Universal Design in Japan

According to the article “Accessible, Universal, Inclusive Design: Have the Horses Reached the Finish Line?” by Dr. Louise Jones, while Universal Design (UD) is not solely focused on the elderly, designing for aging members of the population is an important part of UD. This is especially true in countries like Japan, where the elderly will shortly constitute over a quarter of the population’s demographic. 

In his article published in the AARP International Journal, architect Kawauchi Yoshihiko describes the efforts of the Japanese government to standardize UD and Barrier-Free practices within Japan’s cities.  In the YouTube video “Designed for Universal Use – Japanese”, innovative UD solutions to common office products and interior design elements show Japan’s awareness of its increasing elderly population, as well as their efforts to provide the best experience possible for people with a range of abilities.  The push pins, with their safety tips doubling as a means of easily retrieving them from a bulletin board, in true UD fashion, present themselves as easy-to-use tools for elderly, the disabled, and children.  Likewise, the soft door-closing devices also provide safe door handling for all types of people. 

Yoshihiko acknowledges that great steps are being made toward making Japan barrier-free, but he concludes that the movement has yet to reach rural areas – areas mostly comprised of the elderly who are trapped with little access to inexpensive, easy-to-use transportation.  This seems to contradict the optimism of Dr. Jones, who believes Japan may be close to realizing UD’s full potential across their nation.  Rather sadly, the two assessments of Japan’s outlook are in accord with one another, as evidenced by Dr. Jones observations of the general floundering of UD worldwide.  While Japan began implementing Barrier-free practices due to the necessity of accommodating their rising population of elderly, many countries lack the ability to feed their people, much less design environments tailored to accommodate everyone’s needs.  In the more stable countries of Europe, the concept of UD remains largely that – a concept.  Even in the United States, where strict laws have been enacted to ensure equal accessibility opportunities to public buildings, the residential market is not closely monitored.  Therefore, while Japan still has a long way to go in adapting their country to meet UD guidelines, they are already ahead of the rest of the world. Because America’s demographic is heading toward a similar increase in the elderly population, the design field should look to Japan for innovations and strategies that will enable people of all ages and abilities to enjoy easy use of public and private spaces.

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