Barrier-Free Momentum Brought to Japan by Paralympics

Original Japanese article published on the Newsweek Japan website
Steps eliminated at railway stations, the emergence of universal design taxis... How has the nature of public transportation in Japan changed over the past 20 years? A mobility journalist reflects on the benefits brought about by hosting the Paralympics.
Tokyo Tower specially lit up to coincide with the Tokyo 2020 Games yu_photo -

"Japan still isn't there yet when it comes to barrier-free access."

I hear things like this often. As someone with frequent opportunities to travel to Europe and the United States, I think this way too. However, I have recently been reflecting on how I had been rejecting Japan's efforts out of hand. This is because while there are many issues to be addressed, I also feel that barrier-free access is being promoted at a rapid pace.

Although slowed down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 have led to a growing movement in public transportation to promote barrier-free access.

Taxis are mainly sedan types that lack consideration for people with disabilities. However, attempts are being made to shift their structural make-up into one that allows customers with mobility issues to easily enter and exit the vehicle. The emergence and spread of universal design taxis, in conjunction with the promotion of a set of initiatives to increase understanding of disabilities, will support the lives of the elderly and those with disabilities.

In Europe and the United States, I often see wheelchair users moving freely around the city by themselves. Even those in large wheelchairs are able to use public transport and their disability doesn't seem to be a reason for them not to go out. In Japan, on the other hand, wheelchair users need the station staff's assistance to board trains even in Tokyo, and I cannot help but feel that a wheelchair user's range of activities is limited.

That being said, the barriers and flooring for the Tokaido Shinkansen and JR Yamanote Line platforms have changed. Blue wheelchair marks surrounded by a pink square have been added, and they have begun narrowing some of the gaps between the platforms and train cars. This has made it possible for wheelchair users to get on and off the train by themselves too.

The Tokaido Shinkansen platform floor at Tokyo Station (photo by author)

Moves are also being made to introduce extra space for wheelchairs even on the Shinkansen, which had been slow to progress as they were designed to carry as many passengers as possible.

Making public transportation barrier free in such a way is not an independent effort by transportation operators, but rather is being promoted systematically in response to the revision of the public transportation Guidelines for Smooth Transportation (for Passengers/Facilities and Vehicles), the Tokyo 2020 Accessibility Guidelines, and the revised Japanese Barrier-Free Law. Each of these regulations hold significance in terms of historical changes to public transport.

Barrier-Free Eligible Stations Steadily Expanding

In 1998, nearly a decade after the start of the Heisei era, even Tokyo Station, the terminal station for the Shinkansen that is equipped with a state-of-the-art environment, didn't have elevators. Of course, there weren't elevators or escalators at most stations in Japan. At the time, railway officials thought of barrier-free access for stations as a welfare project and not the railway's responsibility.

Japan lagged behind in barrier-free access overall, including for buses, taxis, ships, airplanes, buildings, and roads, and thus needed to make it a priority.

Railways were the first to be tackled when it came to public transportation for the elderly and disabled. Many of Japan's train stations consist of multiple stories and passengers must walk up and down stairs to get to the platform. For the elderly and wheelchair users, steps are a major issue. Train stations with more than 5,000 passengers per day were the first to be made barrier free. At the time, there was no awareness of barrier-free stations or systems for bearing the cost, so a new system was created whereby the national government would provide one third of the budget for making stations barrier free and local governments would provide another third.

The number of stations eligible for barrier-free access is gradually being expanded. The number of passengers required per day was lowered from 5,000 or more to 3,000 or more, and then to 2,000 or more, and the system was spread from just train stations to buses, taxis, ships, airplanes, and roads as well.

According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, as of the end of fiscal year 2019, 92% of railway stations with 3,000 or more passengers per day had eliminated the need to climb steps by installing elevators, 61% of buses were non-step, 100% of passenger ship terminals with 3,000 or more passengers were barrier free, and the number of welfare taxis stood at 37,064.

Factors that have promoted these efforts include the 2000 Law for Promoting Easily Accessible Public Transportation Infrastructure for the Aged and the Disabled (Transportation Barrier-Free Law), the 2006 Barrier-Free Act, and the revised Barrier-Free Act.

Twenty years have passed since the enactment of the Barrier-Free Transportation Law, and barrier-free access has advanced dramatically. The barrier-free efforts made over the past 20 years have been spoken highly of by the chairs of organizations for the disabled and elderly, including the Japanese Federation of Organizations of the Disabled Persons, the Japan Federation of the Visually Impaired, the Japanese Federation of the Deaf, and the Japan Federation of Senior Citizens Clubs (see Moriyama Masahito's Towards a Universal Society).

Global Guidelines in Japanese

The results of these efforts can even be seen at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

CGTN reports that Chinese athletes praised the environment of the athletes' village. Special handrails and handles have been installed on walkways for the visually impaired and inside in-room toilets, and a "repair service center" has opened in the athletes' village to repair and maintain prosthetic legs and wheelchairs, making barrier-free access the norm.

One reason for this is that Tokyo is being brought up to world standards based on the Tokyo 2020 Accessibility Guidelines (formulated in 2017), which were created in conjunction with hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The guidelines are based on the International Paralympic Committee (IPC)'s Accessibility Guide and were created with the aim of realizing a society of coexistence in which people mutually respect one another, regardless of disability.

The guidelines make specifications not only for the competition venues, but also for the routes to the venues, accommodation facilities, and more using very detailed numerical criteria.

For example, public transit is mentioned in the "Transportation Means" section, which includes information on the necessary vehicle width to enable wheelchair users to get on and off smoothly; space requirements for the insides of vehicles; guidance regarding accessible eating and drinking areas as well as toilets on trains and in stations; and facilities and features for the visually impaired. There is also guidance on how to design sports venues that anticipate wheelchair users in the audience, which Japan lacks, such as the appropriate space to allow for spectators and the ideal number of seats, and how best to consider flow of traffic and line of sight. The section also touches on barrier-free accommodation, such as increased door width and the use of switches that are accessible to people with disabilities.

Attitudes toward people with disabilities vary from country to country, depending on the state of economic development, topography, and other factors. In Japan, which lacks memory or experiences of historical human rights revolutions, it is often difficult to envision what a society in which people with and without disabilities can live together should look like, or how the environment should be improved in order to make such a society a reality.

The fact that the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 resulted in a Japanese language version of global guidelines, and that numerous examples of these were applied in Japan, was a great gain. It must have been a boost in confidence for Japan's barrier-free movement to be recognized by foreign athletes who often travel to other countries.

It goes without saying that Japan's barrier-free access is still in its infancy. There are lots of buildings and forms of public transportation that can't comfortably be used by the disabled and the elderly. There's still a long way to go even in urban areas, and even further in rural ones.

Barrier-free access is being advanced gradually as a national policy. In many cases, private companies and local governments are also doing what they can to comply with requests for cooperation. There are instances as well where even if certain services are not barrier-free at the moment, there are plans to make them so. You can find out quite a bit by contacting transport operators and local governments.

If there's no progress being made toward barrier-free access in your immediate area, I recommend looking into past efforts and future plans.

Kusuda Etsuko

Mobility journalist. Went independent in 2013 after working as editor-in-chief of a mobility business magazine. Has served posts including advisory council member to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism's Expert Committee. Engages in activities that consider how to enhance the functionality and diversification of transportation means and services, as well as their environments, for enriched lives and society.
This article was originally provided in Japanese by Newsweek Japan (August 27, 2021).
Translated by Amitt