Yoshi Kawauchi photo

Yoshi Kawauchi

Access Project
Tokyo, Japan


Yoshi Kawauchi is the head of the Access Project in Tokyo and in June 2000, became one of nine recipients of the Ron Mace Designing for the 21st Century Award. It recognized Yoshi for the contribution he made in introducing the concept of accessibility as a civil right to Japanese society. He was active in the passage of Japan's new transport law. Yoshi is quick to point out that this is more a technical law than a civil rights law, and he has concerns about the way it is being implemented.

"We did not have such requirements in Japan at that time. This was the year that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became federal law. As a disabled person I was happy and proud to see this law, and I knew what I would do when I returned to Japan."
- Yoshi Kawauchi

When he was nineteen years old, Yoshi was within one year of completing his college degree in architecture when an accident during Judo practice left him with a spinal cord injury. As he adjusted to his new physical situation, requiring the use of a wheelchair, he realized that even with the good intentions of his college to make classes accessible to him, he could not manage his health and negotiate campus and studies at the same time. One of his professors petitioned the Japanese Ministry of Education to allow him to set up a special curriculum so that Yoshi could finish his degree by mail. So Yoshi completed the work of his final year without attending classes. He graduated from the Kure National College of Technology in 1976 and later passed his registration examinations.

After graduation, Yoshi found that firms were afraid of his physical disability and were unwilling to hire him. "I had to hire myself and opened Kawauchi Architectural Office, in a rural town. My major work was inaccessible housing. I did not become aware of accessible design until 1989. Unfortunately for me, there were no requests for accessible housing, and I did not consider designing housing based on my own needs." In 1989, Yoshi won the Mr. Donut Internship for People with Disabilities. A fast food franchise in Japan, Mr. Donut had set up the travel program in 1981, during the United Nations International Year of People with Disabilities. It sent five to ten people with disabilities to the United States annually for ten years. Yoshi's internship had a profound impact on his life. He arrived in Berkeley, California, with the goal of studying the independent living movement. "I was very impressed with the accessibility in Berkeley. And they taught me that accessibility is a civil right! We did not have this idea in Japan. I believed that the inaccessible situation at home was because of my disability. A revolution started in my mind. I noticed very soon that accessibility requirements forced them to make everything accessible. We did not have such requirements in Japan at that time. I started to work at Access California in Oakland and studied California Access Laws. This was the year that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became federal law. As a disabled person I was happy and proud to see this law, and I knew what I would do when I returned to Japan."

On one of Yoshi's visits to the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, Michael Winter, the executive director, recommended that Yoshi meet Ron Mace. "Although I didn't know who Ron Mace was, I flew to Raleigh in April, 1990. This was my first encounter with universal design. My first impression of universal design was not so strong; I thought it was an abstract concept. But I wrote an article about it for a Japanese magazine and although it was the first information about universal design to enter Japan, there was NO reaction. I thought perhaps it was too early for Japan because the majority of our society was not even aware of the barrier-free concept. After the United States passed the ADA, our society slowly started to become aware of accessibility. Even though I had written an article about it, it took me several years to fully understand the ideas and concepts and distinctions of universal design.

After I came back to Japan, I started to recommend to many people that they make their homes accessible. Only a few people understood what I was getting at. I decided to close my office and move to Tokyo, where I opened Access Project to start social change activities on behalf of accessibility."

Though a registered architect, Yoshi says he has little talent in design. He feels that his skills are in the education and political arena. "I think it is more effective to educate highly skilled architects rather than one architect with no design talent. If I can educate them, they will create much better design than I can." He also consults on projects and notes, "It is difficult to get enough money through these activities because our society still believes strongly that accessibility should be achieved by the good will of the people. I have not been able to establish a business model that is remunerative. I call myself 'NPI,' which stands for "Non-Profit Individual."

Photograph of a man in a wheelchair at a water fountain.
Yoshi with a group of students, demonstrating how he uses a drinking fountain.

Description of Photograph:
Photograph showing Yoshi drinking from a water fountain made of stone, approximately three feet high. It is has a vertical base with a right-angled arm with the spout and controls. He is seated in his wheelchair, with his knees under the arm of the fountain. There are several other people in the photograph who are standing around Yoshi, observing him and taking notes as he leans in closely to drink the water from the fountain.

Yoshi was disturbed by the tendency of Japanese people to equate access with welfare. "This misconception is based on the stereotype of people with disabilities as weak, pitiable people who need protection ... For that reason everything is prepared especially for them, and even people with disabilities themselves believe that they should be specially treated. But this kind of special treatment is worth nothing. It allows many people to continue to think that people with disability are a burden on society."

Yoshi has published two books. The first is based on surveys of Japanese cityscapes and public facilities that he compiled with Richard Skaff, an access expert with the City of San Francisco. Barrier Full Nippon was published by Gendai Shokan in 1996.

His second book, Universal Design: Questions to Barrier Free published by Gakugei Syuppan in 2001, sold out its first printing and has been reprinted. "This publication project started in 1998, just after Ron's death. I interviewed more than sixty people all over the United States who have a deep understanding of universal design. I translated those interviews into Japanese and learned valuable definitions and distinctions. The book includes the historical development of universal design and makes the distinction between barrier free, accessible and universal. A friend of mine said, "This book should be read by United States leaders on universal design." I think a part of my responsibility as a recipient of the Ron Mace Designing for the 21st Century Award has been fulfilled."

Yoshi continues to persuade his audiences of the justice in equality of access. "Equal access allows people with disabilities to use facilities freely, just like anyone else. This means giving people with a disadvantaged status the same status as other users.without pigeonholing them. Only when we in Japan embrace these goals can we say we are promoting equal social participation."

With the success of his most recent book he has been invited to give many lectures. But he is concerned that business audiences are interested, not on the needs of consumers in their practices, but only in the definition of the terms so that they can use them correctly in reports.

"The interest in universal design in Japan is very strong in the business community but is still weak in terms of consumer advocacy. So I emphasize that consumer control is a very important component of universal design, but this is not a popular subject in the business community. Many of them only need practical information on how to make universally designed products."

Yoshi is a representative of the Japan/USA Disability Association (JUDA), a non-profit organization that facilitates the exchange of information. A board member of the Legal Advocacy for the Defense of People with Disabilities (LADD), he also serves on two committees of the Japanese Institute of Architects.

Yoshi is married and does not have children. One of his favorite ways of relaxing is people-watching. "I like to watch the way people move through the city."

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