My trip to Japan, an epiphany to accessibility and socially inclusive design.

One of the biggest challenges today — from a global and business point of view is to design for a more sustainable and socially inclusive world. While we have new products and services raining everyday into our world, only some notable ones excel in providing delightful experiences.

Japan is a land where traditions mesh with modern elements to stitch together the beautiful fabric of society. From a traditional lens, one can see the magnificence of spirituality in famous shrines like Kinkaku-ji ( the golden pavilion ) and Ginkakuji, Kiyomizudera ( one with 139 pillars ). If interested, one can also hop on a Shin-kasen ( bullet train ) to travel through modernity in style. While I can go on discussing so many aspects of Japan and its beauty (which I’ve planned for the next article ), I want to keep things design specific in this article.

Being from South India, the design of transport systems that I have experienced is quite not up to the mark, particularly during peak hours and in high density cities like Chennai or Bangalore — these scenarios are very stressful and not easy to use.

Contrast this with my travel experiences across Japan, where I was fortunate to set foot in major cities like Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo, Kobe, Hiroshima, Nara, Sendai, Fuji, Noboribetsu and Sapporo, part of two major islands Hokkaido and Honshu. A burning question I frequently had prior to my trip was “Is it possible to cover almost 10 major cities in just 20 days?” How wrong was I! Despite the language barrier, what amazed me was the fact that how convenient it is to travel across the country for any one; even the aged senior citizens and kids aged below 15 years were using this system effortlessly as well.

Below are some of my interesting observations on accessibility related design experiences in Japan.

Information designed for ease of access and social inclusivity

Catching a train during peak hours at Tokyo station is highly challenging, with a 200% increase in congestion ratio in most of the commuter lines; waves of people rushing for work moving in all directions is a common sight. To commute by trains, one needs either a JR pass, or IC prepaid cards that can be recharged for a short change in any train/bus station eg. ICOCA, SUICA , etc.

A noticeable effort has been made in major Japanese cities to ensure that every train, metro, tram or bus is quickly accessible for all types of users — visually impaired, wheel-chair users, mothers with young infants and colour blind users, to name some. The train system is very complex, but they have been colour coded everywhere. No matter which station you are in, you just need to find the right colour code and the platform in order to go to the next station. There are also sign boards indicating which side of the platform you need to stand on, earmarking the direction of the arriving train.

Below is an image of a colour coded wall paneling that helps passengers inside the Tokyo Metro Fukutoshin Line’s Shibuya Station to navigate passages to connecting rail lines. Shibuya is the fourth busiest station on the Tokyo Metro network.

Image source: Wikipedia | CC BY-SA 3.0

Here’s the perfectly logical colour coded queue system at Shinagawa station, to ensure that you don’t board the wrong train.

Image credits :

Tokyo has a multiplicity of subway lines and route boards above the ticket vending machines showing the different routes through colours. This apparently was problematic for all the passengers in deciphering the same, particular those who are colour blind.

In the below image we can see, station names circled by coloured rings also now carry the initial of the name of the line in Roman lettering. If, for example, the station name shows an S within the circle, it is on the Shinjuku Line.

Image credits:

Fare details are indicated against every station. Passengers can quickly top-up their IC cards using this information.

Fare details are indicated against each station. Passengers can quickly top-up their IC cards using this information.

Highly efficient public transports & systems for all types of users

In Japan, most of the buses are non-step buses, fitted with ramps for the purpose of on-boarding all types of users from elderly, disabled and strollers. Design inclusiveness is kept at the fore-front, from automated ramps and wheel-chair signs in sign-boards to having priority space for disabled. Buzzers that send signals to the driver for the next stop dis-embarkment are conveniently positioned adjacent to every seat.

Interior & exterior signs in a bus for the disabled.
Parking spaces designed considering all user types.
Ramp used to board & dis-embark strollers to wheel chairs & buzzers to request the bus to stop.

While there are normal height ticket vending machines, there are also lower height ticket machines which can be accessed by wheelchair users. This allows disabled users to self-serve themselves and not seek external help.

Fare vending machines allow for both seated and standing people to operate them.

