Hell on four wheels

Getting around in a world made for walkers

by Rob Gilhooly

It is a bad, humiliating start to the day. Usually, I can get from my office to the platform of JR Tamachi Station in about 10 minutes. Today it has taken just under 50 minutes.

There have been no detours or serious mishaps. Today I am, in a nutshell, legless. But not in the alcoholic sense: My legs are simply out of order, parked with the rest of me on a wheelchair. All this talk about making Japan more accessible to the disabled and the elderly got me thinking: Just how barrier-free is the nation’s capital?

It doesn’t take long to get an idea. For the most part, the journey to the station had passed without much ado, despite several near-collisions with passersby and the unpleasant experience of having cigarette ash flicked in my face. Some people can’t seem to see anything that is below eye level.

But that’s nothing compared with what awaits me at the station: Steps — lots of them (45, to be precise), and no way up. I wheel around searching for an escalator, elevator or even an intercom to announce my presence — all in vain.

In desperation I call out to a passerby — a middle-aged man in a suit — and ask (politely) if he would call a station official on his way through the station. He stops, briefly, looks me up and down with an expression that suggests he is suffering from indigestion, and then scampers on up the steps.

I try again, with a younger individual, who gives a similar response, but at least manages a sympathetic smile and a gesture to show he’s in a bit of a rush.

This continues for about 15 minutes, until two men in their 20s stop and offer to carry me up. I reluctantly decline. How will this blatant oversight, which presumably has existed since the station was built, be rectified if the very people operating the place are never faced with having to deal with it?

I express my thanks, and they offer to alert an official for me.

I feel frustratingly helpless (what if no one comes?), but I am not alone in my plight. Accompanying me is Makoto Nakazawa, a wheelchair-user with far more experience in negotiating Tokyo on four self-propelled wheels. After another 10-minute wait, he suggests we look for an alternative mode of transport.

Just as I am beginning to think I should listen to the voice of experience, four station staff members come skipping down the steps and, two on either side of the wheelchair, haul Nakazawa up the steps before returning to repeat the process for me.

At the top, I ask one of them about the intercom. There isn’t one, he says. So, how are disabled people expected to get up the steps? Those steps, he informs me, do not belong to the station, but to Minato Ward.

As we are ushered toward the ticket collector’s gate at the far end of a long row of automatic gates too narrow for our chairs, Nakazawa flashes a knowing smile. “This is about as bad as it gets,” he says.

Trains represent the best and the worst faced by Japan’s 3 million disabled people. Some are effectively out of bounds for wheelchair-users, while others (the Yurikamome Line, for example) are like a dreamworld, where technology blends with an alert staff that bends over backward to accommodate.

Others are so in-between as to be as useless as those with no facilities at all. (Once you are in the station at Tamachi there is, ironically, a chairlift device that can take you down the 32 steps to the platform).

Lack of forethought, I am soon to discover, is evident elsewhere — in apparel outlets, coffee shops, bars, convenience stores and cinemas, among others. Blatant discrimination is rare, sheer lack of awareness — the biggest barrier to a barrier-free society — is rife.

Nakazawa and I are headed for Ginza, via Yurakucho — a three-stop trip that, in the end, takes us 40 minutes. Once out on the streets of glitzy Ginza, our first task is to find a bicycle shop (Nakazawa has a flat). We ask at a police box, but a kindly officer tells us we need look no further. Pulling out a pump, he proceeds to breathe new life into Nakazawa’s tires, not to mention my barrier-free hopes, which have been truly deflated until now.

It doesn’t last long, though. As we trundle along the streets, I am immediately struck by the number of stores that have a step at the entranceway — few offer ramps or slopes.

Steps are a drag. Even the lowest, seemingly most insignificant ones signal the end of independence for wheelchair-users.

Yet, even where slopes or ramps are provided, they are not always of use. Take the one outside the Lawson convenience store in Ginza 8-chome: It’s too steep for a manual wheelchair. When I do manage to get halfway up, I suddenly get the feeling that the chair is going to tip over backward.

I am curious to see if there is actually anywhere where we can take lunch. A yakitori restaurant that had at first looked promising turns out to be in the basement (no elevator); a sushi shop has a step so high it would test Gulliver; and a noodle house has fixed stools and a counter that we couldn’t possibly reach anyway.

Eventually we settle for a small eatery called Kokonoe. Once inside, waiters eagerly pull out chairs from under tables, which are low enough for us to eat from.

First, however, I must visit the gents’. I follow the signs and wheel myself down a narrow corridor. At the end, there is a door and surprise, surprise, a step in front of it (and the doorway is too narrow for a wheelchair, anyway). Luckily, it wasn’t an emergency.

Later, as we explore the broad aisles of Matsuzakaya department store, we discover there is a toilet for the disabled on the third floor. Problem is, we can’t find it. There are no signs, and we have to ask a young store attendant to point us in the right direction.

But relief is short-lived. I had set my heart on going to watch a movie, so we trundle down the road to the Marion cinema complex. We take an elevator to the third floor, where I ask a staffer if there are any spaces set aside for wheelchair-users. There aren’t, he somewhat sheepishly replies, but I can watch from the aisle — right at the back.

The screen, like the facilities, seems too far removed from what I’d imagined, so we venture back out into the cold, where, I point out to Nakazawa, you can at least enjoy a slice of freedom.

Responding to my growing irritation, though, Nakazawa tells me that he ranks Tokyo as one of the most accommodating cities for the disabled: not a patch on many American cities, but certainly better than those of Europe, particularly London and Paris.

He recently visited Britain’s capital and found it “a nightmare” to get around. Pavements, he says, are not only narrow, but paving slabs and cobblestones — banes in the life of a wheelchair-user — are commonplace.

More important, though, he says, is the mental barrier there. For example, many taxi drivers, who are required to carry ramps, often simply ignore wheelchair-users.

He is keen to show me Tokyo’s good side, and we head off toward Shinbashi and the Yurikamome Line. Here, there are elevators for the disabled that lead straight up onto the platforms, and in certain carriages, there are intercoms.

By the time we alight two stops down, an official is waiting for us with a ramp to help bridge the gap.

Despite this rather fleeting insight into how it all could be in 2010 (by which time the government plans to have created a barrier-free Japan), I decide it’s time to call it a day (apart from anything else, my bum is numb and my arms about ready to drop off).

Remembering what Nakazawa had said about London’s cabbies, I suggest we take a cab back to Tamachi. The first one that passes stops, and the driver carefully helps Nakazawa in before neatly collapsing the wheelchairs and putting them in the boot.

The process is repeated (in reverse) when we alight, and I cover the final stretch back in a woolly haze of hope — only to be shaken wide awake by a bloody big step at the entrance to the office.