“Good public transportation is key to maintaining and encouraging older adults’ participation in society.”

Demographic Background of Aging

Japan is regarded as one of the “oldest” nations in the world. In 1950, the percentage of the Japanese population age 65 and over was 5 percent. The ratio increased gradually and reached 10.3 percent in 1985. In 2005, it reached 20.04 percent, making Japan the first country to cross the 20 percent mark. Meanwhile, our total population began to decrease in 2005. Thus, in Japan, an aging and shrinking population and declining fertility are happening simultaneously.

The most critical aspect is the speed of this demographic change. According to estimates by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in 2002, the percentage of people age 65 will reach 25.3 percent in 2014 and about 40 percent in 2050. Compare this to the United States, where the percentage of people age 65 and over is currently about 13 percent and is expected to reach 22 percent by 2050. Changes in Japanese social structure are required in response to this drastic demographic change.

Toward Universal Design

In 2000, Japan launched the Elderly Care Insurance System, a long-term care insurance that covers home care and enables older citizens to live in their own homes and receive the care they require. The co-insurance rate is only 10 percent.

In 1994, the Building Accessibility Act was passed, with the goal of encouraging and enabling older adults to participate more fully in society. However, although the act advised building owners to make efforts to increase accessibility, its provisions were not mandatory, so its impact was quite limited.

In 2000, the Public Transportation Accessibility Act was passed, mandating that transportation businesses make their facilities and equipment

accessible. Since 2000, Japan has experienced dramatic improvement in transportation accessibility.

In 2005, the Japanese government introduced the General Principles of Universal Design Policy, which declared that buildings and public transportation should be designed using the concepts of Universal Design. To achieve Universal Design, it is necessary to understand the needs of various users, so their participation in the design process is important. Also, to create a quality improvement called “spiral-up” (figure 1), we need to create a design system that finds hidden design problems in post-occupancy evaluations and corrects these problems in the next improvement phase. Our strategy is to establish a social system that pursues Universal Design and improves the quality of social environments step-by-step.

In 2006, in an effort to truly implement Universal Design in public transportation, sidewalks, building entrances, and interiors, the Building Accessibility Act and the Public Transportation Accessibility Act were combined into the New Barrier-Free Act.

Since the implementation of that act, the improvements in public transportation in big cities have been outstanding. In downtown Tokyo, for example, almost all subway and rail stations (excluding some that present technical difficulties) have elevators and accessible restrooms. Almost all buses are wheelchair-accessible. Compared with just 10 years ago, the progress is amazing!

Rural Areas

On the other hand, the situation in rural areas is much worse. Young people have left most small towns and migrated to urban areas; the older people left behind have limited transportation options. The vast majority of transportation in rural areas is by car. In the past, the traditional family lived together, so the mobility of older adults was supported by younger family members.

Now, however, nuclear families are more common and many of the younger people are living in urban areas. Older people must rely on public transportation, primarily buses; however, rather than increasing, bus ridership has decreased.

The Nihon Bus Association carried about 10.1 billion passengers in 1968, the peak year; in 2005, it carried only 4.2 billion passengers. Over the past 37 years, bus ridership has declined 40 percent, and it continues to decline.

In 2005, Japan had 513 bus operators and 58,430 buses. The New Barrier-Free Act mandates that 30 percent of all buses will be low-floored by 2010 and all buses will be accessible by 2015. However, these are difficult goals for bus operators to achieve. According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, only 52 percent of the buses were accessible in 2006, and 17.7 percent were low-floored (figure 2).

In Japan, the primary door-to-door transportation mode is taxi service, but taxis are expensive and, thus, a significant financial burden for older people. The government is studying paratransit services in other nations to see if they might be applicable in Japan, but successful examples are rare.

Good public transportation is key to maintaining and encouraging older adults’ participation in society. I believe that efforts toward accessibility in Japan have been disproportionately focused on urban areas. We need to create a new public transportation system to extend improvements to rural areas as well. This is a work in progress.

Kawauchi Yoshihiko is a professor at Toyo University. As an access consultant, he advocates for safe, accessible, usable and reliable buildings and communities. Professor Kawauchi was awarded “Ron Mace Designing for the 21st Century Award” in 2000 and is the author of Universal Design—A Reconsideration of Barrier-Free (published in English, 2009).


(1 comment)


Dear Sir: enjoyed your article regarding the elderly in your country. I have worked in the elder care field for eight years and applaud your efforts. I wish I could help somehow. Thank You Karla Nowka. Wenatchee, Washington.


Leave a Comment

Only comments approved by post author will be displayed