Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

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Societal Barriers Facing Disabled Japanse May Prove Most Formidable

By Taiga Uranaka, Japan Times staff writer (reprinted with permission from Japan Times, December 18, 2000)

As deputy chief of the Japanese delegation at the Sydney Paralympic Games this summer, Tsunenobu Wakana was impressed with the handicapped-friendly facilities and transportation system.

However, when asked about accessibility in the Australian city in general, Wakana, the secretary general of the Japan Paralympic Committee, said: "I think Japan has a more advanced barrier-free infrastructure -- at least in terms of hardware."

That may come as a surprise to many who have long criticized Japan as a barrier-full country, where people with physical handicaps face great difficulty when they wish to use public transportation or other facilities. However, Wakana is quick to acknowledge that Japan has a long way to go, and says that the biggest obstacles may not be infrastructural, but societal.

As Japan enters the new century with a rapidly aging population, it faces a mounting challenge to become more user-friendly to the elderly, the physically weak and the handicapped.

According to the Health and Welfare Ministry, the number of people aged 65 or older stood at 4.16 million in 1950, accounting for 4.9 percent of the population.

In 2000, the number reached an estimated 22 million, or 17.2 percent of the population. In 2015, it is projected, one in four Japanese will be 65 or older. Accordingly, the need to create a barrier-free society looms with a growing sense of urgency.

Barrier-free was originally a term in architecture, meaning the absence of physical obstacles, such as steps in buildings. But it has come to refer to all kinds of barriers, including psychological and social ones, that hamper the participation of people with handicaps.

On the infrastructural side, the new facilities and transportation systems built during Japan's postwar reconstruction were designed mainly for the convenience of the standard-bearers of the Japanese economy -- namely, corporate workers -- and the needs of the disabled and other socially disadvantaged people were often ignored, said Naohiro Ogawa, deputy director of Population Research Institute at Nihon University.

"Take Shinkansen bullet train station structures, for instance," he said. "They were built for working-age passengers. There were few escalators, and most were operating upward. The downward trip is harder for the elderly."

The government's 1995 White Paper on the Disabled, which took up the barrier-free concept as its main theme, said: "If we look around, we will realize how the nation has lacked consideration for the disabled as it built its physical infrastructure."

The report admitted the government's negligence has resulted in obstacles to mobility for the elderly, pregnant women and people with baby carts.

Accessing transportation
Last month, the so-called barrier-free transportation law took effect, requiring operators of public transport systems to take measures to make their facilities more user-friendly to the elderly, the disabled and others.

According to the Transport Ministry, 29.5 percent of railway stations used by 5,000 or more passengers a day are equipped with at least one elevator, and 48.1 percent have at least one escalator.

By 2010, the national government aims to install elevators and escalators, set up lavatory booths for the disabled and pave navigation tiles for the blind at all railway stations, bus terminals, ports and airports with 5,000 or more daily users.

At the local level, ordinances promoting a barrier-free society have already been enacted by a number of municipal and prefectural governments.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government enacted such an ordinance in March 1995, requiring designated public facilities, such as hospitals, restaurants and large entertainment complexes, to submit reports on barrier-free equipment used in their structures before construction or repair work begins.

If the measures fall short of standards set by authorities, the metropolitan government will give instructions to revise the plan. While such instructions are not legally binding, officials said most builders abide.

Like the rest of Japan, the capital has seen a rapid increase in the elderly population. In five years, the number of Tokyo residents aged 65 or older is expected to grow by 290,000 to 2.23 million, or 18.8 percent of its population.

"I think the level of smooth mobility (for the elderly and the handicapped) has rapidly improved in the last couple years at railway stations and other facilities," said Michiko Kikuchi, a metro official in charge of promoting such policies.

This year the metropolitan government amended the ordinance, effective from January, requiring smaller convenience stores and fast food restaurants, so far exempted from mandatory reporting, to follow suit.

It also added child-rearing support to its list of requirements, calling for beds and chairs for babies at public facilities.

However, Katsutoshi Ota, professor of urban transport planning at the University of Tokyo, said current barrier-free measures continue to fall short.

"It should be door-to-door," he said. "A barrier-free system of mobility must be seamless. If there is even one discontinuity in between, there is a problem."

Regarding how to enhance the mobility of the elderly, he said there is a need to dispel certain myths about the senior population -- such as their having to rely mostly on public transportation.

"Sometimes, it is more convenient for them to drive cars," he said, citing a large number of elderly drivers, especially in rural places where train and bus services are scarce.

According to the 2000 White Paper on Traffic Safety, the number of drivers aged 65 and over reached 6.78 million at the end of 1999, accounting for 9.2 percent of all license holders.

Along with such numbers comes a growing concern about the number of accidents caused by elderly drivers.

Accidents in which elderly drivers were held primarily responsible accounted for 7.7 percent of all traffic accidents in 1999, more than double the 3.4 percent of the previous year, according to the White Paper.

"We need to create a society where the elderly can drive comfortably," Ota said.

As possible measures to make the traffic system safer for senior drivers, Ota suggested bigger and easier-to-see traffic signs as well as brighter roadside lights.

He also said the intelligent transport system will be useful for elderly drivers. The ITS is a multimedia network expected to promote traffic safety by providing drivers with various traffic information, including alerts to oncoming danger.

A good start?
It seems that Japan has at least started in the right direction with increased efforts toward barrier-free public facilities.

However, advocate groups for the disabled say that unless people change their attitudes and realize that such efforts benefit not just a certain group of people but everyone, the country will repeat the folly of the past.

They also say that many ostensibly barrier-free measures implemented so far have actually resulted in creating more obstacles for the disabled.

Ryo Misawa of the Japan National Assembly of Disabled People's International said many of these measures have in fact led to social segregation by singling out the disabled for special treatment.

"For instance, many elevators (for those with disabilities) have been installed at the farthest corners of buildings and are usually locked shut. Users have to ask facility maintenance personnel to unlock them each time," he said.

In many such places, wheelchair users are often told that they should be accompanied by somebody ready to assist them -- a sentiment that undermines the very purpose of barrier-free efforts.

Such thinking is also partly to blame for situations like the following.

In August 1991, a girl in a wheelchair was trapped for 14 hours inside an elevator reserved for the handicapped at JR Kumagaya Station in Saitama Prefecture. A police officer had unlocked the elevator for her to get in, but when the policeman and a taxi driver who had escorted her to the facility walked away -- both assuming that the other would assist her -- she was left alone.

As she did not have full control of her arms, she could not reach and operate the elevator buttons.

That story has since been cited as an example of how Japan's supposedly barrier-free measures are poorly designed for those who actually use the equipment. It is also noted that if the elevator was open to everyone, the girl would not have had to wait for so long before being found.

Misawa said the problem of giving special treatment to the disabled is that it plants the notion in public's mind that they are different.

"It is impossible to close all the vertical gaps in town," Kikuchi of the metro government said. "What we need then is a helping hand." She added that metropolitan authorities are considering projects designed to enhance public awareness about those with disabilities.

Japan faces a long road ahead in terms of nurturing a barrier-free mentality, said Wakana, who is involved in the campaign to lure the 2008 Paralympic Games to the city of Osaka.

"I have little worry about inviting the Paralympic Games as far as (barrier-free) infrastructure goes," he said.

However, he is concerned about the public's response.

"In Sydney, many locals supported the disabled by showing up at the games in groups," he said. "But I am not so sure Paralympic Games will attract such large crowds in Japan, given the level of public understanding of the disabled in this country."

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