By Barrier Free Japan
September 27 2021
Japan just recently finished hosting the Paralympic Games, making a big show of it, and some say quite successfully, given the conditions that a pandemic allows, of at least attempting to demonstrate that Japan could be a ‘barrier free society.’
However, it was reported by Jiji Press recently that the Japanese convenience store chain ‘Family Mart’ plans to open approximately 1,000 outlets with unmanned checkout counters by the end of the 2024 fiscal year.
Since 2018, there seemingly has been a big move in the service industries in Japan towards ‘unmanned’ shops and other services that have no personnel attending, where the customer or service user pays by using a self-service checkout machine. Seemingly concurrently with this move towards ‘unmanned’ services, in 2018, the Japanese mobile phone company SoftBank in conjunction with Yahoo Japan, released the PayPay app, an app that enables someone to pay for goods at convenience stores through their smartphone.
‘Contactless payment’ started to become popular in Japan around this time, and it increased in popularity, perhaps for understandable reasons, as the pandemic was discovered and ‘states of emergencies’ were announced.
Not all are fans of this great leap forward towards to what we might call a ‘contact free society’ here in Japan, where shops and services outlets are often ‘unmanned’ and chief amongst the most concerned are arguably people with disabilities.
As JR Kyushu planned to make eight train stations in Oita City ‘unmanned stations’ in February 2018, disability rights groups were already protesting saying: “it is convenient and safe but for people with disabilities and elderly people it can lead to discrimination.”
A disability group in Kyushu went on to sue JR Kyushu over access issues regarding ‘unmanned stations’ and the first oral arguments were heard in February 2021. The group sought damages from JR Kyushu, alleging that the unmanned railway stations violated freedom of movement. The plaintiffs ask, “How can we make the station easy to use?”
Harumi Yoshida, 67, one of the plaintiffs, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. To use the train, assistance from the staff is indispensable, but the JR staff can only assist a wheelchair user if they are given prior notification, sometimes a day before traveling. Yoshida says:
“When station staff were there, I wasn’t worried always because they helped me whenever I needed their assistance, such as when I had to negotiate the stairs. But after it became unmanned, I can’t use that station anymore without planning ahead.”
However, some people with disabilities in Japan do seem to want to embrace the ‘self-service’ machines and ‘contactless’ technology. I asked members of a Facebook group affiliated with the NHK TV Show ‘Barrier Free Variety’, a disability magazine TV show produced by NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster what they thought about self-service checkouts at convenience stores as well as ‘contactless’ payment apps like ‘PayPay’. Some of those who responded were enthusiastic, making statements like:
“Yes” or “I often use it” and another stated that “it’s perfect for me with autism developmental disorder.”
Others on the Facebook group were not so enthusiastic. One common complaint is that the ATM, and you need to use an ATM to ‘top-up’ your PayPay account, was too difficult to use and that the self-service machine is ‘too high’ making it difficult to access for wheelchair user. One commented quite poetically about this difficulty:
“For wheelchair users
The position is high
I’m watching the screen from below
I can’t see the display well
In the first place
I can’t reach my hands”
“I can’t even reach the height with a wheelchair. The convenience store closest to my house has a self-checkout system, but the clerk is just standing there, and I can’t touch the screen or put money in the register because I have a weak grip.
I asked them if they could operate the machine for me. I have a bag, so please put it in. It was not my fault, but for some reason, I wondered if they could operate the machine for me. I used to use this store for a long time before I became disabled. Do the clerks have a manual? Self-checkout machines themselves are not designed to be used by people with physical disabilities.”
However, there is hope. For example, it was reported by Kyodo on September 24th that Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism compiled a draft barrier-free measure to enable people with disabilities to get on and off smoothly at unmanned stations. If it is not possible to assign a staff member to assist wheelchair users in advance, the main suggestion is for drivers and conductors to get off the train and assist. Specific guidelines are to be established within the year.