Understanding accessibility in Japan

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Traveling with accessibility needs involves lots of planning and research, especially if you’re visiting an unfamiliar place – but it’s completely doable and worth it in the end! If you’re traveling, or moving, to Japan for the first time, you might be wondering: what is accessibility like in Japan?

There are some challenges, as is the case in many other countries around the world. But the good news is that the standard of accessibility in Japan has improved dramatically in recent years. 

In 2006, Tokyo passed the “barrier-free act” (バリアフリー法 Baria-furī hō), which was a push towards barrier-free environments in airports, train stations, and shopping malls. And in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Japan also launched the “universal design 2020 action plan” to create a more inclusive society. 

Let’s have a closer look at how Japan supports people with accessibility needs.

Public transport

Chances are you’ll be making the most of Japan’s exceptional public transport options to get around when you’re in Japan. There have been great improvements to ensure better access for those who need it, but there also remain some issues, particularly in more rural areas.

Image of Yamanote train at a station

Train travel

In general, it’s fairly straightforward traveling by train in Japan if you have accessibility needs. Many stations have lifts and escalators, as well as friendly staff who will help you board the right trains. 

However, take care outside of city centers as train stations may not be as accessible. 

If you are in a wheelchair and wish to use a train, please approach the train staff at the ticket gate. Tell them where you want to go e.g.

京都駅に行きたいんですが。
Kyoto eki ni ikitain desu ga.
I want to go to Kyoto station.

You will be accompanied by a staff member who helps you find the elevator, the right platform, and will help you get on the right train. They will also make sure that there is staff that can help you change trains and get off at the station you are heading towards. 

The same goes for if you are visually impaired and need help getting through the ticket gates. A staff member will guide you to your train and call ahead to the other station so a staff member there will be ready to help. 

Many stations also have yellow bumps to assist passengers that are visually impaired, and the orange lines tell you where to line up while waiting. Furthermore, most trains tell you what station you will be arriving at in both Japanese and English.

If you’re planning to travel long-distance, for example on a bullet train, it’s best to reserve your seat beforehand if you’re using a wheelchair. This is to ensure you can get a wheelchair-friendly seat. 

Note that Japan Railways, one of the major train operators in Japan, has wheelchair restrictions of 120 centimeters in length/height and up to 70 centimeters in width.

Bus travel

Japan has large bus networks connecting commuters to the nearest train station. Most city buses in Japan are non-step and are wheelchair accessible, but there are some routes in rural areas that aren’t.

If you are in a wheelchair, the driver will make space for you and get out a ramp for you to use. There are usually clear signs on the bus signaling which seats are accessible. Remember to tell the bus driver where you want to get off so he can help you pay and get off as well.

In general, when waiting for your bus, make sure to first situate yourself near the front of the bus and make sure that the bus driver spots you by raising your hand. This is important because many different buses stop at the same bus stop, and if you don’t make your presence known the bus driver may assume you are waiting for another bus.

Note that shuttle buses to airports and highway buses are generally not accessible. In those situations, we recommend taking trains or another transport option.

Travel by taxi

If there are no bus stops or train stations close to where you are going, another option of travel is by taxi. Although it’s expensive, it’s very convenient. However, you have to book a taxi in advance if you travel with a wheelchair. 

The easiest way to do this is by downloading the application JapanTaxi which supports English and covers most areas in Japan. You can download the app for android here and apple here.

You can also ask the hotel staff to arrange a taxi for you. 

Please also be aware that many taxis do not have ramps for wheelchairs and may not have the space for non-folding wheelchairs.

Image at street level showing yellow tactile pavement with people walking in the background

Accessibility on the street in Japan

Yellow tactile pavements (called tenji burokku 点字ブロック) are everywhere in Japan and sidewalks usually feature dropped kerbs suitable for people with accessibility needs. People with a visual impairment will find plenty of braille in public spaces, however note that it is typically in Japanese braille.

Traffic lights also play a tune or have birds chirping when it’s safe to cross the road.

While you should be comfortable navigating bigger streets in the cities, it can be more difficult in the backstreets, which can be narrow and crowded. Also be aware that a lot of old buildings still exist in Japan and they can be difficult to access if you have accessibility needs.

Restaurants

It can be difficult to find accessible restaurants in Japan. Especially traditional restaurants due to many indoor spaces having a “genkan” (玄関) – an area where you remove your shoes before climbing up a step to enter the rest of the indoor area. Many are also located in older buildings that don’t cater for accessibility needs. 

For this reason it’s best to check for information online or call the restaurant directly and ask if they are barrier-free.

そちらはバリアフリーですか。
Sochira wa baria furī desu ka.
Is your restaurant/store barrier-free?

Shopping centers tend to be more accessibility-friendly and many have multiple dining options, from modern cafes to traditional ramen shops. Keep this as an option to ensure your accessibility needs are met in Japan when looking for a place to eat. 

Tips on accessibility in Japan

Finally we would like to add some additional tips so that you can travel in the most comfortable way possible during your stay in Japan.

Bring a compact wheelchair, if you can

If you have the option to choose, bring a compact or foldable wheelchair for your travels. This is because there are many narrow spaces in Japan and it can be hard to fit into some buses and enter some stores if you have a larger motorized wheelchair.

Plan your toilet breaks

There are some exceptional multipurpose toilets 多目的トイレ (tamokuteki toire) available at most subway and train stations, as well as malls and even some parks, in the cities in Japan. However, it can be a chore to find an accessible toilet on the street, so definitely try to take the opportunity when you’re at a station or shopping mall.

Do some research in advance

Although much of Japan is accessible, there are rural and suburban areas that are not. Therefore, it’s important to know in advance which train stations have elevators or wheelchair lifts. You can check with staff, by calling ahead and asking:

エレベーターやバリアフリー対応 のエスカレーターがありますか。
Erebētā ya bariafurī taiō no esukarētā ga arimasuka?
Is there an elevator or accessible escalators?

One tip is to also use Google Street View to see how accessible the places you plan to visit are.

Ask for help if something goes amiss

Japanese people are very polite and will help you if you are in a pinch. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need to!

For more information on accessibility in Japan we also recommend visiting this website: https://www.accessible-japan.com/.

That’s it for this time! Did you find this article helpful? Feel free to comment below.

If you are interested in learning more about daily life in Japan, the culture and about learning Japanese, feel free to check out our blog!

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