For most, the convenience of riding trains with the swipe of a smart card is taken for granted but for disabled people in the Tokyo metropolitan region, that change has yet to come.
Japan's disabled, as well as accompanying caregivers, are eligible for 50 percent discounts on train fares, but in the capital area, unlike many other parts of the country, there are no smart cards for these special fares. Instead, the disabled must queue up at manned counters and present a certificate with proof of disability to buy a discount ticket each time.
An advocacy group that supports disabled residents in Chiba, east of Tokyo, says the lack of smart cards with discount fares for disabled residents and carers on any lines in the Kanto region adds significantly to travel time.
Last January, the group, which comprises disabled people and their families, did a test to measure the time a parent and a disabled child usually take to travel from JR Chiba Station to Toyosu Station on the Tokyo Metro Line, comparing it with non-disabled adult riders.
"We also want to breeze past the ticket gates," said a 48-year-old Chiba woman who took part in the group's test and has a child with an intellectual disability.
The clock began when the riders boarded the train for departure and ended after exiting the gate at their destination. The riders changed trains three times on the way and twice on the return trip.
They determined that it took disabled people and their caregivers an extra 35 minutes on the outward journey and 56 minutes in total both ways, compared with a non-disabled adult person.
Disabled people and their caregivers needed additional time to go to station counters to buy discounted tickets or get a refund every time they changed trains.
Another calculation by the group found that a physically disabled person in a motorized wheelchair took 1 hour, 11 minutes more than a non-disabled adult person for the entire Chiba-Toyosu trip due to added time to locate station elevators and train cars with spaces for wheelchairs.
With the widespread use of smart cards, there are fewer gates that only accept paper tickets. A disabled person usually needs to find a turnstile that accepts both and often waits for a break in the flow of travelers using their smart cards to pass through the gates.
A disabled person may use an ordinary smart card to pass through a turnstile and get on a train, but ultimately, the person still needs to find a staff-attended gate or ticket desk to get a refund after alighting from a train.
This is in stark contrast with non-disabled rail and subway riders, who can also take advantage of smartphone fare apps.
"Disabled people, who already have mobility disadvantages, are further burdened with disadvantages" due to the lack of smart cards with disability discounts, said the group's head Ryu Takamura, 69.
On April 6, Takamura's group turned in a letter to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism, demanding the issuance of smart cards with disability discounts. The request drew support from 41 other organizations for disabled people and 722 individuals, she said.
Aside from being frozen out of the digital age of convenience for train transport, disabled people also worry about the risks of infections due to the coronavirus pandemic, the letter states.
"When ticket desks are crowded, we have to wait for a long time. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, disabled people and the attendants at ticket desks end up both facing the risk of infections," it said.
Japan Railway companies, the country's main train operators, do not offer disability discount smart cards on any of their lines nationwide, but some other operators outside the Kansai region already do.
In the Kansai region of western Japan, for example, a group comprising 63 train and bus operators covering Kyoto and Osaka began a system of prepaid cards for disabled people in 1996 at a time magnetic cards were in use.
Similar cards for disabled people are also available for use on subways and private railways in Sapporo in northern Japan, Sendai in northeastern Japan, Nagoya in central Japan, and Fukuoka in southwestern Japan.
East Japan Railway Co., the JR which issues Suica smart cards, has repeatedly received requests from groups supporting disabled people to offer smart cards with disability discounts.
But the company argues that a massive system overhaul and coordination with other railway operators that share its lines present formidable challenges for implementing such smart cards.