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The Tokyo 2020 Games mark the first time a city has hosted the Paralympics twice and, just as the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics paved the way for a new chapter on disability awareness in Japan, many hope that this summer’s sporting spectacle will have a long-lasting impact on universal access in Japan.

Hosting the Games has spurred Tokyo and other cities to embrace barrier-free infrastructure in places such as sports venues, hotels and train stations in an effort to improve universal access.

“There has been a huge push toward embracing diversity,” says Josh Grisdale, founder of Accessible Japan, which offers advice to travelers with a disability interested in visiting the country.

Since Tokyo won the bid for the 2020 Games in 2013, “eight years of preparation have provided the opportunity for people with disabilities to offer advice in the building of key infrastructure such as the Olympic Stadium and athletes village,” says Kuniko Obinata, president of the Paralympians Association of Japan and an executive board member of Tokyo 2020.

The number of barrier-free stations has also increased significantly, with around 96% of subway and railway stations in the greater Tokyo area now equipped with step-free access and almost 100% of them utilizing tactile paving.

However, overall progress has been patchy. In a Kyodo News survey conducted in June and July 2020, 66% of respondents said they had not noticed any improvement in accessibility or the understanding of disability since 2013.

“Many aspects still need to be addressed,” including a lack of facilities allowing for participation in parasports, says Daisuke Uehara, a three-time Paralympian who is also representative director of nonprofit organization D-Ships32, which aims to encourage shared experiences between people with disabilities and nondisabled people.

An accessible bathroom at the athletes village in Tokyo | COURTESY OF TOKYO 2020
An accessible bathroom at the athletes village in Tokyo | COURTESY OF TOKYO 2020

Approximately 9.36 million people have been diagnosed with some form of disability in Japan, equivalent to more than 7% of the population, according to statistics compiled by the health ministry.

In addition, more than 35% of the country’s population — the fastest aging society in the world — is expected to be over 65 years old by 2040.

Accessibility, however, is not confined to disability, says Mark Bookman, a disability historian and postdoctoral fellow at Tokyo College, adding that universal access affects everyone to some degree.

The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee defines accessibility as “the availability of smooth access to social infrastructure, facilities, equipment, products and services for people of all ages and all abilities.”

In this sense, creating a blueprint for universal access as a legacy of the Games can transform not only the lives of people with disabilities but society as a whole.

Access for all

The Tokyo 2020 accessibility guidelines combine domestic standards with elements of the International Paralympic Committee’s guiding principles with the goal of ensuring all participants equal opportunities for access to the Games.

The 150-page document published in 2017 outlines principles and technical specifications in the areas of access, circulation, amenities, accommodation, communications and transportation with an eye to promoting improvements that will outlive this year’s Olympics and Paralympics.

Provisions include detailed measurements for anything from ramps to washrooms, ensuring a minimum quota of accessible seating at Tokyo 2020 venues, set at around 1% for Paralympic events, and the publication of braille data with information about tickets.

The organizers of the Games have committed to working with facility owners to build or renovate accordingly or provide temporary facilities where renovations are not possible.

Emphasis is also given to disability etiquette and awareness and accessibility training for Paralympics staff and volunteers.

Uehara, a silver medalist in ice sledge hockey at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Paralympics, underlines the importance of this.

“In order to improve universal access, the most important thing is to first change people’s awareness, as this will then spread naturally,” he says.

Josh Grisdale is the founder of Accessible Japan, which offers advice for travelers with disabilities who are interested in visiting the country. | MARA BUDGEN
Josh Grisdale is the founder of Accessible Japan, which offers advice for travelers with disabilities who are interested in visiting the country. | MARA BUDGEN

The Kengo Kuma-designed National Stadium in Tokyo is a symbol of the shift toward universal design, which is defined by the World Health Organization as “a process that increases usability, safety, health and social participation … in response to the diversity of people and abilities.”

The stadium is well designed, says Grisdale in a YouTube video demonstrating its barrier-free features. Specifically, he praises the abundance of accessible washrooms and the nonimpeded view of the field of play from seats dedicated to wheelchair users.