Image source:

As per my understanding, to get a ticket at any fare gate at any station, the mechanism is as follows:

1. Tap the prepaid IC card.

2. Balance will be displayed and checked.

3. Wait for the gates to open.

But in Japan, this task is slightly modified for efficiency. In order to keep the crowd moving faster the steps are interchanged:

1. Tap the prepaid IC card — using multiple tap access

2. Gates will open.

3. The balance will be displayed.

By a simple reordering of the same task, people are able to move much more freely and without breaking a step.

Fare gates accommodate a wide variety of users. Note that the gate assembly is long enough so that exiting passengers do not have to slow or stop walking in order for the gate to open. The gate has multiple smart card targets to speed fare collection.

Image source :

One can also notice white boards & markers kept in front of ticket counters for any disabled users to communicate.

One can hear constant bird chirping sounds throughout the train station. I was on the lookout for these loud bird sounds, only to realise that these are audio guides for visually impaired passengers to navigate within the station. For eg. to reach elevators or to know the direction of escalators.

Another very interesting audio guide is the 7-minute jingle unique to every train station, composed by musician Minoru Mukhiya across Japan. These serve to reduce stress, and also in certain cases to indicate the direction of the train How cool!

Uniform platforms and the train door levels enable wheelchair passengers and elderly folks to quickly get on board the train.

You-tube video describing the story behind bird sounds in Japanese subways

Yellow tactile surfaces/linings are laid throughout walkways, subways and roads to help the blind people navigate efficiently. Often these yellow linings can lead one to the nearby elevators. Notice that the roads are also very evenly laid and not bumpy.

Image showing tactile surfaces from roadways, train stations to sidewalks.

Usage of braille can be seen in railings, consumer products, IC cards, tickets, etc. At stations, information about the platform details, direction of restrooms and way to elevators are provided, whereas in consumer products braille helps in knowing product information and price.

Design of public restrooms with multitude of functions.

How many times have we gone through the embarrassment of checking for availability at public restrooms? This problem was best solved by a LED display board to indicate the available ones as and when it gets free. I found this kind of information display thoughtful and less chaotic.

Image source :

Any public space, whether tourist attractions, public buildings, department stores, larger supermarkets and parks, have ergonomically designed public restrooms. These are designed wide enough to adequately allow strollers and wheelchair users to enter in addition to caregivers. The restrooms also come equipped with handrails, diaper changing boards, baby holders, and an emergency call option; there are also buttons to play music and water flows as well!

Left image: Baby holder Right image: Buttons for music, water, etc

Breeze of food ordering at restaurants using vending machines and unique food displays

Mock food plates are kept on display in-front of every fast food restaurant. These food plates look extremely real, and helps in-coming customers decide what to order faster, and avoids over-crowding at restaurants.

It is a common sight to see customers ordering through ticket vending machines in front of the restaurants. These machines have bold displays of the restaurant’s menu, with photographs and an order button against each. Just pay by cash or card, your order will be placed and food magically arrives at the table.

It rains quite often in Japan! During rains, walking into a shopping complex or a restaurant with a wet umbrella can make the space very slippery and dangerous for anyone, especially elderly folks or people with balance issues. A well designed umbrella holder becomes a saviour in these situations.

Insert wet umbrellas into these machines and it gets locked before walking into any complex. Later unlock it during exit.

Design of barrier free spaces within hotels and around public areas to increase accessibility

Few hotels offered specific barrier-free rooms that cater to those with mobility issues. Tourists attractions and sights had addition of ramps and lifts to existing structures.

Key take-aways are

  1. In Japan, everybody is a user! There is no average / normal / typical user as per our design process - this only made me question the idea of personas in design, which tends to unconsciously leave out certain user segments who can use the product.
  2. Inclusive design means making your product accessible to as many users as possible. This can be done by just listening to people, observing the struggles they face during commute, and identifying the barriers to performing seemingly simple tasks.
  3. Designing with accessibility at the forefront is a cross functional team effort. I am certain that accessibility was considered as a key principle at the early stages of planning and implementation, as opposed to being an after thought in the process!
  4. When a designed product has made considerations for user behavior and encompasses smaller details into it, the changes can result in brilliant experiences.
  5. It’s the concept of Kaizen — to strive for continuous improvement which reflects in almost every designed environment in Japan.

If you have made it to the end of this article, thanks for your patience and time :) If you have had any interesting experiences of accessibility and inclusion in other countries you have visited, do drop a comment on the same!

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