JAPAN — Aging is Changing a Country

Accessible Japan: Image of people in wheel chairs getting assistance while alighting trains

Japan has the longest overall life expectancy of any country in the world, and nearly 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 “barrierfree” environments that also benefit those with disabilities. Satoshi Kose is one of the architects of a more accessible Japan. The professor, who teaches 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 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, when the accessible built environment building law was in place, 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 people on 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, 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)

Accessible bathrooms with raised commodes, helper bars and accessible sinks.

Cooper: That wasn’t very inclusive.

Kose: I remember accompanying a person who used a wheelchair in a Tokyo station. 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?

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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.

Cooper: Sometimes it’s not so much that they “can’t” comply, as much as they decide not to, figuring that it’s easier to pay the penalty. That happens around the world.

Kose: The problem is that it’s sometimes difficult to find a good job that’s suitable for people with disabilities, and in other cases it’s rather difficult to find someone qualified to do the job. Many organizations have had difficulty in meeting the target. My university was no exception, but it finally succeeded in employing people with disabilities last year.

Cooper: Is there a résumé bank where people with disabilities, who have been so identified, can submit their résumés and companies can search through them? Is that how they find each other?

Kose: I think it depends.

Cooper: Does either the government or a private company have any resources for people with disabilities to post their résumés, so companies can come in and search them and decide to whom they want to offer a job?

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Kose: I don’t think so. The company or government just says that it wants someone to be employed within the framework of the person with disabilities, but there’s no central database system being used.

Cooper: Out of that 2 percent, are employers identifying the type of disabilities they intend to hire?

Kose: It’s more left to companies to decide.

Cooper: Do you have an accepted definition of a disability? In the US, we passed the Americans with Disability Act in 1990, followed by the ADA Amendment Act in 2008. Do you have something comparable in Japan?

Kose: In Japan, people with disabilities are certified by the government.

Cooper: That’s interesting.

Kose: They are called to be counted, registered as people with disabilities, and then certified.

Cooper: So they have to self-identify with the government and go through a process?

Kose: Yes. It falls under the Ministry of Health and Welfare Department. But the definition of disability is very strict, so the ratio of people with disabilities officially registered are smaller in ratio compared to other countries. In 2012, for example, Japanese official statistics listed people with physical disabilities at 2.9 percent, developmental disabilities at .4 percent, and mental disabilities at 2.5 percent.

Cooper: Let’s say you have a student with a disability; is he or she being identified early on in the school system?

Kose: Children are basically under the control of Ministry of Education, however the certification for a child with a disabilitiy is similar. The definition is strict, and the child is directed to go to a special school for people with visual impairment, hearing impairment or physical impairment. As I mentioned, inclusive education is growing slowly. And we are now experiencing more and more children being diagnosed with ADHD and other learning challenges. It can be difficult to classify and certify that children have a disability.

Cooper: Let’s say you identify a child with ADHD and dyslexia. You’re saying that even though they have been identified in the school system as a child with a disability, they might not be qualified to be a person assisted through the health ministry?

Kose: I think compared to other physical disabilities, learning disabilities are considered to be less significant.

Cooper: Tell me how you’re involved with the Zero Project?

Kose: I managed to propose design guidelines for [zero barrier] dwellings for an aging society through a research and development project. I then proposed to link its adoption with housing mortgage interest rates. Here, we’ve long had the Japan Housing Loan Corporation (JHLC), which is a semigovernment financing organization to assist people with buying homes. My proposal was that only those designs with higher standards, i.e. housingpolicy linked projects, would be eligible for the lower interest rates made possible by government subsidies.

It was expected to incentivize builders to make dwellings more accessible and usable for those in their older years, and just by making people aware of this option, we could nudge them to prepare for a better future. The program lasted for about 10 years with some success, but its role has been diminished. The plan was to create durable, energyconserving design for the aging, who would get a lower interest rate. But private sector banks wanted to get back into the housing mortgage business, and insisted that JHLC be abolished because it was no longer needed. As the economy started to come back, the private sector had more than enough money to lend and rediscovered that mortgages make for a better business proposition than a speculative building investment. Now the JHLC must compete against private banks, which is difficult because interest rates are historically low.

Cooper: That’s really too bad. Let’s go back to the Zero Project for a moment. I noticed that you’ve frequently been invited to speak about it. Tell me more about that.

Kose: My intention for the design guideline proposal was to raise people’s expectations for the quality of what they could expect, which could be done with just a slight difference in the interest rate. The government wants a higher level than the minimum requirements by the building standard law, which doesn’t take into consideration seniors or people with disabilities. My idea was that if all dwellings were prepared for everyone to ageinplace, then that could be a platform for people with disabilities to modify, according to their individual needs. Unfortunately, when a law regarding senior housings was enacted in 2001, the design guidelines were geared more narrowly towards seniors but not for everyone who needs to age-in-place.

Cooper: I guess maybe I’m missing something. The difference in the financing would be that monies would be set to modify homes for—

Kose: It wouldn’t modify them; the money would only go towards new construction, which is much easier.

Cooper: Meaning to make sure the homes were built using universal design?

Kose: Yes.

Cooper: In my hotel room, you have to take a big step into a prefabricated bathroom.

Kose: That’s too bad. With the guest rooms in hotels, it is possible to make them without a step. In Hamamatsu, where my university is, I stayed in a hotel for 11 years that had no step difference between rooms. The problem is that it’s a very small size room unit with a closet and a bathtub and is not wheelchair accessible.

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Cooper: The size was not the issue. But for people without any mobility, it’s going to be hard for a caregiver to get in there.

Kose: That’s true. Stepping up to the bathroom area is difficult. To make it flat, you have to have some depth under the bathroom area for the plumbing. Some hotels have a step there because that’s much easier and cheaper to build, even though it’s not userfriendly or accessible.

If you look through my papers on design for aging, you’ll notice that we’ve tried to keep it flat between the dressing area and the wet area next to the bathtub. The bathtub edge is about 16inches high, but the dressing and wet areas are basically flat. We’ve proposed this be done in every bathroom. And when the Great Hanshin Earthquake occurred in 1995, many dwellings fell, and the emergency shelter and housing were not accessible, which caused people to suffered.

Cooper: How did the earthquake impact design?

Kose: After that, public rentals were built to be more accessible. The public housing was basically built flat, including the bathroom area. Down the road, residents, particularly seniors, and those who will soon become seniors, are expected to choose to stay in local government rental housing and are unlikely to build or purchase new dwellings. That design style is mirrored in private sector condominiums, because people who purchase a condo unit are spending quite a bit of money, so it’s out of the question that the dwellings they buy will have the step level difference in the bathroom. So we have learned a lot in 20 years since the earthquake, and now we are trying to make things better. Very slowly we’re improving.


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