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Mobility Rights on public transit systems

writer: KAWABATA, Miki (Kinugasa Research Organization, Senior Researcher) published: 2017-11

Is modern Japan a society in which it is easy to get around?

Anyone can freely go anywhere at any time. At first glance it may seem that this is obviously the case in modern Japanese society. But it is only true for some people.
In June of 2017, it was reported in the news media that a wheelchair user had to climb the boarding ramp of an airplane operated by the low cost carrier Vanilla Air by himself. The user said that he had done so to protest Vanilla Air’s having denied him boarding because he “hadn’t made a request ahead of time.” This is a problem of mobility rights using public facilities. A debate over this incident broke out mainly on social media, with arguments such as “the user should have told them ahead of time,” “the airplane boarding ramp was made with able-bodied people in mind,” and “there is an assumption that if he had contacted the airline ahead of time they would have refused him” being made for both sides.

Rights concerning movement and access

This project focuses on the movement of wheelchair users, particularly users of handle-type electric wheelchairs, on public transit systems, and examines the history, systems, and actual state of accessibility for wheelchair users (including both electric and handle-type electric wheelchairs).
Freedom of movement, the freedom to access the places you want to go, must be secured for everyone without discrimination. The securing of accessibility promotes the independent living of people with disabilities and elderly people who use wheelchairs, and makes it possible for them to participate in society. Most importantly, rights concerning accessibility are directly related to the very existence of the people in question.

What lies behind the current situation

The current state of accessibility for wheelchair users differs in various foreign countries. Behind these differences lie movements by disabled people using wheelchairs themselves. In Japan, groups such as the “Aoi Shiba no Kai,” an organization formed by people with cerebral palsy, lobbied intensely for the right of mobility, mainly in the 1970s (Yokotsuka, 2007). In South Korea, too, a powerful movement for the securing of mobility rights was undertaken by people with disabilities in the 1980s, particularly around the time of the Seoul Paralympics (Chong, 2011; Chong 2012). When we look at social systems and institutions, we cannot understand the actual state of accessibility for wheelchair users without paying attention to these sorts of movements and the underlying social backdrop against which they occurred.
In March of 2017, I visited South Korea together with the leader of this project, Prof. Otani Izumi. From Gimpo International Airport where we landed to the train station closest to the place we were staying in Seoul, there were lifts on stairways and other routes with ramps we could use. Having a route to your destination secured is an absolutely necessary condition for accessibility. When it came to getting from Gimpo Airport to the subway station, while a route for wheelchair users had been secured, the ramps were quite dark and the roads were not always easy to use. Nevertheless, not only the subway from the airport to the city center but almost all of the subway platforms in Seoul had no gap or difference in elevation where you get on and off the train, and because you don’t need a portable ramp the system is set up to be quite easy to use for people in wheelchairs. Particularly in the case of electric wheelchairs and handle-type wheelchairs, it is easy to use the subway smoothly without having to call for help from a station attendant (if people around you notice that you seem to be having trouble, however, they will approach you right away). Almost all stations are also equipped with elevators (although sometimes they are difficult to find), and a certain degree of consideration seems to have been given to securing accessibility.
In this project, going forward we will continue to visit various groups involved in the disabled people’s movement in South Korea, and gather information about topics such as the interplay between welfare policy and the disabled people’s movement and the current state and outlook of mobility support systems for people with disabilities in South Korea. We aim to establish the current situation in various countries overseas, and on this basis reassess the current state of affairs surrounding access to public transit systems for wheelchair users in Japan. Through this kind of comparative examination and consideration, we want to promote a reexamination of the right to access public transit systems in modern Japan, and present practical issues to be addressed in moving toward an inclusive society.


  • Yokotsuka, K., (2007)Mother! Don't Kill. Seikatsu Shoin
  • Chong, H.,(2011)The origin of the disabled people's movement in South Korea; Activities of the Polio Association of South Korea and the foundation and expansion of the Ullimteo society for disability studies. Core Ethics, 7, 177-186.
  • Chong, H.,(2012)Achievements and Limitations of Korean Disabled People's Movement as a Part of a Larger Revolutionary Movement : Focusing on the Protest Against the Paralympics and the Struggles for Legislative Reforms in 1988-1989. Journal of Disability, 8, 132-157.


Ritsumeikan Journal of Human Sciences


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Institute of Ars Vivendi. Ritsumeikan Univ.