Living with a disability in Japan

Photo of Scott Rothrock

Scott Rothrock

Community Moderator at TokyoDev

This article is informed primarily by my experiences as a deaf American living in Japan for the last 16 years. Even though I do not have a mobility disability, I have also included notes about mobility accessibility because I also have some awareness of those through relatives. I hope that this article will be generally informative for everyone, even if you do not have a disability or if you have a disability that is not deafness.

Note: When I use Japanese terms to refer to a person with disabilities, I will use the Japanese 障がい者 (shougaisha). People with disabilities have often chosen to render the middle がい in hiragana, rather than the Chinese character 害, due to the latter’s negative association with wrong-doing, harm, and disaster. Many official government communications have also chosen to follow this rendering.

There are not many official sources with proper translations in English regarding living in Japan with a disability, so I have chosen to link to official Japanese sources, as they are the clearest and provide the necessary terminology for further research.

Difficulties in Japan as a person with a disability

Disabilities and the choices that you make to live with them are intensely personal topics. Living in Japan with a disability is difficult, whether you were born and raised here or not. These difficulties can become worse the more you need or expect accommodations. After all, two things people often mention about Japanese culture are “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” and the importance of “harmony”. Disabilities go against both of these ideas.

There are still train stations without reasonable accommodations for wheelchair users. Many buildings are also inaccessible due to narrow doorways, stairs that cannot be bypassed, or steps up from the street level. Many restaurants are too small or narrow and will refuse you—politely—if you have a disability they cannot accommodate. Even Japanese homes are culturally hostile to those with mobility issues; a hallmark of a Japanese home is the entry hall (玄関, genkan), which has a prominent, raised step from the entry hall to the actual interior.

Many places will offer some form of accommodation, only to have the point of failure be the employee in charge of the accommodation. Signs saying “we will write for you” are common. However, workers or even doctors can refuse to write at all, write only “keywords”, or label you as difficult and attempt to ignore you in the future.

Agency is the ability to have control over the choices you make and how to act on them. Many people with disabilities are robbed of their agency by people around them. If you have a disability that creates friction or discomfort for others, it is not uncommon to have well-intentioned employees unilaterally take control of your situation. I have had experienced employees making decisions, going through entire processes without informing me about what they were doing or why. I have seen wheelchair users forcibly picked up and lifted over steps without offer or warning.

It is also not uncommon to see people staring at, talking about, or avoiding people with disabilities.

With all of this, it isn’t a surprise that in a Japanese government survey about discrimination against people with disabilities, almost 90% of survey respondents reported feeling that discrimination exists.

Accommodations in Japan

This is not to say that Japan is completely hostile to those with disabilities. These things happen to people in other countries as well. However, in my experience, Japan can be less accessible and accommodating than other places.

Some accommodations are immediately apparent. Any major city or station is the large, yellow blocks with raised stripes or dots for people with visual disabilities. The stripes indicate the flow of foot traffic, while the dots indicate where to stop or exercise caution. Additionally, large intersections will have extremely loud beeps with different patterns to indicate when it is safe to cross.

In the public transportation system, trains and buses have accommodations for people with mobility disabilities; when notified ahead of time, employees will use portable ramps to help passengers onto the train/bus near designated seating areas. This is an institutionalized method of making public transport accessible. These types of accommodations are equally necessary for not only people who have mobility issues, but also the number of people among Japan’s aging population who will develop mobility issues in the near future.

There are other types of assistance available through the Japanese bureaucracy.

The Japanese disability certificate

One of the most common (and among foreigners, divisive) places to start is the “disability certificate” (障がい者手帳, shougaisha techou). There are three types:

  • Physical disability certificate (身体障がい者手帳, shintai shougaisha techou): for people with a physical disability that impacts their daily lives
  • Mental disability health/welfare certificate (精神障がい者保険福祉手帳, seishin shougaisha hoken fukushi techou): for people with a mental disability that impacts their daily lives
  • Education and support certificate (療育手帳, ryouiku techou): for people with developmental delays

The primary requirement for a disability certificate is an examination with a designated medical professional. Anyone can ask for an examination, but the specifics of the certificate will depend on the results of that examination. Applying for a certificate is completely optional, but having a disability certificate unlocks many benefits and discounts (障がい者割引, shougaisha waribiki).

These certificates can be divisive among foreigners on privacy grounds: it can feel invasive to go to a doctor to have the specifics of your disability and health judged, and then disclosed to the government for further categorization and official registration. This feeling is only intensified when you have to show your certificate to a worker or an employee for verification in order to receive a benefit or discount, or when you need to “check in” with the social welfare counter at the municipal office after moving.

My experience is primarily with the physical disability certificate, so that is what I will speak about the most.

There are seven levels (級, kyuu) to the physical disability certificate, with 7 being the least severe, and 1 being the most severe. Each level has specific definitions to ensure that the system is fair.

These seven categories are broadly separated into two large groups: “Type 1” and “Type 2”. Broadly speaking, levels 1-3 are considered Type 1, and levels 4-7 are considered Type 2. Benefit eligibility and scale are often determined by whether a certificate holder falls into the Type 1 or Type 2 category, rather than the specific disability level.

There is additionally an “exceptional” (特別, tokubetsu) category with separate requirements. The National Tax Office and a few other government agencies use it to determine eligibility for various benefits. It is similar to the Type 1 category in that it is strictly defined based on the severity and effect of the disability.

Benefits of having a disability certificate

Many major benefits are available for Type 1 certificate holders, with Type 2 certificate holders receiving fewer or no benefits. For example, JR provides fare discounts of 50% for a Type 1 certificate holder and their guardian or helper; however, a Type 2 certificate holder cannot obtain the discount for their guardian or helper.

