Accessible Japan

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 didn’t think we were ready.

Although we’ve had special education for many years, Japan is very, very behind when it comes to inclusive education. Now, one of the main issues we’re 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 doesn’t want to spend more money. (laughs) So it’s 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 wasn’t 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 they’re not prepared to comply, then the building permit won’t 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 are mandatory?

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 themselves?

Kose: Web accessibility is pretty standard. I know in some countries software services are regulated. But in Japan, it’s very, very difficult to regulate them. But we have information technology specialists who’ve been successful in implementing the American standard for accessibility, which has also become the Japanese standard. So if you’re building a website, at least you can ask about how to comply with the standard, but it’s not mandatory. The same with the design of products. That’s difficult to regulate. It’s left up to that particular industry to decide, and many are having a hard time nowadays figuring out how to make things more accessible and usable.

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 they’ve now raised it to 2 percent. But some cannot comply with the requirement, and so they’re paying penalties.

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Excerpts from the Stevie Wonder Issue Jun/Jul 2014:

Shayne — Meningococcal Septicemia

China — Love of Music

VOICEYE — Accessible Code

Stevie Wonder — Isn’t He Lovely?

EARN — Statistics

Japan — Aging is Changing a Country

Articles in the Stevie Wonder Issue; Senator Harkin — Possibilties of ADA; Ashley Fiolek — Back on Track; Humor — Physical Torture; Geri Jewell — Boom, there it is!; Dia— Bachelor of Arts in Deaf Studies; China — Love of Music; Long Haul Paul — Powder Blue Tuxedo; Betsy — NextSTEP; Japan — Aging is Changing a Country; Shayne — Meningococcal Septicemia; Special Olympics — Staying Active; VOICEYE — Accessible Code; Stevie Wonder — Isn’t He Lovely?!; EARN — Statistics; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

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