When it comes to travel through Japan, the disabled often have the right-of-way.
I was in an airport the first time I saw a picture of Japan. It was a shot of a blood-orange sunset in a travel brochure.
Holding the pamphlet in my hand, I stared at the bright colors. I wasn’t concerned with much else. And I certainly had no idea that for centuries the Japanese have had a simplistic, holistic approach to life that can lead one to a lifetime of subliminal harmony and inner peace. After all, this is the birthplace of Zen. Likewise, I certainly wouldn’t have pegged Japan as being known for caring for those who are unable to care for themselves, including the estimated 5.9% of the country’s population with a disability.
This particular belief has become the blueprint for modern-day Japan, as they’ve made the entire country handicap accessible. In fact, it’s one of the most disability-friendly countries in the world —if not the most.
It wasn’t always that way, however. Prior to 1981, Japan didn’t even have welfare services in place for the disabled. It wasn’t until The International Year of Disabled Persons of 1981 that the country shifted towards equality for their disabled community.
The strides the country has made since then are both interesting and scary. If its people went as far as to install wheelchair ramps on every sidewalk and street corner—and brail in every public place for the blind, including all intersections—what does that say for the rest of the world, particularly the US? Furthermore, how does The Land of the Rising Sun compare to Europe, New Zealand, and other countries that are handicap accessible, as reported in a December 2012 article from The Huffington Post?
In the midst of these advancements, it’s worthwhile to note that Japan has already established itself as a technology powerhouse. I think the accommodations they’ve made for the disabled are a testament to how advanced the country truly is, whether it’s a direct result of tourism or their absolute obsession for quality over quantity. In fact, many disabled travelers have reaped the benefits of these changes firsthand.
After doing some more research, however, the ease of navigating through the country and accessing certain things like a wheelchair escalator became a recurring theme. I got the impression that the people of Japan didn’t make their country handicap accessible just because they had the resources to do so. It all comes back to their core beliefs.
Looking at cold, hard facts, it seems as if Japan puts the term “well-being“ into action more so than any other region or country in the world. It makes me wonder how disabilities are perceived and handled on a global scale—and how that perception plays into the attention and care a disabled person receives.
Admittedly, I don’t know much about Japan beyond it being the home of saké and sushi. Having never actually been there, it’s difficult to envision this country being everything the Internet or a picture in a brochure says it is. In fact, that only makes me wish I could go there and see it for myself.
However, I think the belief of “how you care for your weakest and most vulnerable is a reflection of your country” speaks to the heart of humanity. Not only that, but it also raises the question of, “What can we do today to ensure that those behind us will survive tomorrow?”
There’s a certain level of compassion and warmth to that—not just from a disabled individual’s perspective, but from someone who was adopted from another country. It’s understood in any language, but isn’t always displayed the right way—and for a country like Japan to take as much initiative as they have to take care of their people is a real wake up call.
Thinking back to the picture in that brochure and knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t mind taking Japan for a test run, or roll.
–Photo: Cameron Conaway