Conveyers of Smiles

The Gift of Mobility

The Nippon Foundation’s fleet of welfare vehicles topped the 30,000 mark in 2012. Every year the foundation donates around 2,000 welfare vans, trucks, and cars—making this the largest program of its kind in Japan. Here we take a closer look at how these welfare vehicles are contributing to local communities by helping elderly residents and those with disabilities lead active, fulfilling lives.


Homebound No More

The welfare vehicles of the Nippon Foundation enhance the mobility of those who have trouble getting around because of a disability or age. The vehicles are used for three types of activities in particular: home-based care services, adult day care, and employment programs.

The foundation’s initiative got underway in 1994. This was a time of growing awareness among Japanese of the role of welfare vehicles, thanks in part to the popular 24-hour telethon, Love Saves the Earth (Ai wa chikyu o sukuu). The telethon raised money for vans equipped with wheelchair lifts and vans for use by organizations providing home-bathing services.

Photo of the first-generation welfare vehicle (top image) and wheelchair shuttle van

Mitsuaki Aoyagi, currently the chief manager of the Disaster Relief Team that oversaw the program for three years, beginning in 1995, emphasizes the role the vehicles played in letting people get out and about: “Individuals with a disability and elderly people very much want to move around freely and have contact with other people. In order to make that possible, the program from the outset targeted vehicles used by volunteer groups to provide transportation services. Giving preference to these groups, rather than to welfare facilities, was our way of focusing attention on the need for such services.”

Because of a road traffic law banning taxi services by privately owned vehicles, organizations providing transportation services at the time were not permitted to collect money for gas or other expenses and were initially operating in a legal gray zone.

Paving the Way for a Revision

Aoyagi thought it might be possible to draw attention to this legal conundrum as a means of promoting the need for the transportation services. “We thought that going ahead with our welfare vehicle donations would bring attention to the issue, raise awareness of the need for transportation services, and ultimately pave the way for a prompt revision of the law. We immediately donated vehicles in all 47 prefectures so that people around Japan would have a stake in revising the law. We also assisted volunteer groups offering transport services by backing their own efforts to make that legal revision a reality.

The push for change gained momentum as a result of these efforts. In 2003, special welfare districts were established, and registered organizations providing transportation services in those districts were exempt from the ban. In 2006, the revised Road Transportation Law came into force.

In addition, a nursing care insurance system introduced in 2000 paved the way for a growing number of “care taxis.” Slowly but surely, the building blocks were being put into place so that people with disabilities and the elderly could get around and be active in their communities. The number of vehicles donated annually by the Nippon Foundation surged in response to these changes. Since around 2001, the foundation has donated around 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles a year, compared to just 100 or so up to the end of the 1990s.

Welfare Vehicles with a Joystick Control System

In addition to supporting groups that provide transportation services, the foundation has sponsored cross-country caravans of “joy vans” that can be operated by individuals with physical disabilities. Some of the vehicles are equipped with a joystick control similar to those used for video games. This allows even people with severe physical disabilities to drive. Hirotada Ototake, who was born without arms and legs and went on to write the bestselling book  Nobody’s Perfect, got in touch with the foundation after seeing media coverage of the caravan. He eventually purchased a vehicle and got his license.

Aoyagi notes, however, that “the vehicle would be difficult to commercialize because of its high price,” but adds that, “the caravan helped to promote the understanding that even people with severe physical disabilities can get around on their own.”

An Emphasis on Independence

When the Services and Supports for Persons with Disabilities Act came into effect in 2006, it led the foundation to rethink the premises of its welfare vehicle program and make changes.

Kazuto Sawatari, now a fundraising team member who was a member of the welfare vehicle team in 2006, recalls the impact of the legislation. “Attitudes toward the new law varied, depending on people’s circumstances, but the intent of the law was to redefine ‘welfare’ as support for people with disabilities and the elderly living at home, rather than care in a residential facility. The legislation generated new social needs, because it sought to enable people to live at home comfortably with the support of home care providers and adult day services, rather than being institutionalized. The expectations of the Nippon Foundation also changed as we began to be asked to provide support for programs and services instead of just the building, or ’outer box.’ It was against this backdrop that we decided to rethink what welfare vehicles could do.”

