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Universal Tourism: Tokyo’s Lead as Barrier-Free Society is Good for Business

There are huge potential economic benefits for businesses that make their facilities accessible to those with impairments, says Josh Grisdale.

Arielle Busetto

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Accessibility Expert Josh Grisdale, visiting the sights that have been made accessible in Japan.

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When you think of Tokyo, you might imagine rickety stairs down to an eight-seat restaurant, crowded trains, temples up hills with no elevator. 

In reality, there is far more than meets the eye. 

On August 30, Josh Grisdale, a Japanese citizen who was born in Canada, gave a talk at the Tokyo Media Center to discuss the topic of universal tourism in Japan.

Born just outside of Toronto, Grisdale traveled to Japan many times before deciding to make the country his home. 

He is also a person with a disability, a condition called cerebral palsy, and he has made it his mission to share information about how to travel in Japan through a website he created: Accessible Japan

With the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics taking place in the background, it is the perfect opportunity to discuss ways to introduce elements of accessibility in society.  

Not Just for Wheelchair Users

As he himself had first been a visitor to Japan, Grisdale focused his talk on “universal tourism,” the idea that anyone could travel here safely and enjoy the experience.

At the same time, as Grisdale put it, “The world is made for the majority.”

You might think this is a problem we can do little about. But Grisdale provided an interesting perspective.

“If you think about accessibility, you might think of people in a wheelchair, but that is just 20% of people with an impairment,” explained the Canada native. 

“There are those with vision or hearing impairments or those who are temporarily injured, pregnant women, those pushing prams, or the elderly. They are also people who need accessible facilities,” he added.

In addition, for local businesses, there are important potential economic benefits gained from making facilities barrier-free.

According to a study conducted by VisitBritain.org in 2019, people with impairments tend to stay longer in a location. In another study, done by Wheelchairtravel.org in 2020, 87% of the 700 disabled respondents in the United States said that they traveled with at least one person accompanying them. The same study found that the participants tended to have incomes above the median in the U.S.

In short, people with disabilities who travel are more likely to stay longer, move in larger groups, and come from a high income demographic. For all these reasons this group is likely to spend more, and thereby it means there are huge potential economic benefits for businesses that choose to make their facilities accessible to them. 

“Barrier-free tourism therefore has an important economic impact,” explained Grisdale.

‘A Clear Leader in Accessibility’

It turns out that Japan is a society where accessibility has progressed quite a lot. 

RELATED: ‘No Charity, but a Chance!’ is This Hot Spring City’s Secret to a Barrier-free Society

Grisdale recounted his own experience. 

“Something very interesting is that many people overseas, as well as many Japanese, think Japan is not a barrier-free society. I think that the reality is totally different,” reflected Grisdale.

This partially had to do with an image problem, he noted, based on the countless photos of rickety staircases in front of temples or crowded trains at rush hour that people shared on social media.

“These are images that seem quintessentially Japanese. But, in fact, seen through the eyes of someone with an impairment, they might lead to the thought that ‘I can’t travel to Japan,’” he said.

The Canadian recounted his first trip to Japan just after he finished high school. He came with his father, and said that he was “pleasantly surprised by how barrier-free Japan was.”

According to data released by the Japanese Ministry of Land,  Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, over 90% of all stations in Japan which have over 3,000 users are estimated to be barrier-free.

In Tokyo, Gridsale’s city of residence, he said the percentage might be higher. “In Tokyo, 96% of the stations are said to be barrier-free. In that sense, compared to cities like New York, London, or Paris, Japan is a clear leader in accessibility.”

This is a scene many people riding the train and metro in the capital might have noticed. When taking the Tokyo Metro or underground, someone who needs help notifies the station master, who will make sure they are able to safely reach the platform. A ramp will be mounted both at the departure and arrival end of the trip so the person with impairment can travel without a glitch. For those with visual or mobility impairments who ask for help, an employee will come and meet you at the predetermined traincar to escort you to the station exit. 

This is the same metro network which is famous for barely having any delays, by the way.

Grisdale gave another example: the brightly colored, bumpy braille blocks that help those with visual impairment to safely navigate public roads and stations.

“I am sure you all know about braille blocks — they are a Japanese invention. They originated in Japan and were exported all over the world, and many people all over the world have benefited,” he concluded.

RELATED: How Japanese Inventor of Tenji Blocks Changed the Lives of Millions Around the World

Grisdale then reinforced this point by saying that the trend had picked up in view of the Tokyo 2020 Games: “I think that since Tokyo won the bid for the Olympics and Paralympics, we have seen an acceleration in the already existing trend of making a barrier-free society.”

A good example is accessible toilets, which have become a common sight, especially in the capital, Tokyo. 

He reflected: “You can see the amazing aspect of Japan in that sense. Things that people didn’t even think about before have become more commonplace.”

Challenges Remain

Of course, not everything is as easy as it seems. There are issues, such as specialized equipment and wheelchairs not being available to rent for those who are visiting Japan for a short stay.

There is also the challenge of making information available in other languages, especially in English, as information about barrier-free facilities is not easily obtainable.  

And this can be a huge deterrent for people with disabilities who plan to travel to foreign countries. As Grisdale pointed out, the vast majority would research their destinations before traveling somewhere new. 

It was this lack of access to information that prompted Grisdale in 2015 to start a blog, where he has been sharing useful information for travelers looking for barrier-free facilities. There is even a page with a specialized glossary of words that might be useful to those with a disability. 

RELATED: ‘Accessible Japan’: Disabled Blogger is Helping PWDs Enjoy Japan

Ultimately, the one thing Grisdale focused on more than anything was that “one needs creativity to make a barrier-free society.”

“Any shop owner on social media can share up front how their establishment is accessible. Even information explained in a very simple way can help a lot of people,” he said.  

Going Forward

On the whole, Grisdale was hopeful of opportunities that lay ahead.

He pointed out the many examples of progress, already visible in Japan, that lent hope for realizing a diverse society of the future.

For example? Japan’s new bullet trains, he pointed out, now had whole sections dedicated to those in wheelchairs or pushing prams. But he also applauded the many examples of creativity on the local level, such as the owner of a small restaurant who purchased a portable ramp in order to make the entrance to his establishment accessible. 

“I think that Tokyo can be a leader in this initiative [of making a barrier-free society],” said Grisdale. “From Tokyo’s standard of diversity and inclusion, the idea can be exported and shared abroad, just like the braille blocks were so many years ago.”

Finally, Grisdale reflected on the significance of Tokyo hosting the Paralympics: “I think it’s incredible that Tokyo is the first city in the world to have hosted two editions of the Paralympic Games. In terms of the legacy, I think it’s an opportunity to introduce more diversity and inclusion. And it will lead to a new era in Tokyo. It’s something that makes me a little proud.”

Author: Arielle Busetto 

Arielle Busetto is a journalist at JAPAN Forward. She has finished the intensive Japanese course of the Inter University Center For Advanced Japanese Studies in Yokohama in summer 2018, and is originally from Siena, Italy.