My Experience With Wheelchair Accessibility In Tokyo
Accessibility in Tokyo is, at best, a patchwork of good intentions and half‐fulfilled promises. At worst, it appears to be deliberately designed to exclude non‐ambulatory folks.
Restrooms in Tokyo are either “all in” or “not at all” when it comes to accessibility. When you are able to find an accessible restroom, it will be everything you need and a lot you probably don’t. But, you will be able to use it safely and securely. Finding an accessible restroom can be a challenge, so my recommendation is that, when you see one, use it. Even if you don’t necessarily have to at the moment. Think of it as the opposite of “topping up”.
At Street Level
Curb cuts are quite common in Tokyo. However, they aren’t always flush with the street. A lot of curb cuts are still an eighth to a quarter of an inch tall. Make sure you pay attention when going through crosswalks so that you give yourself enough time to lift the front of your chair.
Crowds are gonna be intense, so make sure you pay attention and stay safe. Don’t be afraid to let out a clear “sumimasen!” to let folks know you need to get through.
Trains and the Subway
As famous and efficient as the Japanese train and subway system is, it’s an accessibility nightmare. For example, Shinjuku Station is a maze, even for the folks living in Japan. But for people who need to use the elevator to get in and out, it’s virtually impossible. The East and West sides of the station don’t appear to be connected by elevator, so you’ll need to get out on the East side and walk all the way around the station to get to the other side; it’s extremely disorienting. My advice is to avoid Shinjuku Station if you can. The other Shinjuku stops are fine (e.g., Nishi Shinjuku). Just avoid Shinjuku Station proper.
As far as the helpfulness of the station staff goes, I read multiple sources online that espoused how helpful and willing people are to help you find your way. “If you look lost, someone will gladly help you find your way!” they said.
Now, I’m not saying that I expected people to read my facial expressions and figure out I was lost. I’m also not saying that people went out of their way to avoid being asked to help. (though that did happen). I’m saying that the idea that there are people working at the station that are in a position to guide you to where you need to go is not at all accurate. On the one hand, I get it: there are super clear signs and markings showing you where each hallway or tunnel leads. 99% of people visiting Japan will not have a problem getting around, assuming you can safely take the stairs. If you can’t take the stairs or need a slope to board the train or subway, getting around is an event, and finding station staff that are available to help is like playing Where’s Waldo.
When it comes to boarding the trains, most of them do not line up flush with the platform and there will be a good two‐inch gap between the train and a two to four‐inch rise to board the train safely. Doing so without a ramp is super dangerous and I would not recommend it.
I’ll be putting together a whole separate article on my train/subway experience. But for now, just know that is was a thing.
Stores and Shops
A lot of stores and shops are straight‐up not accessible. Full stop. You will see a ton of places with a good four to six‐inch step to get in that not even I was willing to gamble on. However, if you’re comfortable with popping over an inch or two, you will be able to access a lot more stores than you otherwise could. Once you get into the store, things are usually fairly easy to navigate and people will gladly help you find what you are looking for.
When it comes to dealing with people with mobility needs, most people will be helpful. However, they won’t exactly be “aware”. As far as I can tell (and from what I’ve read), seeing visibly disabled people in public (who are not absolutely ancient) is very rare and people don’t necessarily know how to act or what is generally needed. For example, if you ask someone where the nearest restroom is, there’s a good chance that they will tell you where the nearest non‐accessible restroom is. This isn’t just because they themselves don’t need an accessible restroom, but also because the idea of an accessible restroom is so new. The same thing goes for the slopes on the train. The station workers know the trains very well, but they don’t appear to have a clear definition for who does and doesn’t need to use a slope to board. In order to gain access to it, you will need to explicitly seek out and ask for it.
Shrines and Temples
The Meiji Shrine and the others we visited in Shinjuku were very accessible. I highly recommend checking them out. The Meiji Shrine is basically a massively wide path cut through a forest that leads to a huge temple complex. The path to the complex is paved on both sides with tightly packed earth and gravel in the middle (not the smoothest ride, but easy to navigate). The shrine area itself is huge with a large flat area near the entrance and ramp leading up to the shrine itself. Totally accessible.
The biggest barrier to accessibility in Tokyo is a lack of information. And I don’t just mean a lack of English‐language signs. I mean that, often times, there’s literally no accessibility information displayed. For example, I didn’t see a single sign in either Japanese or English that explained that a ramp was available for the trains and how to request it. If a station exit had no elevator there was a callbox available you could use to request the stair lift, but more often than not, there was no sign explaining what the callbox was for. I was lucky: I had the language and social skills to push that button and ask about what to do. For a lot of disabled folks, that’s a huge ask.