If you are in Japan for an extended period of time and have even a passing interest in disability issues, there is one phrase you are likely to hear often. That phrase is “barrier-free.”
The buzzword is key to how Japan is trying to sell itself as being “pro-disability.” Railway stations like to point out that they are barrier-free, meaning that they are accessible to people with disabilities, and NHK’s education channel produces a show called “NHK Baribara” (short for “barrier-free variety”) about the lives of people with disabilities across the archipelago.
The poet Robert Frost once wrote that “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost was issuing a warning; he was trying to suggest that barriers are a bad idea. I really want to just embrace Frost’s good intentions, his desire to break down barriers, but certain experiences as a person with a disability prompt me to ask the question: Are barriers always a bad idea?
After all, there are times and places where barriers are a very good idea but are sorely lacking. Take the sad example of Naoto Shinada, 55, a visually impaired man who in August 2016 fell onto the subway tracks at Aoyama-itchome Station in Tokyo. He was taken to hospital and died three hours later. If there had been a safety barrier, he would still be here.
You might think I am being flippant, considering that the kind of barrier I’m talking about is not what the phrase “barrier-free” refers to. However, the death of Shinada highlighted how unaccommodating, often dangerous — even potentially fatal — so-called barrier-free railway stations can sometimes be for people with disabilities in Japan.
It seems that if a person with limited mobility can simply enter a station, that station gets to call itself barrier-free, even if there is no easy way to get to the platform or a ramp to get on the train. The situation is improving, but as of August only 30 percent of Japan’s large railway stations had safety barriers, although the transport ministry has set itself the goal of raising the number of stations nationwide with automated safety gates to 800 from the current 665 in time for 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympics and Paralympics.
As a person with cerebral palsy, although I don’t need to use a wheelchair, I do rely on a cane to help me walk. It’s very easy to forget that there are places that I can enter with ease that might be tricky or impossible for a wheelchair user to access. So, having a guided tour around Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward a couple of weeks ago led by Josh Grisdale of the Accessible Japan website and accompanied by Paralympic athlete Kazumi Nakayama was an instructive experience. Both Grisdale and Nakayama are wheelchair users, the former because of cerebral palsy, the latter due to a spinal cord infection that resulted in paralysis.
Wandering around Shibuya, you can’t help but notice how wide the sidewalks are, and not just near the iconic Shibuya “scramble” crossing — which is traversable in a wheelchair, despite being one of the busiest pedestrian and vehicle interchanges in the world. Many of the back streets are wide enough even for two wheelchairs to be side by side, a rarity elsewhere in Japan, where there is often either a narrow sidewalk or none at all. Leave the inner sanctum that is the Tokyo metropolitan area and you can see what Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike meant when she remarked in September that Japan has “developed roads that are too narrow.”
An issue that is perhaps just as important as broadening the streets is the lack of space in buildings. On the tour we visited Meiji Shrine and stopped outside a cafe near the shrine’s entrance. To its credit, the cafe had a ramp, so effectively a wheelchair user could enter it, but one of the wheelchair-using members of our party pointed out that once inside, there was not enough space for them to turn their wheelchair around — at least not without annoying other patrons. The tables were too close together and the walkway between tables was too narrow.
To make it truly barrier-free, the cafe would have to remove some tables, which would mean less business, and all to make room for a theoretical customer with a disability who may never appear. In a place as expensive as Tokyo, where business owners need all the custom they can get, I can appreciate the cafe owner’s predicament in this case.
To return to my original question, perhaps a better way of posing it is “How do we understand the idea of removing a barrier?” Last year, Gov. Koike stated, “Barrier-free facilities are by all means important, but I believe that a barrier-free mind is equally vital.”
This statement moved me to ask the following: What would a barrier-free mind look like? Would it be a mind that ignored physical difference, employing the dangerous logic of “I do not see your disability, I see beyond it” (often used as an excuse not to deal with someone’s disability)? Or would it be a mind that accepted that disabled bodies sometimes have different needs from nondisabled ones, and that meeting those needs sometimes requires going beyond guaranteeing basic access, and offering more than the “reasonable accommodation” businesses are now legally mandated to provide to disabled patrons?
The Accessible Tour of Tokyo was organized by Josh Grisdale of Accessible Japan (www.accessible-japan.com) in collaboration with Takeshi Sakamoto of Trip Designer Inc and Omakase (www.omakase-tour.com). Michael Gillan Peckitt is an academic living in Kobe. His e-book “Gaijin Story: Tales of a British Disabled Man in Japan” is available on Amazon. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org