By Barrier Free Japan with extracts originally published in The Japan Times in 2017
July 3 2021
If you are in Japan for an extended period of time, there is a phrase you will hear often. The phrase is ‘Barrier Free’. The slogan is how Japan tries to sell itself as being ‘pro-disability’. Railway stations like to point out that they are ‘Barrier Free’, meaning that they accessible to people with disabilities and the TV channel NHK-E produces a show called ‘NHK Baribara’, about the lives of the disabled people living in Japan.
I have cerebral palsy, although I do not need to use a wheelchair, I do need to use a walking stick to help me walk. It can be very easy for me to forget that their places that I can access with ease that might be tricky or impossible for a wheelchair user. So having a guided a tour around Shibuya Ward, Tokyo in mid-November 2017, led by Josh Grisdale of the website Accessible Japan, along with the athlete Kazumi Nakayama, a Track and Field Paralympian at the Rio 2016 Games – both are wheelchair users, Nakayama because of a spinal cord infection which resulted in paralysis, was an instructive experience.
Wandering around Shibuya, you notice how wide the sidewalks actually are, not just near the ‘Scramble’ or Shibuya Crossing – which is traversable in a wheelchair, despite being one of the busiest pedestrian and vehicle interchanges in the world – but even beyond that, many of the backstreets are wide enough even for two wheelchairs to be side by side, a rarity in Japan as whole, where there is often either a narrow sidewalk, or no sidewalk at all.
Leave the inner sanctum that is the Metropolitan area of Tokyo and you can see why Tokyo Governor Koike remarked in September of 2016 “We have developed roads that are too narrow”:
An issue that is perhaps just as important as widening the streets, is the lack of space within buildings. On the tour we visited Meiji Shrine, and stopped outside a café near the shrine’s entrance. To its credit, the café had a ramp so effectively a wheelchair user could enter it – so it could perhaps claim to be ‘barrier-free’ – but one of the wheelchair using members of our party pointed out that there is not enough space for them to turn their wheelchair once inside the café, at least not without annoying other patrons, the tables are too close together, and the walkway between tables too narrow. To make it truly ‘barrier-free’ the café would have to remove some tables, which would mean less business, all to make room for a customer with a disability that may never appear, and in a place expensive as Tokyo where you need all the custom you can get, even I would feel sorry for the café owner.