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News Navigator: Can't wheelchair users make same-day bullet train seat reservations?

The space for two wheelchairs is seen on a prototype of the new N700S bullet train for the Tokaido Shinkansen Line. (Mainichi/Katsuyuki Uchibayashi)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about the barriers wheelchair users can face on Japan's shinkansen bullet train system.

Question: Why did the space for wheelchairs on shinkansen trains become a news topic?

Answer: Eiko Kimura, a House of Councillors member of the Reiwa Shinsengumi opposition party, noted at a Dec. 3 Diet committee meeting that the space for wheelchairs on shinkansen bullet trains cannot be reserved on the day of travel. Transport minister Kazuyoshi Akaba replied, "JR companies' treatment of wheelchair users is regrettable. It's inexcusable." Kimura is herself a wheelchair user.

Q: Do all shinkansen trains have spaces for passengers in wheelchairs?

A: The transportation ministry now requires rail operators to have space for at least one wheelchair per bullet train. Seats next to the space are prioritized for wheelchair users to sit in. The standard will be strengthened to require space for at least two wheelchairs per train beginning in April 2020. New N700S model bullet trains, set to enter service next summer on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line connecting Tokyo and Osaka, will have two spaces for passengers with wheelchairs.

Q: When do users need to make a reservation by?

A: The five Japan Railway (JR) companies which operate shinkansen trains ask users to reserve the seats next to the wheelchair space between a month and two days before the date of travel. The companies explained that this is needed to give them sufficient time to notify station staff, so they can prepare to assist the wheelchair user to move smoothly through stations and on and off the train. However, passengers without wheelchairs can reserve the priority seats on departure day on many shinkansen trains, making it difficult for people with a wheelchair to get a same-day seat.

Kimura pointed out that "wheelchair users cannot use shinkansen trains in emergencies such as the death of a relative." JR companies explained that they respond to these cases when possible, such as providing the passenger use of the "multi-purpose room" installed in each train.

Q: But is it sufficient to keep the existing system?

A: The government will launch a joint expert committee along with the five JR firms by the end of December to consider new measures to deal with the problem in consultation with groups representing people with disabilities. Transport minister Akaba said, "I want to put measures into practice as soon as possible."

(Japanese original by Atsushi Matsumoto, City News Department)

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