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How Another Culture Does It

Yasushi Iwashita is a soft-spoken man. He is also a man of great energy and tremendous capabilities. During the first week of October we were privileged to host Yasushi at the National Office of the Federation. He took a little time to explain some of the similarities and differences of life between the blind people of Japan and Canada. Yasushi is spending this year studying programs for the blind in Canada and the United States. His headquarters are at the Crane Research Centre at the University of British Columbia. Specifically, he is studying the role of technology as it effects employment and rehabilitation. But his interests are far broader.

Yasushi became blind at age ten. He enrolled in a school for the blind. The concept of integrating blind people into classes with their sighted neighbours has still not caught hold in Japan. At the school for the blind he learned to read and write Braille as well as mastering all the academic subjects. Many students at the school also learn acupuncture and massage. These fields are still the primary source of employment for people who are blind in Japan. Yasushi is somewhat unusual in that he did not take this type of training.

Japanese students who do not take up a trade must pass rigorous examinations to qualify for university. Yasushi passed those exams and was accepted into university where he majored in psychology. His original goal was to become a counsellor, but circumstances led him in a different direction. One of the main newspapers in Japan, The Mainichi Newspaper Company, publishes a Braille weekly. They were looking for a blind person to join their writing staff of six. Yasushi competed for the job and was hired. He is the only blind employee on the staff.

The Braille Mainichi fills 56 pages of Braille every week. Because Japanese Braille cells are smaller than those used in North America, each page has twenty-seven lines. Each line has thirty-two cells. Editorial requirements are very precise because the length and the format of the newspaper must remain the same every week. The newspaper covers events of specific interest to the blind. It also carries items of general interest from the print Mainichi newspaper.

Braille is a widely accepted way of life for blind people in Japan. It is assumed that school children will learn to read and write it. Although a number of newly blind adults choose not to learn Braille, a fair percentage take up the study and incorporate Braille into their daily lives.

There are some other major differences in assumptions made about blind people in Japanese culture. Blind pedestrians carrying white canes have the right of way in all traffic situations. If an accident occurs, the driver of the vehicle is always presumed to be at fault. A relatively small number of Japanese blind people use guide dogs. Yasushi attributes this decision, at least in part, to extremely narrow walkways and constant large crowds in Japanese cities. It is still legal for restaurants and other places of accommodation to refuse service to blind people accompanied by dogs.

Blind parents also have attitudinal barriers to overcome. Some report that the parents of their children's playmates discourage the friendship because they do not believe blind parents can adequately supervise children at play. There also seems to be a great deal of fear about hereditary eye conditions and some confusion about which conditions are hereditary and which are not.

The Japanese government and business interests within the country have done a great deal to make technology available and affordable to blind people. For example, the Ohtsuki Braille Embosser was developed by a mainstream Japanese company. The Mainichi newspaper is a for profit company, but it also produces a Braille edition. The Plextalk machine was developed by a Japanese company; they believe that the worldwide market will make it a profitable venture for them. It appears that this combination of altruism and capitalism is fairly common in Japanese society.

Yasushi Iwashita is anxious to get to know as many blind Canadians as possible. He is particularly interested in knowing about the impact technology has made on the lives of blind Canadians. Yasushi can be contacted at:
The Crane Resource Centre, 1874 East Mall,
University of British Columbia,
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z1
Phone (604) 822-0061