“Even at the ticket counter, a lot of thought has gone into accessibility,” he says. The stadium also features “calm down” rooms for people sensitive to excessive stimuli and is the first in Japan with rest areas for service and guide dogs.

“It’s important that the knowhow in creating a venue with such a high level of accessibility is also transferred to local sports facilities,” says Yaeko Shiraishi, president of the Tokyo Sports Association for Persons with Disabilities and an executive board member of Tokyo 2020.

Breaking down barriers

One of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s goals is to use the Games as a catalyst for rolling out universal design initiatives across the city.

For Tokyo residents in particular, one of the Games’ most significant accessibility legacies is the overhaul of the transportation network. While many improvements predate the Olympics and Paralympics, the hosting of the global sporting events has no doubt accelerated this transition.

“The Tokyo subway is almost entirely accessible,” Grisdale says.

“Compare this to Paris,” he adds, explaining that only one out of 16 metro lines are currently fully accessible in the host city of the 2024 Games.

National standards have been revised to increase the minimum number of seats for wheelchair users on bullet trains from one or two to between four and six. | COURTESY OF TOKYO 2020
National standards have been revised to increase the minimum number of seats for wheelchair users on bullet trains from one or two to between four and six. | COURTESY OF TOKYO 2020

In Japan, changes to transportation are not limited to Tokyo. The Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry’s 2014 to 2020 basic policy on transport explicitly promoted universal design in light of the Games.

Nationwide, out of 3,575 stations with an average of more than 3,000 users per day, the proportion of those with step-free access increased from 85% in 2014 to 92% in 2020. And while low-floor buses made up around 56% of total vehicles in 2017, this figure had been raised to 70% by the end of 2020.

High-speed railway lines have also been renovated in favor of accessibility. National standards have been revised to increase the minimum number of seats for wheelchair users on bullet trains from one or two to between four and six.

Last year, a new train series was inaugurated on the Tokaido Line between Tokyo and Kobe and 13 of its trains will be running by early 2022, each entirely step-free and equipped with no fewer than six wheelchair spaces out of a total of more than 1,300 seats.

“Increasing seats on bullet trains is a small action but, in doing so, I expect people to realize that it’s perfectly natural to allocate seats for people with disabilities,” says Obinata, who competed in every Winter Paralympics from 1994 to 2010, winning two gold, three silver and five bronze medals in sit skiing.

What remains to be seen is whether the shift toward universal access will be truly transformative outside of the Olympic and Paralympic “bubble” and a number of initiatives connected to it.

Even the widely touted changes to bullet train services have been slow to come, says Yoshihiko Kawauchi, an architect, universal design expert and former professor at Toyo University.

Architect Yoshihiko Kawauchi is an expert in universal design and a former professor at Toyo University. | SAI ISHII
Architect Yoshihiko Kawauchi is an expert in universal design and a former professor at Toyo University. | SAI ISHII

Unlike other types of electric wheelchairs, such as the joystick wheelchair used by Kawauchi, mobility scooters have only recently been allowed on bullet trains without restrictions. Prior to this, only those mobility scooters under a certain turning radius were permitted.

“The turning radius of wheelchairs and size of train platforms hasn’t significantly changed, so why did this shift occur?” Kawauchi asks somewhat rhetorically. “It was because of the Games, I assume.”

Furthermore, local trains continue to prohibit mobility scooters.

“Changing the bullet train isn’t enough,” Kawauchi says. “The entire train system has to be transformed.”

When it comes to accommodation, progress is also lethargic. Tokyo became the first Japanese city to issue an ordinance for barrier-free design standards for hotels and lodgings, including widening entrances to at least 80 centimeters and eliminating the use of steps in rooms. The city also offered to subsidize 80% of the cost of such renovations to ensure a sufficient number of accessible rooms were available for the Games.

Nationally, similar standards have become requirements for at least 1% of rooms in large facilities with 50 or more rooms. However, the overall number of accessible hotel rooms throughout the country was still only 0.4% in 2019.

