National | FOCUS

Barrier-free tourism gaining traction in aging Japan


Universal tourism, or tourism accessible to all people regardless of age, nationality, disability and other factors that may discourage leisurely travel, is starting to gain wider recognition in graying Japan.

SPI (Japan) Inc. arranges universal tours conducted by so-called travel helpers, or people who have nursing-care skills and a basic knowledge of travel-related services.

Kozue Miyazawa, 61, one of the company’s travel helpers, assisted an 84-year-old person named Sato on a trip to Katsushika Shibamata Tora-san Museum in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward in September last year.

Sato, who has dementia and lives in a nursing home in Tokyo, began to use SPI’s service three or four times a month about a year ago. Sato’s son pays for the service.

After the visit to the museum, Sato, who was in a wheelchair pushed by Miyazawa, went to the banks of the Arakawa River to see the dry riverbed at dusk before eating sashimi and unajū (grilled eel on rice) at a restaurant near Shibamata Station. Miyazawa helped Sato, who uses a gastrostomy tube, eat the dinner.

SPI has coordinators who make thorough advance surveys and arrangements for tours, while travel helpers are trained to cope with unexpected incidents during their work.

The number of tours has gradually increased since the Tokyo-based company launched the service in 1995, totaling some 450 in 2018, it said.

Assisted tours have increased at a slow pace in Japan because people in need of assistance often think that they should not go out “causing someone trouble,” said Kyoichi Shinozuka, SPI’s chief executive officer.

But “we are happy to see them fresh and sparkling” when they get back from the tours, Shinozuka said.

The number of people aged 65 or older in Japan is expected to reach 37.16 million in 2030 and peak at 39.35 million in 2042, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Research. The group is forecast to account for 33.3 percent of the nation’s population in 2036. A law aimed at eliminating discrimination against people with disabilities took effect in 2016.

Against the backdrop of aging demographics, demand for universal tourism is expected to increase.

In 2017, the government announced the Universal Design 2020 Action Plan to promote the creation of barrier-free train stations and other facilities. Last year the Japan Tourism Agency prepared a manual for “barrier-free mindset” education to help workers at hotels and other tourism facilities eliminate discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities and the elderly, and to be friendlier to them.

Stressing the importance of a barrier-free mentality, Hiroyuki Murata, a specially appointed professor at the Institute of Development, Aging and Cancer of Tohoku University, said, “Japan is moving forward in terms of hardware but lagging in awareness and consciousness.”

To foster such a mindset, grassroots efforts are necessary, said Hozumi Tanaka of ANA Sales Co., which is promoting universal tourism.