction with the government, has set up an accreditation program for hotels, restaurants and shops, offering incentives for barrier-free renovations.

Perhaps Japan’s biggest challenge going forward, after overseas tourism resumes in earnest, will be to combat its image as inaccessible to those with physical disabilities – an image that advocates like Grisdale say is increasingly out of date. “I’m quite hopeful for the future,” he says. “Japan’s done a phenomenal job in changing so quickly.”

Original at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-06-02/in-japan-transit-accessibility-gets-an-overdue-boost