“It would be nice to see a much higher standard of requirements,” Grisdale says.

The pace of change, he believes, has been affected by the pandemic.

“Things were already going in the direction of universal access and the Games gave an extra push, but progress has been slowed by the lack of tourism,” Grisdale says. For example, a Japan Tourism Agency project to encourage small businesses to embrace accessibility that he has been involved in has been suspended.

The end goal is similarly out of reach when it comes to sports facilities, with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government aiming for half of its residents with disabilities to participate in parasports by the end of the decade.

Yaeko Shiraishi is the president of the Tokyo Sports Association for Persons with Disabilities and an executive board member of Tokyo 2020. | SAI ISHII
Yaeko Shiraishi is the president of the Tokyo Sports Association for Persons with Disabilities and an executive board member of Tokyo 2020. | SAI ISHII

The Nippon Foundation Para Arena operated by the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center in Tokyo extends more than 3,000 square meters and provides a training space for para-athletes, with priority given to Japanese national team members.

In addition, there are 141 parasports centers throughout Japan, including two operated by the Tokyo Sports Association for Persons with Disabilities, at which support is provided for people with disabilities to participate in sports, including wheelchair basketball and rugby, boccia, sitting volleyball and five-a-side soccer.

Yet beyond such specialized centers “we need to ensure that people with disabilities have access to all sports facilities,” Shiraishi says.

Uehara agrees.

“Even after Tokyo won the bid to host the Games, many locations in the city continue not to rent their spaces out to people with disabilities,” he says, adding that the goal should ultimately be for people with disabilities and nondisabled people to participate in sports together.

Pushing ahead

“In order for Tokyo 2020’s accessibility guidelines to become a legacy for the rest of society, they need to be put into law,” Kawauchi says.

For example, while Games facilities have a high level of accessibility, Kanseki Stadium in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, which opened last year, violates viewing requirements outlined in the Tokyo 2020 and International Paralympic Committee guidelines, whereby seats for wheelchair users should have a clear view of the field of play even when spectators in front stand up.

“People have complained about this but there’s no law that provides the basis for disputing the stadium’s accessibility design,” Kawauchi says.

In order for the legal framework to be truly robust, Kawauchi believes it must make reference to human rights, as set out in the International Paralympic Committee guidelines, which state that “access is a basic human right and a fundamental pillar of social justice.”

Tokyo Tama Sports Center's swimming pool has been designed with accessibility in mind. | COURTESY OF THE TOKYO SPORTS ASSOCIATION FOR PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES
Tokyo Tama Sports Center’s swimming pool has been designed with accessibility in mind. | COURTESY OF THE TOKYO SPORTS ASSOCIATION FOR PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES

If a wheelchair user is denied entry to certain locations — such as a sports center because an owner fears wheelchair tire marks may damage the floor, as Uehara has often experienced — this violates their dignity and limits their ability to participate in society equally, Kawauchi says.

However, the Tokyo 2020 accessibility guidelines contain no reference to human rights. This mirrors the absence of such language in Japanese accessibility law, including key pieces of legislation such as the Barrier-free Act, first adopted in 2006 and amended most recently in 2020.

“The government has steered clear of equating accessibility with human rights because, if it did, it would have a responsibility to make the whole of Japan universally accessible immediately,” Kawauchi says.

Indeed, Kawauchi sees the adoption of universal access in connection to the Games as limited to physical rather than fundamental attitudinal changes.

On the other hand, increasing accessible infrastructure leads to more interactions between people with disabilities and nondisabled people, Grisdale says. Ultimately, this can contribute to achieving a fully barrier-free society by promoting “accessibility of the heart and mind,” he says.

When Japan hosted the 1998 Winter Paralympics in Nagano, Obinata, who won Japan’s first Winter Paralympics gold at the event, experienced first-hand a shift in attitude toward accessibility, she says.

Prior to the Games, Obinata was often denied access to ski resorts because sit skiing was considered to be dangerous.

“After the Nagano Paralympics, I was never refused,” she says. “It’s not that new facilities were specially built, it’s people’s mindset that changed.”

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