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.
Thank you for that interesting guest article, Josh! I work for a travel agency and although I’ve seen how accessible things are or aren’t and how helpful train staff is (they even have attachable stair lifts!), it’s completely different to a first hand experience. I’ve had a few questions about how accesible Japan is and it’s great to have such a wonderful source for it!
Thanks to Zooming Japan for making me aware of it!
Exactly my thoughts.
We can tell people something is barrier-free, but for judging if it’s really easy to access in a wheelchair first-hand experience is definitely necessary.
Accessible Japan is a great resource for that! :D
I’m glad you enjoyed it! I love to answer questions, so, please ask if you have any! As Jasmine says, experience is essential. I often have to be prepared for anything even after being told a place is accessible. When people walk, it is automatic to go up a step without noticing – so it doesn’t register as an issue. On the other hand, people often over analyze things and say its impossible when there is only a 2cm bump. That is why I am building my site – so I can give as much info as possible so they can judge for themselves.
But a spirit of adventure is always essential.
I will be bringing my mother to Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka for a holiday next year. However, I need to rent for a wheelchair for my mother as she could not walk for a long distance. Could you please let me know where I could rent a wheelchair in Nagoya?
Thanks for reaching out! I replied to your email, but it may not have gone through, if so please reply here and let me know so we can work something out!
Hello! We are going for a 4 days trip in asakuza Tokyo Japan this coming Dec 19. I have a son who is in wheelchair as he is diagnosed with spastic cerebral palsy. My concern really is how would we be able to go around the city with him especially on the transportation side. Is going by train accessible for us these days? Are their lifts especially in asakusa station? Or riding a taxi is more convenient? What about the cost? I hope riding a taxi will not cost us a fortune. This is our 1st time in Japan.
We are planning to leave my son’s wheelchair since it is very heavy and just buy a more lighter and travel friendly wheelchair. Is there any store near our destinatio where we could buy one? Your
This is Josh from Accessible Japan. This should be absolutely no problem with using the trains and train station at Asakusa has an elevator. Can you please contact me directly so we can discuss the wheelchair? There it’s a contact form on my website http://www.accessible-japan.com. Looking forward to hearing from you.
My family really wants to travel to Japan, but my oldest son is in a wheelchair and so that is a bit of a worry for me. However, I am really happy that you had a positive experience with the transportation there and the courtesy of the staff. I definitely think that my husband could carry our oldest son if he needed to. However, what do you mean by needing an elevator to get on the trains? Do you mean a wheelchair lift? If it’s just a foot that we’d have to pick up the wheelchair to get our son in the train, then I think that we would be okay.
Sorry it was a bit unclear. The place you buy your train ticket, and the place you get on the train are almost always on different floors – so to get from the ticket gate to the tracks, you need to take an elevator.
Not all stations have an elevator down/up to the tracks, but may have a wheelchair lift attached to the side of the stairs, or a special escalator that wheelchairs can use.
For getting on the actual train, staff from the station will go with you to the train and lay down a slope. The gap to the train is usually only about a foot.
Hope this clears things up!
I will be spending 10 weeks from May 23 to July 28 in Kyoto as visiting professor, and am looking for some places to rent cheaply a narrow wheelchair (62 cm or less width f)or use inside my apartment and toilet. Any links or suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks,
Unfortunately I cannot help you with that, so I hope Josh is gonna answer.
If not, I recommend visiting his website (a link to it can be found towards the end of this blog post) and drop him a note there. :)
Enjoy your trip! ^^