Q&A: Unpacking Japan’s Commitment to Universal Design

Valerie Fletcher on how the world’s oldest society is spearheading research into innovative human-centered design.

Part of our aging-in-place bathroom coverage this month includes a short piece on Toto’s universal-design center in Japan. What’s eye-opening about the UD research center—and a tad depressing, when you compare it to this country’s lack of commitment to basic research—is how purely exploratory the work there is. It is not merely a tool for new product development. Recently I talked to Valerie Fletcher—executive director of the Boston-based Institute for Human Centered Design, and a leader in the universal-design movement—about Toto’s research initiatives, the cultural underpinnings of these efforts, and the new “definitions” for an idea whose time is long overdue.

Above: Researchers in Toto’s universal-design center conduct simulations that reproduce the limited range of motion experienced by older bathers.

In 2006 you cut the ribbon at the opening ceremonies for Toto’s universal-design center. What’s it like?

It is a freestanding building, dedicated to research. There is a concept in universal design called user experts—based on the presumption that people whose life experience is different from a typical designer have something important to offer. The center utilizes this way beyond the focus group idea. They document the user interface in every imaginable way.


They monitor with videos. They do anthropometric studies, straight observation, simultaneous interview. The participants vary wildly. The youngest tends to be three and the oldest is around about ninety. So it’s really diverse. Imagine the documentation of a person getting into a bathtub. They’re watching not only what they do with their feet, but what do they do with their arms and shoulders and head. It’s monitored and tracked. They look at things like tactile quality: Is it too slippery? Too rough? They do a lot of work with eye tracking. They want to know: If we shift this product to the left or right or center, would you see it and use it more readily? It’s quite thoroughly done out, with a quality of technology for research that’s impressive. They also use simulation techniques. They will, for example, simulate an impeded range of motion, and have volunteers participate in that by wearing special suits. Or they will simulate blindness, and observe how someone would manage in the kitchen. It’s pretty amazing.

Do we have anything comparable here?

No. And part of that is just the Japanese commitment to research. We’ve certainly had occasional projects, but nothing in an ongoing way, and nothing that uses the same volume of actual participants. In the U.S., work tends to be publicly funded. And it’s short term. The University of Buffalo did some good work on bathrooms some years ago, but it was some years ago. In Japan, it’s corporately funded. Of course we have corporations that invest in this, but I can’t think of any company who has done anything quite like this from the universal-design perspective. One other interesting thing to note: right next door to this is Toto’s nanotechnology lab. It’s a building of equal size.

Why is Japan so far ahead of the rest of the world in universal design?

It’s pretty straightforward. The level of interest is very much culturally determined. The fact that Japan is the oldest society in the world, in terms of demographics, is considered a national priority. This has created a society that has had to figure out how to overcome the traditional way of dealing with aging, which had been within the family. Today, they’re well below the replacement rate in terms of birth rates and have a lot of people who are caring not just for their parents but also their in-laws. So you might have one or two adults with four elderly people. You also have a remarkable number of people in their seventies who are caring for their parents.

So you have two-, three-, four-generation households?

But not enough people to do what used to be manageable work, partly because women there do not work in the same volume that is common in the U.S. or in Western Europe. So you have an expectation of people who would care for elderly family members in the course of normal life. But that idea doesn’t work anymore, and universal design becomes the alternative. Design tries to pick up the slack for what people can’t do anymore.

How long has universal design been a national priority in Japan?

They did the first big international conference in 2002, in Yokohama. At that point the decision was made. Out of that event came an organization—which is overwhelmingly Japanese—called the International Association for Universal Design (IAUD). It is unique because it’s not an organization of designers or advocates, but made up largely of corporations. All of the big multinationals. We’re also talking about an assumption that any corporation worth their salt probably belongs to. The IAUD has between 140 and 150 companies a year that pay significant money in annual dues. Lots of money is committed to the research agenda, and one of the tenets is that they help to make good on a national commitment that issues of universal design are so significant that it warrants an unusual agreement to share research.

And all this has happened in the last six or seven years?

I promise you.

So ADA passes here in 1990, but Japan doesn’t take up the mantle of universal design until 2002?

Universal design is not ADA. You’re uncovering part of the whole international dynamic. One of the realities is that most of the universal-design movement, globally, has not been driven by human rights or a vision of equality for the disabled. It has been driven more often, based on cultural traditions, by the aging of the world’s population.

It’s interesting that universal design took hold in Japan as a kind of demographic imperative. It became an “issue” in America as a manifestation of human rights, but probably won’t gain real mainstream traction until it too becomes demographically driven.

And I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been enormously frustrated by the incremental expansion of awareness and adoption of inclusive design. During the past couple of years, when I lecture and write, I talk about “inclusive design” or universal design or human-centered design—they’re all the same thing—and I frame it now as socially sustainable design. There I get more traction, with young people, with designers, many of whom still think that universal design is a synonym for accessibility.

Or think of it as ramps attached to a building to meet code.

Because we haven’t done the research or the experiential investigation of the kinds of design features that would make a real difference, we still look at it here as uber-accessibility. It’s mostly about wheelchair design that’s not homely. And it’s much more than that. But the cultural drivers for this issue are different. Our highest value, at least until our economy crashed, was autonomy and individual success. In Japan the understanding of life’s highest good tends to be centered around the group. More often than not, for us, we get confronted by people, often baby boomers, who will say: “Not yet!” It’s all about “me.” But people are beginning to change.

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