Other places, such as museums, aquariums, and movie theaters will offer free entry or discounts. The process varies depending on venues. Some will require you to present your disability certificate to a human at a window in order to purchase a ticket with the discount. Others, like movie theaters, will allow you to purchase a ticket with the discount online or at a kiosk, but require you to present your disability certificate along with the ticket for verification on entry.

Municipal governments also offer various types of benefits or help. Toei is a public transport system in Tokyo run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Many people overseas think of “Tokyo” as primarily the wards (e.g.: Shinjuku, Shibuya, Taito, et al), but Tokyo is a prefectural-level government with a jurisdiction covering many cities, towns, villages, and even islands. Any resident of the greater prefectural Tokyo-level jurisdiction who meets their local municipality’s requirements can receive a pass from Toei that allows them to ride the Toei transit system for free. The only caveat is that this too requires disclosure: often, you must show your Toei free pass to the station employee working the ticket gate. Some versions of the pass are compatible with some stiles that allow you to insert the pass itself into the ticket stile. There is a Pasmo version that can be issued in some municipalities, but it has its own restrictions.

The idea of these discounts can be divisive. Why should people receive discounts or stipends for having a disability? Isn’t that unfair? The reality is that people with disabilities, especially in Japan, often have lower incomes, yet higher expenses. Discounts like these are an accommodation that helps offset other, unseen expenses, such as requiring a helper, or needing to take a taxi, or even medical fees and costs that are not directly provided for.

The Japanese government also provides direct financial help to people with disabilities, or to parents of children with disabilities. Many municipalities offer straightforward stipends for people with disability certificates if they meet certain requirements. For example, Arakawa Ward in Tokyo will give 15,500 yen per month to people with a level 1 or 2 physical disability certificate, as long as they are beneath the specified income level.

The people who will be most knowledgeable about these types of assistance will be the ones who work at the “welfare for people with disabilities” counter/window (often 障がい者福祉課, shougaisha fukushi-ka) at the municipal office.

The Japanese government further provides financial assistance indirectly. For example, people with disability certificates can receive income tax deductions. Certificate holders are eligible for a 270,000 yen deduction on income taxes; those who have an exceptional disability instead qualify for a 400,000 yen deduction.

Disability certificate holders in the workforce

The government also attempts to use financial incentives to discourage companies from discriminating against people with disabilities via a legal mandate. In simple terms, a company with more than 100 employees is expected to meet a mandate of employing disability certificate holders for at least 2.3% of their workforce. Companies that do not meet that number must pay a fee of 50,000 yen per person per month. These numbers can change based on several factors, but are sufficient to help us understand a rough impact.

For a rough example: a company with 200 employees would be expected to have at least 2.3%, or five people with disability certificates. If that company did not employ any disability certificate holders, it would be expected to pay 50,000 yen per “missing” employee, which would add up to:

  • 250,000 yen per month
  • 3,000,000 yen per year

This can be the salary of an entry-level hire and is not insignificant.

The impact of this system is undeniable, with the government reporting rising numbers of people with disabilities in the workforce. However, numbers do not tell the full story. Many companies are reluctant to hire people with disabilities for skilled or senior level labor and instead turn to sponsoring sports teams with disabilities, or opening up low-skill, low-paying, dead end positions.

There is often no way to reasonably avoid disclosing disabilities to employers if you need any kind of accommodation; they will often proactively ask for a copy of your disability certificate. A large part of this is that they will often want to register you as one of the mandated employees with a disability as described above. Another reason is that employers usually handle their employees’ taxes, which will also require disclosure.

Disclosure of disabilities

Disclosure and the way it is treated in Japan can be one of the most difficult adjustments for a foreigner with a disability. Something that is often private in other countries is expected and understood to be semi-public in Japan. Before the pandemic, when I commuted for work and went out more frequently, it was common for me to have to disclose my disability in multiple ways every single day.

Sometimes I would be subject to annoyed questioning (“you don’t look like you have a disability, why do you have this?”) or employees would ask to examine the details of my disability certificate to “verify” that I was “really” disabled. I have also been subject to impromptu “examinations” to “verify” my deafness—usually involving someone yelling at me very loudly. It can be difficult to stay cool in those situations, but as both a person with a disability and also as a foreigner, staying calm is a must.

Many Japanese people feel that friction as well, and not just in the need to disclose, but also the physical act of showing the disability certificate itself. Keeping the disability certificate—which can range from a printed sheet, to a folded note card, to a plastic card, to a booklet—is a burden, and so is having to remove it from its protective case to show to other people frequently. Recently, an app called Mirairo ID has allowed people with disability certificates to officially electronically register their disability certificates and keep them on their smartphone. While Mirairo ID cannot reduce the need to disclose, it does reduce the friction in disclosure..

I obviously did not let my disability keep me from moving, working, or establishing a life here. Even if I knew what I know today, warts and all, I think I would have still made the decision to emigrate to Japan. As with anything, there are trade-offs: some things are better, some things are worse. I do wish I had known about the option to get a disability certificate earlier in my time here, as it would have helped tremendously when I was struggling on a lower salary.

While there is no way for me to travel back 16 years ago and help myself in the past, I hope this article can help other people who are looking into moving to Japan.

More about the author

Photo of Scott Rothrock

Scott Rothrock

Community Moderator at TokyoDev

Scott is a deaf American in Japan. He was previously the principal engineer at a Japanese startup for over a decade and is currently a senior engineer and backend team lead at an American startup. He loves dogs and if you talk to him long enough, you will eventually hear about his dogs, Noa and Sophie.

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