Discussing the opportunities and challenges of Open Tokyo

An in-depth report from our recent seminar on diversity and accessibility in Tokyo

Rio Hirai at the Open Tokyo seminar | Time Out Tokyo
By Time Out Tokyo Editors |

In a time where the world appears to be putting up barriers and lowering its tolerance levels, Tokyo is bravely swimming against the tide. No matter what your age, religion or sexuality, you’re welcome in the capital. Determined to further strengthen this persuasion and unlock Tokyo for absolutely everyone, we here at Time Out Tokyo kicked off a new initiative called Open Tokyo with our previous issue, released at the end of March.

We’ve also partnered with the Nikkei newspaper to launch Nikkei Magazine Futurecity, a new Japanese-language mag that first hit shelves on March 30. It’s packed with articles centred on the Open Tokyo theme, including interviews with Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike and paralympian Mami Tani, our manifesto for an Open Tokyo, lessons Tokyo can learn from London and much more.

With Futurecity having attracted quite a bit of attention in early spring, we followed up with a seminar on the theme on April 21. Held at Tokyo Midtown, this panel discussion brought together a range of experts from various fields, including Makoto Tokuda, PR manager for real estate developer Mitsui Fudosan, Takaaki Umezawa, chairman of management consulting firm A.T. Kearney Japan, and Kris Yoshie, director of the Slow Label nonprofit, with freelance announcer Rio Hirai taking up the role of moderator. They were joined by Miki Shirakawa from Nikkei’s Olympics and Paralympics promotion team, and Time Out Tokyo president Hiroyuki Fushitani.


Our own Mr Fushitani opened the first part of the session by explaining the Open Tokyo initiative’s origins and giving a synopsis of the project. He recounted how it was inspired by the Open London Guide, a city guide launched in 2012 by Time Out London and certified as an official guidebook for the London Olympics and Paralympics.


The Open London guide was created by Time Out London together with NGOs and other organisations involved with building accessible facilities for the 2012 Games. It features a range of information about accessibility in the context of everything from public transit to accommodation and restaurants.

Seeking to build on this idea of openness in Tokyo, Fushitani conceived of Open Tokyo as something that would go beyond a guidebook and leave a legacy in Tokyo for 2020 and beyond. The initiative includes not only the idea of making Tokyo more ‘open’, but also the removal of existing barriers, the promotion of Tokyo as a global city, open advocacy for accessibility, and a future-oriented perspective.

Miki Shirahama, who manages the Nikkei’s sponsorship activities for the Tokyo Olympics, chimed in with an affirmation of the initiative’s timely nature. ‘Many things that are now commonplace in global society still do not exist in Japan. With the Olympics and Paralympics on the horizon, we need a new type of change.’

‘The London Olympics were successful not only in a sporting sense; by supporting sports among those with disabilities, the Games raised awareness and advanced the notion that cities can accommodate both those with and without disabilities. For this project, we considered what we, as a Tokyo-based media outlet, could do to achieve a similar outcome.’ The result was a collaborative project with Time Out Tokyo, which included Futurecity.


Hiroyuki Fushitani


Miki Shirahama

Moving on to the panel discussion, our participants – who work with diversity-related issues in the areas of hiring foreign workers, welfare, and urban planning – discussed how to open up Tokyo through their respective disciplines, and shared opinions on what the legacy for the city after 2020 might be. Takaaki Umezawa, chairman of A.T. Kearney Japan, one of the world’s leading management consulting firms, noted how steep hurdles remain for non-Japanese to find work and live in Japan.

‘For young people studying abroad in Japan, the hurdles to actually entering a Japanese company after graduation and living in Japan for the long-term are very steep. Many Western countries allow a grace period of two years between graduating from a study abroad programme and joining the workforce. But in Japan, students must find work immediately or return home.’

‘Furthermore, the Japanese corporate system is out of step with the needs of non-Japanese workers, and with today’s era. Also, buying real estate is, in many cases, still limited to Japanese nationals. These issues have to be put a stop to. More than changing national systems, the real issue could be that of reforming systems and mindsets in place at corporations.’

‘In London, the fields of IT and design are booming, and the city is a leader in a huge range of innovative industries. In fact, over half of the people working in these industriries in London are not from the UK. Despite the fact that Tokyo has far more foreign students than London, can we really say that innovation here is led by non-Japanese?’

‘Even our startups are primarily led by Japanese people. This truly is a shame. The problem is not with the students themselves – it’s with Japanese corporations that are not equipped to take on skilled foreign talent. In order for Japan to become a place where skilled foreign workers stay on after graduation and take up leading positions in industry and society, how can we grow in the coming years? People around the world are still interested in Japan. Now is our chance.’


Takaaki Umezawa

Umezawa noted that Japan is missing out on skilled workers due to ways of thinking and systems that are out of step with contemporary reality. Meanwhile, Makoto Tokuda of real estate developer Mitsui Fudosan, which is engaged in urban planning throughout Tokyo, spoke his mind about how he is seeing changes in the corporate mentality.

‘One thing I can say as a real estate developer is that the idea of a barrier-free society, especially in terms of infrastructure, has come very far. I myself have had many opportunities to engage with people with disabilities over the last several years, and I’ve come to realise that there’s nothing “special” about them – they are ordinary people just like you and me.’

