Japan has the
longest overall life expectancy of any country in the world, and more than a quarter of its residents are 65 and over. This rising Silver Tide has moved the country’s leaders to explore how to accommodate its aging population. At the same time, Japan is exploring how to create “barrier-free” environments that also benefit those with disabilities. Satoshi Kose is one of the architects of a more accessible Japan. The professor emeritus, who taught in the graduate school of design at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture, recently spoke with Chet Cooper when ABILITY Magazine visited him in Japan.
Chet Cooper: I noticed that Japan ratified the UN Convention on the
Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Satoshi Kose: Yes. It took so long because the Japanese bureaucrats
are very, very conservative, and wanted to be sure that when they
ratified it, almost everything was in place. In many countries, they
ratify the Convention and then start to do the work. At one time,
the Japanese government was ready to ratify the Convention, but people
with disabilities said no. Perhaps they didnt think
we were ready.
Although weve had special education for many years, Japan is
very, very behind when it comes to inclusive education. Now, one of
the main issues were dealing with is to have special schools
and inclusive education, to bring children with disabilities into
a typical school setting. In order to do that, we need more teaching
staff, which is very difficult to achieve because of financial constraints.
So even though the Ministry of Education wants to go in that direction,
the Ministry of Finance doesnt want to spend more money.
(laughs) So its going to take more time.
Cooper: And the education piece is partly why the Convention took
so long to be ratified?
Kose: Yes. The education system was not ready to accept the concept
Cooper: of inclusion.
Kose: Right, which is what the Convention assumed.
Cooper: How many years do you think the government will take to
become in compliance?
Kose: Japan has passed a law to stop discrimination against people
with disabilities; it has two years to implement the law. So in two
years time, the government wants to persuade people, organizations,
maybe even small businesses, to be ready to comply. We have already
seen many small restaurants work to become more accessible. This is
particularly difficult in places located on hillsides. But the idea
of the new law is to try to make every place more accessible and usable,
and the government is now trying to write guidelines regarding how
to deal with this physically, conceptually, technologically, etc.
And as to the built environment, in 1994 what is now the Ministry of Land Infrastructure and transport (formerly ministry of Construction) introduced a law to promote more accessible and usable buildings. But back then the requirement was not mandatory; it was just a recommendation. In 2000, the government introduced the accessible transportation law. The thinking was that if the government gives a license to a transport company, then it should accommodate, as much as possible, those using their mode of transportation. But the requirement was just for new construction and new facilities.
Cooper: Wait, construction or transportation?
Kose: The law covers new construction/facilities for the public transport of 5,000 passengers or more per day. As for existing facilities, there were no mandatory requirements, but the law did state a desire for facilities and conveyances to be converted and/or modified so they’re more accessible. Modifications were done in bigger stations. For example, in 2002, when we had the first Universal Design Conference in Yokohama, someone from the United States, who had a disability, came to Narita Airport and took the train to Yokohama. Along the way, he had to ask for assistance from the train staff. At a lecture, he said that when he came the next time, he wanted to go from the Narita International Airport to Yokohama without assistance. It took a while, though. After two years from the introduction of the transportation law, the stations and systems still hadn’t been modified. But now, it’s quite easy to travel from that airport to Yokohama without any personal assistance. Most stations now have escalators, elevators, and a more accessible route. And you and your companion took the Shinkansen from Osaka to Tokyo and used the elevators, didn’t you, Chet? Before the introduction of this accessible transportation law, the Shinkansen station elevators were only for management. (laughs)
Cooper: That wasnt very inclusive.
Kose: I remember accompanying a person who used a wheelchair in a Tokyo station. It was in 1997. We used a special route and then took the staff elevator up to the platform in Shinkansen. When we arrived at Kyoto station, we went along another special route, to take another express train to a local station. There, the wheelchair had to be carried down to the platform by the staff because it was not level with the train. That was the situation before the accessible transportation law and before the modifications. Now you can find elevators at every Shinkansen station and at other local stations and metros, so things have changed.
After the introduction of the accessible transportation law in 2000,
came the revision of the accessible building law in 2002. With the
revision, some requirements became mandatory. For instance, in order
to get a permit, builders have to check the newer requirements, including
those having to do with accessibility. If theyre not prepared
to comply, then the building permit wont be issued. And also
with this revision, local governments have the authority to adapt
the requirements to their locality.
Cooper: Is that good or bad?
Kose: Good, because the Japanese are making regulations countrywide,
so this must be applicable everywhere in Japan, including the remote
areas. If the requirements are too high, the building owners may just
give up and not create new construction. But in very busy places,
such as Tokyo and Yokohama, businesses will build and compete with
one another, and in these more competitive places, we can raise the
level of the requirements.
Cooper: So even in the smaller areas, these minimum requirements
Kose: Yes, but because of feasibility the requirement is limited to
buildings with a floor area of 2,000 square meters (21,528 feet) or
more. So smaller buildings are excluded. But as I was saying, the
local government is given much more authority to introduce ordinances,
and ask builders to comply with stricter requirements for bigger localities
such as Tokyo. In 2006, the accessible transportation and accessible
building laws were merged becoming, in a sense, the accessible built
environment law, because they covered similar territory and dealt
with similar concerns.
Cooper: Do other laws govern software and IT?
Kose: With software, there are very few mandated requirements.
Cooper: That includes access to the web and the accessibility of websites
Kose: Web accessibility is pretty standard. I know in some countries
software services are regulated. But in Japan, its very, very
difficult to regulate them. But we have information technology specialists
whove been successful in implementing the American standard
for accessibility, which has also become the Japanese standard. So
if youre building a website, at least you can ask about how
to comply with the standard, but its not mandatory. The same
with the design of products. Thats difficult to regulate. Its
left up to that particular industry to decide, and many are having
a hard time nowadays figuring out how to make things more accessible
Cooper: What about employment? Does Japanese legislation have any
quotas for companies to hire people with disabilities?
Kose: Yes. In the past, the quota was 1.8 percent.
Cooper: You could hire .8 percent of a person?
Kose: I think theyve now raised it to 2 percent. But some cannot
comply with the requirement, and so theyre paying penalties.
You can read
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