Learning About Universal Design in Japan

Learning About Universal Design in Japan

By Jasmine Dudley

My name is Jasmine and I’m currently an occupational therapy student completing a 3-month long doctoral experiential internship with The Accessible Design Foundation of Japan, also known as ADFJ. So why would an occupational therapy student like me come all the way to Japan from the USA to study universal design? For those who may be unfamiliar about the profession of occupational therapy, occupational therapists are healthcare professionals that can work in a wide range of settings like hospitals, rehabilitation centers, outpatient clinics, schools, etc. Their focus is to work on improving things like functional independence and performance with clients, in the context of one or more everyday environments. During my schooling, I learned about the two fields of occupational therapy and universal design, and how they have a shared goal of maximizing human performance, by minimizing unnecessary environmental complexities.

Early on in my occupational therapy program, I became extremely intrigued about universal design and how it can make peoples lives a lot easier to live a more independent life. Japan is statistically experiencing a super aging society with the largest older adult population in the world; and, with the 2020 Olympics around the corner, many different entities are making numerous efforts to make Tokyo as accessible and barrier-free as much as possible before this grand event. Therefore, I thought what better time to come to Japan and learn about the many initiatives and efforts being made.

Prior to coming to Japan, I completed several reports and often found myself referring to the Accessible Japan website. I really think this is a great resource because it describes in detail a lot of basic information that would be good to know, when traveling around to major cities and attractions. Thus, since I hadn’t traveled independently before, especially with the purpose of going around and observing various sites and determining its accessibility, I initially thought to myself, what better resource to refer to than this one.

While on my academic journey in Japan, I’ve come to realize that many people share a common goal. I think we want increased accessibility so that we can lead a better quality of life, with less inconveniences and barriers. I also think people want to be able to live together, have equal access and opportunity, and be able to participate in purposeful activities of their choice; regardless of their demographic. Thus, I believe universal design is one of the best solutions to realizing a more improved society, while also keeping accessible and barrier-free design in mind when universal design is not necessarily possible. By doing so, I think it can result in more satisfied people and increased quality of life due to decreased inconveniences.

Is a completely accessible society possible? I think there is great potential for this to become a reality, but it will be challenging to achieve such a society; and here is why. There are many different factors (i.e., traditions, culture, politics, regulations, and allocated finances and resources) involved when attempting to make various modes of transportation, facilities, products, and services more universally accessible. Despite many factors that go into creating a more accessible society, all people have a right to equal access and opportunity to live a good quality of life. According to the United Nations, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the International Covenants of Human Rights, they have proclaimed and agreed that, “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth therein without distinction of any kind.” (United Nations, 2006). Many organizations are currently working hard to advocate to and educate many stakeholders and community members on the importance for creating environments, in which people can engage in, so they are accessible for all people. With increased information like this, it allows for potential government and financial support, as well as an increase in allotted resources. With that also comes increased need for improved laws, regulations, and guidelines, to upkeep and maintain assure that needs of people are being fulfilled and met.

During my internship with The Accessible Design Foundation of Japan and time sightseeing, I’ve also had the privilege of visiting with various organizations and companies. While going around and speaking to many different people, I started to learn about the many common barriers, inconveniences, and concerns expressed by people in Japan. In my opinion, no country or person is perfect, and everyone has something that they can improve on. With that in mind, I think that increased inclusive thinking could be improved upon, where there is decreased negative prejudice; and increased understanding, acceptance, and inclusion of others; regardless of their abilities or conditions. By doing so, I think it will have a tremendous impact on increasing influence and understanding of stakeholders, increasing resources and finances allocated to make a more universally accessible society. In general, though, I think Japan is doing an amazing job in modifying its already built environments.

I find it fascinating to see the numerous ways in which Japan has gone to ensure its accessibility for majority of people and has improved its accessibility in the past couple decades. For instance, I appreciate the fact that there are multifunctional toilets available for people that may not be able to use or access the standard toilets as others do. I also appreciate the color coding of train lines and large signs throughout many train stations, making it easier to navigate and travel more efficiently. With increased universally designed structures and items, it made me realize the importance of the different features. In this way, and many others, I truly think that Japan is a model country in regards to providing accessibility.

All in all, I believe that with continued efforts, through platforms such as this one, we can all create a society that is truly accessible and beneficial for generations to come. Even if there may be many challenges along the way, we all have the ability to empower ourselves and others to educate, advocate, motivate, and encourage others, on the importance of creating a society that is more easily accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people.


United Nations (2006). Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities and optional protocol. Retrieved from www.un.org/disabilities/documents/convention/convoptprot-e.pdf