‘We cannot change our mindset unless we engage with others. It’s a fact that the number of non-Japanese residents in Tokyo is on the rise, and the discomfort they once felt at things that seemed antiquated has now largely disappeared. We want to continue contributing to a diverse society by engaging more openly with others.’

Tokuda also recalled a memorable moment at the parade for the Rio Olympic and Paralympic medalists in Nihonbashi. ‘The parade was slated to be very crowded, so an area was cordoned off with tarps for people in wheelchairs. Unfortunately, only a tenth of the space was used. Although the organisers had booked this space, it turned out to be difficult for those in wheelchairs to get to.’

‘However, people in wheelchairs did tell us that they were surprised and delighted to find that they could see the parade up close. We want to make the 2020 Games an event that disabled people can take part in without the slightest worry.’


Makoto Tokuda

Slow Label is a nonprofit that works to empower people with disabilities and advance their integration into society. Their art project, ‘Slow Movement’, involves both Japanese artists and contributors from abroad in promoting accessible urban environments. Slow Label director Kris Yoshie talked about why ‘barrier-free’ infrastructure is less important than the emotional element, or ‘software’, of accessibility.

‘When people hear the term “disabled”, they imagine people in wheelchairs or on crutches or canes. However, the term is all-encompassing. Many people have disabilities that are unseen to the naked eye. There’s no simple solution to helping all of these people at once, but many issues can be solved if those around us are considerate.’

‘There are also many people whose disability in one area has allowed them to compensate by having greater acuity or function than an ordinary person in another area. Utilising these abilities in a creative way can surely create a richer and more exciting society.’


Kris Yoshie

Next, Fushitani brought up a series of articles appearing in Futurecity that compare and contrast Tokyo and London as global cities and in terms of openness. Figures on the number of tourists, foreign students, female workers and gay bars are includes alongside a number citing the ratio of barrier-free subway stations. Tokyo is listed at 90 percent, while London has 26. At first glance, it would seem that Tokyo is leading, but Fushitani noted that this figure actually hints at a problem Tokyo is facing.

‘When we were working on this magazine, we showed the London editorial team our idea for an Open Tokyo manifesto, and they asked us why such an article was even necessary. They said the list contained things that are considered commonplace. That’s when we realised how different the level of awareness is. In London, people have grown up with the ideas of barrier-free and inclusiveness. Such a background has easily translated into thinking about and acting on these issues.’

While London has far fewer barrier-free subways than Tokyo, the city was praised highly for its reforms in the lead-up to the 2012 Games. So how about Tokyo? In an interview with Mami Tani, a paralympian featured in the magazine, we find the following:

‘No matter how much you reduce visual differences, or modify systems and structures, it’s not so easy to change people’s minds. That is precisely why the Olympics, and particularly the Paralympics coming to Tokyo is so important. People will be emotionally moved and excited by the sight of Paralympians pushing their limits, making for a golden opportunity to break down barriers in people’s minds and change their attitudes towards those with disabilities.’ Only mental change leads to fundamental change, in other words.

The Yokohama Paratriennale 2017, an international exhibition of contemporary art by disabled people and professionals from various fields, is also being led by Kris Yoshie, who has high hopes for the potential of the Paralympics.

‘One thing often mentioned about the Yokohama Paratriennale is that it only focuses on the disabled. People feel that we should also include different ethnicities, the LGBT community and so on. But what we have discovered in planning this event is that by creating a disabled-friendly space, a wide range of people will be inspired to visit. We’re aiming for accessibility for everyone. The idea is not to support the disabled as such, but to take their point of views and encourage reform. In that sense, the Paralympics are a fantastic opportunity.’

Rio Hirai, who also works as a radio host and discusses topics on social design, agreed with Yoshie: ‘One thing we found at the Rio Paralympics was that the barrier-free world is a fantastic place in which co-existence is possible. Even people who do not experience difficulty with stairs and steps in their daily lives found the spaces incredibly comfortable and pleasant to be in. If we can leave that kind of legacy behind in Tokyo, it will be a major success.’


2020 is just three years away. Yoshie argued that ‘if we don’t buckle down on the issues this year, we won’t be ready in time for 2020. This is a very important year.’ In other words, three years is a lot shorter than it sounds. So what can we do?

Umezawa confidently presented his vision: ‘The crucial moment for Tokyo and Japan will be post-2020. At the same time, the three years ahead are critical. With leadership at the national level and in Tokyo, serious actors will take the 2020 deadline as motivation to get busy.’

‘If we take the long-term view, there are projects that must be completed by 2020, and ones that will take place over a longer span. If we combine these strategically, what kind of Tokyo awaits us post-2020? That challenge is ripe for the taking.’

Tying things up, Fushitani noted that ‘over the next three years, Tokyo will become even more international. Not only do we need to promote Japanese culture, but we must also show the world how the city is dealing with issues like the aging society, diversity, and using the latest technology and services to foster change.’

‘In London, in addition to the team operating the Olympics and Paralympics, they installed a separate task force in charge of thinking about what kind of legacy to leave behind, and that team was very successful. Tokyo must do the same thing. We want 2020 to be a true success story about how Tokyo is looking to the future – something we can show the world with pride.’


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