Tokyo’s Olympic legacy acknowledges population ageing

The two mascots, one blue one bright pink for the Tokyo O,ympics.Although Japan has the oldest population in the world, creating accessible urban spaces is making very slow progress. The upcoming Olympic Games provides an opportunity to create legacy sites and urban surrounds that acknowledge population ageing. However, both the Olympic and Paralympic Games are promoted against a backdrop of youth and fitness.

Deidre Sneep’s book chapter (p91) discusses the issues regarding the urban design legacy in the Japanese context. Tokyo aims to have all of the parts of the city that linked to the Olympic venues, as well as public transportation, taxis and the city’s airports, completely barrier-free.

The title of the book chapter is, Discover tomorrow: Tokyo’s ‘barrier-free’ Olympic legacy and the urban ageing population. If you have institutional access you can access the journal article version.

One interesting aspect is that some argue that the government’s guide to promote a ‘barrier-free spirit’ makes it sound like an act of friendliness. Any kind of patronising attitude or slogan only serves to maintain marginalisation as the norm. Posters focus on young people and make barrier-free a special design. There are no older people in the pictures.

The implementation of the universal design concept is increasingly commercialised says Sneep. This is likely due to the history of universal design in Japan. One of the first international universal design conferences was held in Japan in 2002, and was led by giant product manufacturers such as Mitsubishi. The International Association for Universal Design (IAUD) remains active. 

In 2020 Tokyo will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games for the second time in history. With a strong emphasis on the future – Tokyo’s slogan for the Olympic Games is ‘Discover Tomorrow’ – Tokyo is branded as city of youth and hope. Tokyo’s demographics, however, show a different image: in the coming decades, it is expected that well over a third of the citizens will be over 65. Despite the focus on a youthful image, Tokyo is well aware of the fact that its demographics are rapidly shifting.

Governmental bodies have been actively trying to find solutions for anticipated problems related to the ageing population for decades. One of the solutions that is being discussed and implemented is highlighted by the 2020 Olympics: the implementation of universal design in public spaces in the city in order to make it more easily accessible – in other words, making Tokyo ‘barrier-free’ (bariafurī).

This chapter presents the concept of ‘barrier-free’ in a Japanese setting, critically analyses the history and current implementation of the concept, pointing out that it seems to be increasingly commercialised, and evaluates the purpose of implementing the concept in the light of the 2020 Olympic Games.