Tokyo: Inaccessible Shibuya and Shinjuku
By Darren Campeau © 2008
My wife, a Japanese national, and I just returned from Tokyo, where we had a nice trip most of the time, but often thought of a disabled friend's daily plight as we attempted to wheel our 10-month-old baby around Tokyo in her stroller. I once lived as a student in Tokyo, and I was always impressed with the extensive subway and train service. With a little study of the route map, it was easy to navigate and the most reliable and convenient transit system that I ever experienced. But that was when I was a young man without any consideration or need of ramps or elevators.
Jump ahead twenty years and 'struggle' is the key phrase I would use when describing the mish-mash layouts of the complicated train and subway stations. Some private train lines (serving the suburban areas) had elevators at most stations, but when connecting to the main stations (in our case Shibuya and Shinjuku) to transfer to the major train system (run by the government's Japan Rail) the grapple began. Dealing with an 18lb child, 12lb stroller and a few shopping bags isn't a severe hardship for two people to carry on stairs, but it would be an impossible experience for anyone dependent on a continuous system of ramps and elevators. If you go out the wrong exit point (and there's always many to chose from), you can be faced with twenty or thirty stairs (no other options) and an endless mega-swarm of people chaotically headed in all directions. You would have to buy another ticket to get back into the station gate and find the correct hodge-podge path to elevator your way out (then you'd have to explain why you supposedly didn't use the ticket). It was frequent that we found ourselves taking an elevator from the train platform to another level's platform to then crossover to another platform, walk to the other end to catch another elevator to get to the station level. And that's not necessarily street level. Often we'd connect to a department store basement and use the store's elevators and hope that we could exit the store without needing to step down to the street.
Another interesting aspect to all of this is that no one of authority, i.e., station agents, info booth attendants, and elevator girls really seemed to be sure if any path would be a continuous roll. And often their information was wrong or included a flight of stairs.
The most ironic experience was to follow the zigzag maze of directional signs to an elevator that would sit atop a landing - four steps up, and no ramp! I think someone missed the point of having an elevator! I read an article in the Japan Times that there is an advocate group of disabled people that demonstrates regularly at Shinjuku (one of the older and main stations that sees a million commuters per day) to pressure the government to build ramps and add more elevators, but a key bureaucrat told them that "they have a bad attitude and that they need to change it" (!). But it was easy to see the reason for their frustration. We didn't see many single moms with a stroller; it seemed they traveled with someone to assist or stayed away. And we definitely didn't see anyone in a wheelchair at the Tokyo JR stations, although on a train trip to the mountainous area of Gunma we didn't have any access problems at any of the suburban or rural stations where elevators were in reasonable proximity and station exits were less complicated (Takasaki and Omiya).
Oddly, groping of women is taken as an old but more pressing issue on the overcrowded trains. So at rush hour times the last three cars are now reserved for women and the remainder for the groping male herds. I made the mistake of getting on the wrong car at the wrong time and got many shocked looks for about three stops, until someone finally told me that the car was for women only. I exited the car and ran to the next grope-car and arrived at my destination unscathed. It seems that with enough squeaking and complaining, the wheels do get oiled.
Some semi-useful (no discussion of the stations' accessibility problems) links I found for getting around Tokyo (post-trip)
with accessibility maps to order in advance: http://accessible.jp.org/tokyo/en/useful/map.html
I have to say that upon arriving at Tokyo's Narita airport, we were made to feel very welcome when we were whisked to the front of a very long immigration line to get our passports stamped. It seems the immigration officials keep an eye out for anyone with disabilities or families with young children. Having made the trip solo in the past, I knew that it have been a 60-90 minute wait. The airport was easy to get around, very well organized with many elevators, and connected to the train station where we caught a modern train to Tokyo. But after getting off the train the spottiness of the system quickly became apparent.
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