taking wheelchair on Yamanote line

How Accessible Is Japan For Someone In A Wheelchair?

SEASON 2 EPISODE 20

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Japan’s tourism industry is booming with inbound numbers increasing every year but how accessible is Japan for tourists with disabilities? In this episode, Anthony sits down with Acessible Japan’s Josh Grisdale to discuss accessibility in Japan’s daily life and public transport.

Josh Grisdale is a fellow Canadian by birth, but he became a Japanese citizen in 2016. Due to his cerebral palsy, Josh has been using a wheelchair since he was four years old. That never stopped his love of travel and adventure, however, and in 2000 Josh visited Japan for the first time.

Something that struck him as he prepared for his journey was the lack of English information about general accessibility. Fortunately, Josh had local friends who helped him explore and enjoy Japan. He was struck by the convenience of Japanese public transport, especially as someone from rural Canada where driving was key to getting around. Josh’s experience in Japan was so impactful that he returned several times, and eventually moved permanently to the country in 2007. The initial shock of finding so little information for his first trip still stuck, leading Josh to create Accessible Japan, a website dedicated to providing information to people with disabilities hoping to visit Japan.

Japan’s History with Accessibility

Japan’s big push for nation-wide accessibility really took off in the year 2000, when the UN introduced new international standards to combat discrimination against disabled persons. While there are some traditionally Japanese elements to the infrastructure that remain a challenge to Josh as a wheelchair user—the ever-present genkan, a large step up at the entrance of most Japanese buildings, is one good example—he has seen the benefits of Japan’s desire to follow UN standards everywhere. The braille bricks placed on sidewalks for the visually impaired, Japan’s nation-wide demands for more elevators and accessibility ramps, and other changes, have been implemented with speed and efficiency. Both Josh and Anthony suspect that this has a lot to do with Japan’s homogenous society and the pride the country takes in seeing every task through to the end. Compared to countries like Canada, which make a lot of noise about eventually making nationwide shifts in infrastructure but end up taking years or decades to complete them, Japan follows through in good time.

Japan’s big push for nation-wide accessibility really took off in the year 2000, when the UN introduced new international standards to combat discrimination against disabled persons.

There has certainly been a positive shift in Japanese welfare for the disabled. In times past, a disabled person was fully reliant on family members to provide them with any necessary accompaniment or care. This meant that if a disabled citizen ended up alone, they might be forced to enter a facility. They also had fewer opportunities to go out and enjoy themselves. However, with recent changes, paid government employees accompany disabled people as part of their jobs. This leads to individuals with disabilities making more use of public facilities—which in turn alerts authorities about which facilities need better accessibility. It’s a chain of cause-and-effect that is leading to steady growth around the country.

Anthony and Josh are both particularly impressed by Japan’s attention for detail when it comes to the little things. Several amenities for disabled people are kept subtle but useful, so that people who don’t use them might not even notice them. For example, handrails in the stations and airports have braille on them—but the braille is always underneath the handrail. If you don’t use braille, you might use Japanese handrails a thousand times without realizing this useful feature is even there. Another great example is the ever-so-slight difference in size between standardized conditioner and shampoo bottles in Japan. Seeing-impaired users can tell the difference between the two, but it’s so beautifully subtle that it doesn’t stand out to other consumers. It’s this minute attention to detail that elevates Japan’s accessibility…even though the country does have its areas that still need improvement.

Accessibility in Japan’s Public Transportation

Japan is world famous for its public transportation system…but how does it hold up in the eyes of someone who needs accessibility to travel with ease? Anthony and Josh break down the different types of public transport in Japan and how accessible each one is for disabled individuals.

Trains and Shinkansen

Josh has only good things to say about Japan’s commuter trains. Every train station that has over 3,000 people using it daily is required by law to be up to national standards when it comes to accessibility. This might sound like a high bar to reach, but in a country like Japan that is so reliant on public transport, at least 90% of the stations reach the bar with ease.

That said, Josh has had largely positive experiences in Japanese stations. The ticketing machines are easy to reach, and anyone who has difficulty using their arms can easily ask for assistance from the station attendant. Once you have your ticket, you take it to the special lane at the gate and tell the station attendant where you want to go. They will not only take you to the train and give you a ramp, but will radio ahead to the station you need to disembark at. Station attendants will be waiting with ramps to help you get off and on each train—and they will do so while ensuring the train runs on time. It’s sort of like the red-carpet treatment and is available not only for wheelchair users but for the seeing-impaired as well. The one caveat might be the language barrier, so Anthony and Josh both recommend that if you need this service, you should memorize your destination names and maybe learn a bit of basic Japanese.

Using the Shinkansen, Japan’s unique bullet train, might be a bit more challenging in terms of accessibility. While the Shinkansen are all required to have accessible seating, these seats are not available for reservation on the websites. Josh—and Japan Railways—recommends calling or visiting the ticketing office a few days in advance to reserve your seat. If you’re travelling between large stations like those in Tokyo or Kyoto, it might not be difficult to get accessible seats on the day you’re travelling. However, in smaller stations with fewer trains it’s almost a necessity to call or visit ahead of time. You can still use the JR Rail Pass if you have one—you’ll just have to be a bit more careful if you choose to travel by bullet train.

Buses and Taxis

According to Josh, Japan’s city buses are quite accessible. Just make sure that the driver sees you want to get on, and they will put a ramp down for you at the bus’s middle door. In the accessible seating area of the bus are special chairs that can be folded to make room if you are in a wheelchair. Japanese city buses are all equipped with buttons on the poles or railings that you can push at your stop. As you get off, the driver will assist you again.

