The elderly and the physically and mentally impaired across Japan are being encouraged to get out of their homes and take to the streets on motorized carts.

Under the Town Mobility project, volunteers in towns and villages across the nation are making such vehicles and their variants available to seniors and people with disabilities.

In some remote communities in Shimane Prefecture, for example, motorized carts and wheelchairs are a vital means of transport for senior citizens.

In Saeki Ward, Hiroshima, elderly people who have difficulty walking can visit a Town Mobility office — often doing so in groups of two or three — to borrow such vehicles.

A volunteer group working out of the Rakurakuen Office Council in the ward has five motorized carts and wheelchairs available on four days of the week free of charge. The vehicles have become fixtures in the ward in the 2 1/2 years since the service was launched, and members of the group, led by Kenji Kumagai, 66, accompany the riders if necessary.

An average of 18 people use the service each week, and the office has become a sort of unofficial clubhouse where the elderly casually drop by to chat with friends regardless of whether they need to borrow the carts or regular wheelchairs.

Kumagai encourages the communal atmosphere at the office, saying: “We are pleased to see them since our primary purpose was to encourage elderly to get out on the town. Eventually, we won’t be able to walk long hours because of weak legs and hips.”

In May, a mall in Nagamachi in Taihaku Ward, Sendai, kicked off an excursion service, offering two motorized carts for lease three days a week. The service is operated by a group that supports and is run by physically disabled people. The group, the only one of its kind in Japan, receives aid from the mall’s business promotion cooperative.

The mall is along National Route 4, which features a roughly 1-km barrier-free model area developed by the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry.

“Since the ministry took the trouble to enlarge the sidewalk and leveled off the surface at points such as intersections,” said Hitoshi Kusaka, 52, the cooperative’s director, “we wanted to take advantage of (the new sidewalk) to promote our town.”

Some shop owners were skeptical about whether the service would lead to more business, but Kusaka succeeded in getting store managers in three malls in the area to band together.

Hironobu Sugiyama, 36, leader of the aid group and a motorized wheelchair user, said: “Physically disabled people want to go to town just the same as (everybody else). The service coincided with our group’s activities, which are designed to assist physically disabled people who want to be independent.”

Shimpei Nakayama, 53, is thankful to supermarket chain Daiei Inc. for providing motorized wheelchairs. The couple shop at Daiei’s Naganuma store on the outskirts of the city of Chiba.

Nakayama, who was left partially paralyzed by a brain hemorrhage, uses such a vehicle when he shops at the store. “I used to sit on a bench while my wife was shopping, but now I can do my own shopping,” he said.

Daiei began providing free motorized carts to physically disabled people at two of its outlets in 1997 as part of efforts to create barrier-free stores. The chain now has such vehicles at 16 of its stores nationwide.

A public park in Shobara, Hiroshima Prefecture, provides 10 free motorized carts for visitors. Other big parks are following suit.

Gunma Flower Park in the village of Miyagi, Gunma Prefecture, made available three such carts in March. The vehicles cost 200 yen for two hours and are used every day, according to park officials.

Meanwhile, the town offices of Sakurae and Iwami in Shimane Prefecture offer financial assistance to those who want to purchase motor carts.

A survey commissioned by neighboring municipalities in the prefecture and conducted by a Kyoto Prefectural University team in 1997 shows that motorized carts gave elderly people who had trouble walking a reason to live by increasing their participation in social activities and improving their health.

Both municipalities, located in mountainous areas where public transportation systems are unavailable, extend up to 150,000 yen in assistance to those in need of motor carts.

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