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Equal Accessibility: A Gradual Slope

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

February 15, 2023

In May this year, Gin no Tora, an izakaya (a type of Japanese bar) in Izumicho, Kagoshima Prefecture, changed the steps leading to its entrance into a ramp, making the store wheelchair accessible for the very first time. Those familiar with accessibility rights in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world may be wondering why something like this would be noteworthy. If this same change had occurred in the U.S., one might assume that the catalyst for this change would have been the store becoming the target of online backlash for its lack of accessibility. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Gin no Tora’s owner?, Eijiro Hayashi, explained to Kagoshima News that he was inspired by a article in Minami Nihon Newspaper (南日本新聞) which detailed the life of Chihiro Miyasako, a fifteen-year-old from Tarumizu, Kagoshima, who had recently passed away and had been using a wheelchair for her whole life. In the article, Miyasako details her experience going out with her grandmother and being told that she couldn’t eat in certain restaurants because of a lack of ramp access, and her wishes for more accessible spaces.

This hints as to why Gin no Tora was featured on the news. In Japan, wheelchair accessibility is not exactly the norm and is much less guaranteed than it is, say, in the United States, where equal accessibility is mandated and strictly enforced by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Gin no Tora was highlighted because, despite the widespread economic setbacks with the COVID-19 pandemic, they still chose to put money towards converting their stairs into a ramp to increase accessibility.

The closest policy Japan has to the ADA would be the Act for Eliminating Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities, a policy that went into effect on April 1st, 2016, in part to “align domestic laws with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”. The law bans discrimination against those with disabilities in forms such as refusing service or entry, and pushes for enterprises to increase their accessibility by providing what they call ‘reasonable accommodations.’ Japan’s Cabinet Office illustrates these accommodations with examples such as helping those in wheelchairs get in and out of vehicles and using “appropriate means of communication.” The Act for Eliminating Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities creates legal grounds for those with disabilities to demand equal accessibility, but the law has been criticized for being weakly enforced. Clauses in the policy, such as what qualifies as ‘reasonable,’ are left open for interpretation as opposed to offering precise regulations. For comparison, in the U.S., the ADA details the exact dimensions required for a ramp to be considered wheelchair accessible. Additionally, the Act for Eliminating Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities’ lack of clear consequences for entities that refuse to increase accessibility is one of the policy’s weakest points, and why people like Miyasako continue to face accessibility barriers even years after the law went into effect.

While change is not strongly mandated by law, that does not mean that progress is not being made. According to the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, “many Japanese businesses have taken the initiative to offer accessible content” to those with disabilities. This is reflected in Gin no Tora’s response to Miyasako’s article.

While equal accessibility for those with disabilities has yet to be fully achieved in Japan, direct action efforts by people like Chihiro Miyasako and businesses like Gin no Tora are extremely important to solving real world issues. While it would certainly be ideal for the government to take more significant measures to protect disability rights, both businesses and individuals can and must act independently to improve the society we live in.

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