I just spent two weeks in Japan and being me and being interested in how other cultures deal with people with disability, I was always on the look out and trying to work out practices and attitudes toward people with disability. Of course not having a disability myself makes first hand experiences a bit difficult, as does my inability to speak and understand any Japanese. So I am reduced to my perceptions and impressions.
First up, physical access appears to be pretty good. Lots of ramps, endless tactile tiles (to be honest they got a bit annoying as they were everywhere and I kept walking on them, and after a while walking gets tough and those tiles don't help the worn out walker ;-).
In terms of physical access some of my experiences are captured in the two photos below:
The first photo is of a handrail leading down a set of stairs at an Osaka subway station. It has information about the direction written on the handrail in braille. How cool is that?
Then the second photo is a barrier free access map, outlining the route to the most sacred part of the mountain at Koyasan. That is great. Except what it really meant was people in wheelchairs being dragged over a gravel path, made up of stones way too large for any person in a manual chair to navigate on their own.
And then there is the attitudinal stuff. Not speaking the language and only being there for a short visit, this is much harder to pick up. So the following can only be impressions.
There was the young blind guy traveling with an older man (maybe his grandfather) on the train. An older woman offered to give up her seat to the young guy. A conversation ensued with grandpa saying something like (I am certain of it) he is blind but he can stand, his legs are fine. Of course the whole conversation goes on as though the blind guy is not there at all. Or maybe the woman assumed he was deaf as well? By the way I did see quite a few Deaf people out and about.
Then there was a moment of a women talking very loudly to herself and clearly being distressed in a very flash supermarket. Nobody knew what to do and there was whispering and gossiping going on among the staff and customers.
In a society that is so controlled and where behaviours and ways of being are so regulated, people with obvious (whatever that means) mental illnesses, autistic behaviours and/or intellectual disability stick out like a sore thumb.
I saw very few people with those kind of disabilities (yes, I know not every disability is visible) in the countryside, but quite a few people in the city. It seems there were quite a few people with intellectual disability out and about, traveling, going about their business. There were a few people I saw on the train with obvious autistic kind of behaviours, who were, like in Australia, ignored with nobody engaging at all. Generally there was very little staring, but whether that was from people being ok with and used to people with all kinds of disability being out and about, or whether people are just way too polite to stare, I don't know.
Overall my impressions about disability in Japan are best summed up in this poster, also found on a railway station.
I think it suggests to the general public that if someone in a chair is stuck because of stairs, just get a group of friendly able bods together, lift and carry the person up the stairs. If you are blind or vision impaired in Japan, you might find yourself being approached from behind and swooped up by the arm.
Japan presents itself as a friendly, helpful society.
On my last day I stepped out of a railway station and there was a group of people with all sorts of disabilities waving banners, handing out fliers. I tried to start a conversation. It seems this was either a protest against the lack of resources being put into thinking about what happens to people with disability in emergencies or it was collecting money for people with disability in Nepal. Either way, it told me that in Japan, like most places around the world, people with disability are organising themselves.