Highway buses and airport buses are a different matter. As these tend to have a luggage bay, they’re much higher off the ground. If you use a wheelchair, this poses a problem unless your wheelchair is foldable. If you’re using a powered wheelchair, however, Josh advises to avoid these buses; it might not be possible for you to get up the stairs. While airports in Tokyo especially have started offering wheelchair-specific vans and buses, keep in mind that these were designed to cater to local passengers and might pose a language barrier problem if you’re not comfortable with Japanese.

Taxis are another popular method of public transport in Japan. Josh warns, however, that the taxi fare can really add up, especially if you’re going long-distance through a major city with toll roads and such. While Tokyo in particular has been adding wheelchair-accessible taxi services such as Toyota’s JPN Taxi, both Anthony and Josh agree that some trouble can spring up when actually attempting to use the specialized taxis as a wheelchair-bound person. The cab drivers might grumble about the extra trouble of attaching the special ramp or might not have trained to handle disabled customers in the first place. If you want to hail a taxi and you’re using a wheelchair, it might be best to reserve one ahead of time using an app or online service, just to be safe. Anthony also recommends checking out Uber, if you’re in a major city. Uber is relatively new to Japan, but in areas like Tokyo the service is steadily growing.

Japan Hotel Wheelchair Accessible

Japan’s Hotels: Accessible, or Not so Much?

Another major point of concern if you’re travelling abroad is room and board. How do Japan’s hotels hold up in terms of accessibility? According to Josh, they’ve still got a long way to go. In addition to being smaller and more cramped than hotels in other countries, Japanese hotels have only recently been expected by the government to have more than one accessible room—and that’s only if they had more than fifty rooms in the building!

Fortunately, the Olympics and growing tourist rates did kick the law up slightly: now for every 100 rooms the hotel has, they are legally required to have one accessible room available. That still isn’t a lot, and Japan’s hotel industry seems to trend towards the minimum standard of “accessible.” Josh points out the troubling statistic that only 0.4% of hotel rooms in Japan are wheelchair accessible. Many rooms claiming to be “accessible” might still have a random step up into the bathroom or might simple be too cramped for a wheelchair-bound guest to be able to move comfortably around the room.

Many rooms claiming to be “accessible” might still have a random step up into the bathroom or might simple be too cramped for a wheelchair-bound guest to be able to move comfortably around the room.

On a more hopeful note, Anthony and Josh do some quick research to add that Airbnb might offer a wider selection of options for tourists with disabilities. The website offers a healthy variety of filters if you want to search for accessible rooms or homes to stay in. Unlike many Japanese hotels, which cater more towards officer workers on a business trip, Airbnb is aimed at tourists. They might be the better choice for booking a place to sleep in.

What About Tourist Attractions?

To answer the question of accessibility when it comes to tourist attractions, Josh separates Japanese tourist attractions into two broad categories: one-site attractions and area attractions.

Site attractions would be exemplified with spots like Senso-ji: the main attraction and anything you’d is all located on the same site. Senso-ji itself wins high praise from Josh, as it’s been very specifically adapted to be accessible for everyone. Steps near the gate were leveled so the whole area is flat and the high-standing temple has an elevator near the side entrance for anyone in a wheelchair. Josh adds that most temples and shrines strive to be accessible, even if they aren’t major tourist attractions. This is probably due to the fact that Japan’s population is aging, and the elders are the ones who tend to place more importance on religious or traditional activities at these holy sites.

In contrast to site attractions, area attractions are a bit more difficult in terms of accessibility. These would be along the lines of a wider area or town such as Akihabara. They’re famous attractions, but before that they’re also public spaces that are stretched over a certain area and often are owned by various groups and individuals. There’s no guarantee that this sort of location will be consistently accessible, and in addition they tend to be jam-packed with people. An area attraction is still worth it if you really want to go, but be aware that it’s best to look up accessible restaurants, stores, and amenities in the area before heading there.

Josh adds that cultural heritage sites can also be lacking in accessibility. This is less so due to crowds or the size of an area, and more to do with the fact that changing infrastructure in these sites runs the risk of damaging the structure or losing the heritage title. For more information on this sort of thing, check out Accessible Japan’s attraction page.

Gaijin Status: The Great Equalizer

Anthony asks Josh whether he feels like Japanese people look at him as a disabled person first or as a gaijin (foreigner) first. Josh affirms the latter, and admits that he sometimes appreciates it. In a small, homogenous society like Japan’s, being foreign will often be seen as more of a novelty than being almost anything else. Your specific race, gender, and body can sometimes seem to disappear in the greater picture of just how different you are as a foreigner. Josh feels he’s treated as a guest even now, and as such might receive more patience and possibly better treatment than a native disabled person might.

Your specific race, gender, and body can sometimes seem to disappear in the greater picture of just how different you are as a foreigner.

Why Accessible Japan?

When asked why he created his website Accessible Japan, Josh admits that it started out as more of a personal project. He had been surprised by the lack of English information on using a wheelchair in Japan and had begun posting his own research. However, more and more people in different situations and walks of life began to reach out to him with questions. Now, Josh eagerly collects viewpoints and experiences from around the spectrum of differently-abled people to build Accessible Japan’s repertoire. Beyond wheelchair accessibility-related information, the website now offers information about rest areas for people using walkers, service animal guidelines, how-to guides for bringing medication into Japan, and more. It’s a treasure trove of resources for people who want to visit Japan.

Before COVID-19 shook up Japan’s 2020 Olympics plans, there were going to be a projected 40 million tourists arriving in Japan this year. Anthony points out that even if only 1% of those tourists had needed the sort of accessibility information that Josh puts on his website, that would still be 400,000 people. Japan still has work to do, but it’s a society that is pushing steadily towards accessibility goals. Both Anthony and Josh urge listeners to visit someday.

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