Today we have a great guest post by Josh of “Accessible Japan” who’ll talk about how accessible and barrier-free Japan really is for wheelchair users:
At 6 months of age, I was diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy and have used an electric wheelchair since I was 3 years-old. However, there was no way I was going to let that hold me back from leaving frozen Canada and move to the object of my affection – Japan.
Accessibility: Canada vs. Japan
A question I often get from both Japanese people and foreigners is “isn’t it harder to live here than in Canada for a person with a disability?” The answer is a resounding “no!” Japan is a great place for accessibility.
Like any place in the world, not so long ago people with disabilities were often hidden away from society. This still exists to an extent in Japan as there are separate schools for people with disabilities, instead of having integration into classrooms. (Before over-reacting and thinking other parts of the world are more enlightened, not so long ago, my mother had to fight to help me integrate in my school in Canada.)
I noticed this sheltering of the disabled the first time I came to Japan in the summer of 2000. While there were accommodations for those with disabilities, I hardly met anyone else in a wheelchair that wasn’t over 80. I also remember being stared at often. But it was never a stare of somebody looking down on me, but more of innocent curiosity – though, I’m not surprised as I had the double-hitter of being disabled and an incredibly handsome foreigner. Well, a foreigner at least.
Accessible Japan: Transportation
When going on the train, I often faced challenges. Not every station had an elevator, so there were places I couldn’t go or I would need to get out at a nearby station and drive the rest of the way in my wheelchair. Sometimes, there were elevators but not for public use – the first time I went to Akihabara, I was guided through staff-only areas and unceremoniously exited the station in a back-alley where the garbage was thrown out!
This may sound horrible, but one thing kept me constantly amazed – the station staff. Aside from all the regular gushing about kindness that foreigners often do, there were times where I was genuinely moved by the effort the staff often put in for me. After visiting Sensoji in Asakusa, I went to ride the subway but couldn’t find an entrance with an elevator. My friend figured it would be faster to go down and ask the staff. While they informed my friend there was no elevator, they offered to carry me down (likely assuming I was skinny and in a light manual wheelchair) and 3 staff came to help. I tried to convince them it wouldn’t be worth hurting their backs over and we could go to another station, but they insisted it was fine. They went and gathered more staff and I was carried down five flights of stairs like a Mikoshi at a festival. It was a mixture of utter fear and gratitude I still remember 15 years later.
Fast forward to today and Japan has – as it continually does – changed. Instead of being the spectacle I was, I feel like just another guy in a wheelchair. And there are many more out and about.
In my home country of Canada, it is hard to do anything without a car and I was often very restricted in my daily life because of that fact. However, here in Japan I have found a new sense of freedom. The train system, as everyone knows, is extensive and can take you almost anywhere in Tokyo. And, it is easy to use for someone in a wheelchair! Check out this video I made:
The Shinkansen is also very friendly to people with disabilities, even having an accessible toilet that a wheelchair can fit in. (Feel free to read my shinkansen report here.)
Accessible Japan: Toilets
On a much baser note, the toilets in Japan are second to none. And, I’m not just talking about shower toilets – though, toilets without showers just seem barbaric now. In North America, the idea of an accessible public toilet is a stall at the very back of the washroom that is a bit bigger than the other stalls. Often, I can barely fit in it and have a very difficult time transferring to the toilet as it isn’t just me in there, but a care attendant as well! Not so here in Japan. Next to the ladies’ and gents’, there is a separate room called a “multi-purpose toilet”. It is often roomy enough not to just fit in, but actually move around! There are all sorts of gadgets for people with ostomates etc as well. They even have them in most parks – and they’re clean!
Accessible Japan: Other Challenges
While I painted a rosy picture, there are still some unique Japan-only challenges. The biggest of which is Japan itself. What I mean by this is wafuu, or “Japanese style”. As with most foreigners in Japan, one reason you are here is because you like Japanese stuff. Unfortunately, Japanese stuff also includes a lot of things that are not wheelchair-friendly.
If you go to any fancy Japanese restaurant, you are likely met with some large rocks in a river of pebbles leading up to the entrance. Even if you can get past this, you will definitely have a “genkan” or entrance step. Obviously sitting on the floor is out as well. This can mean sometimes resorting to chain restaurants. A rather big letdown. This isn’t just single restaurants either. Many times I have gone to buildings that are 8- to 10-stories tall and filled with restaurants and, while there is an elevator and the building is accessible, the restaurant itself, wanting to exude a feeling of Japanese tradition, builds a step or two at the entrance.
While there are hiccups, Japan is an amazingly accessible place. With the population aging and the Paralympics coming in 2020, it will only get better. Hope to see you here!
“Accessible Japan: How to Live and Travel in a Wheelchair?” is a guest post and any information, graphics or videos are provided by Josh. Therefore Zooming Japan doesn’t take any responsibility for the content.