Photo of a helper vehicle

The outcome was the development of two welfare vehicles without special equipment, as Sawatari explains:

“When we thought about what kind of vehicle was needed most for home-based and adult day care programs, we realized there was demand for ’plain vehicles‘ that aren’t equipped with a wheelchair lift, slope, or a lifting car seat.

“Vehicles used to transport day care helpers don’t require special equipment. The results of a questionnaire we sent to the organizations using Nippon Foundation welfare vehicles revealed that many were not using the lift seats. So in 2008 we unveiled a ’helper vehicle’ and a ’shuttle bus’—essentially a minivan with handrails for people with intellectual disabilities. These two models weren’t built with any special materials and only minor modifications were made, but both have gotten high marks from welfare organizations. As a result of the helper vans, the definition of welfare vehicles grew to include welfare organization staff.”

Connecting People with Disabilities and Their Communities

The third type of welfare vehicle, called “working vehicles,” made its appearance around the same time the helper vehicles arrived on the scene. These vehicles, which were used as shops-on-wheels, not only provided employment opportunities for people with disabilities but served as a venue for community interaction.

Yamabikokai, a social welfare organization for people with intellectual disabilities in Kagawa Prefecture, a region known for its udon noodles, was the first organization to apply for a vehicle. Sawatari recalls its impact:

“At the time, the only work available for people with intellectual disabilities was piecemeal type jobs done in a facility. The working vehicles let them go into town and serve people food they had made. Some people told me they were surprised and delighted the first time a customer thanked them. The mobile shops created places where people with disabilities could meet people in their community and both sides could get to know each other. People with disabilities could go to new places further away from home. In this regard alone, the contribution made by the vehicles was significant.”

Small pickup trucks and double cab trucks were also introduced as working trucks in farming and recycling programs. The Nippon Foundation’s working vehicles have proved especially popular by connecting people with disabilities with others in their communities.

The Evolving Welfare Vehicles

The foundation’s welfare vehicles have changed over the past two decades in response to the awareness of the need for everyone—regardless of age or disability—to lead active lives in the community. The Nippon Foundation’s close relations with Japan’s automakers have made it possible to promptly meet this growing need.

Photo of Satoshi Mazaki, general manager of the Integrated Marketing Department at Autech Japan

Nissan Motor Company has provided many of the models for the foundation’s welfare vehicles. Satoshi Mazaki, general manager of the Integrated Marketing Department at Autech Japan, Inc., a Nissan group company in charge of redesigning the welfare vehicles, describes the partnership:

“The organizations that receive welfare vehicles from the foundation use them so often they know exactly their own preferences. These are things that we might not ordinarily notice. And we can use that feedback to guide future development. The foundation is an unparalleled source of information for us, because we can get feedback from so many groups at once. This data enables us to develop new and improved designs. The Nippon Foundation is one of the first to try out our new models, developed in response to client feedback, while also serving as a conduit for that feedback.”

Mazaki says their next task is making the development and sale of welfare vehicles a viable business. “We don’t make much money from the sale of the vehicles. At the same time, these operations are not part of our corporate social responsibility program, so turning them into a viable business would enable us to continue providing services for our clients in the future. One of the benefits of the collaboration with the Nippon Foundation is the experience we have gained in developing welfare vehicle and finding a way to meet market demand.”


Twenty years have passed since the welfare vehicle program was launched, and the vehicles today are playing many new roles. Recently the foundation has begun donating “retired” Japanese welfare vehicles that can still be used to foreign countries for medical and welfare purposes.

The Nippon Foundation will continue to do all it can to improve the mobility of people with disabilities and the elderly, helping them to stay connected with people in their communities and lead active, fulfilling lives.

Photographs by Kei Kodera