Being Blind in Japan

Just because you're blind doesn't mean you can't enjoy a nice beer (with braille on the top of the can)

Just because you’re blind doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a nice beer (with braille on the top of the can)

In Japan, it is rare to see someone who doesn’t fit in. And by fit in, I mean “not be perfectly normal.”

Maybe it’s just because I’m used to American laziness (no offense guys, but it’s true), but I rarely see someone in Japan wearing sweatpants or someone who has completely let themselves go.

It’s beyond that, though.

Last month, for the first time since I arrived in Japan, I saw a lady in a wheelchair. She was at the train station, as I was about to get on the train, she just kind of wheeled herself onto the train, popping her wheel over the gap and slipping in before the doors shut.

Then it hit me.

I never see handicapped people in Japan. I’m not just talking about people in a wheelchair, I mean people who are blind and/or mentally ill. When I asked my Japanese teacher about it, she said that parents who have children with mental diseases don’t want to burden society, so they rarely take them outside (Apparently my teacher has a younger cousin with a mental illness).

I’m not sure if I agree with that.

But Japan doesn’t care what I think.

However, while I’ve never seen a blind person in Japan, I’ve begun to notice all sorts of helpful objects that exist throughout the city to benefit those who can’t see. Here is a short (but obviously incomplete) list, starting from most obvious to least obvious.

1. Braille walkways. No, I’m not joking. Do you see these yellow lines? That is braille.

I have yet to find a walkway without this braille. Before I figured out what it was, I used to get angry at the yellow lines. Uneven walkways are not conducive to wearing heels, something I love to do.

Basically, yellow lines means it is safe to walk. They guide blind people safely thoughout the crazy streets of Tokyo. Rows of these line (usually one brick thick) run parallel to the street. If you are blind and you walk on the yellow brick road (pun intended), then you can’t go wrong.

Then, when you hit the yellow raised dots, you stop. It’s a perfect sign.

The yellow parallel lines suddenly terminate, followed by two rows of raised, yellow dots. It is nearly impossible to miss. The yellow dots even extend out past (perpendicular) to the yellow lines, so even if you are not walking on the lines themselves, you will get the hint to stop.

They also terminate at staircases, train platforms, doors (to convenience stores), and basically any other place that you ought to stop at (you know, if you’re blind).

And if the road is turning, they will put one block of dots.

That means turn. With a little bit of time, you can find the correct direction to turn.

Once I knew what the raised indents (lines and dots) were used for, I hated them a little bit less.

But only a little.

I don’t care, when I’m running to catch a train and I keep having to step over unevenly raised sections, I’m going to trip. And it hurts.

2. Braille on alcoholic cans.

Oddly enough, I noticed this one pretty quickly. Cans that contain alcohol have braille pressed in at the top, near the tab.


I can only assume it reads “Danger: Alcohol” in braille.

Who knows.

It’s nice to of them help blind people pick out alcohol quickly. I never would have thought of that.

3. Braille on elevators.

I’m not sure if this should even count. All elevators have braille. I just thought I should go ahead and give Japan extra credit.

4. Braille on stair railways.

I didn’t notice this until one of my friends pointed it out last week. Without her, I probably never would have noticed. Apparently they have braille at the top and bottom of each staircase (especially in train stations) that tell you where the staircase is leading you.

You know, because when you’re stuck in a crowded train station getting jostled around by people, you’re going to need all the help you can get.

I can’t figure out what exactly the staircases tell you, but as far as I can tell, they tell you what (train) is at the top/bottom of the staircase.

5. Braille on maps.

I find this kind of ironic. It’s not like blind people can even find maps (that are obscurely placed).

6. Braille on Shampoo (but not conditioner).

That how you can figure out which one is shampoo and which one is conditioner. Shampoo has braille on it.

Now all you have to worry about is, you know, going to the store and actually finding it among all the other things.

7. Braille on cell phones.

They don’t have braille on all the letters, only some of them. I’m not blind (obviously), but I use the braille on my cell phone so I can text in class.

It’s so helpful.

8. Braille on toilette seats.

Don’t make fun of the way I spell toilette. I’ve tried to break this habit, it just doesn’t work.

However, moving on to the more important thing, they have braille on the toilette controls so blind people can choose how they would like their bum to be washed (and dried).

Also, how nice of Japan.


9. Braille on ATMs. Once again, this makes sense (and is a really nice thought). Until, of course, I started to wonder how exactly blind people find the ATMs in the first place (like, for instance in 7-11).

How exactly do blind people find ATMs and signs? I’m really confused.

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6 responses to “Being Blind in Japan

  1. Pingback: Bài học về thiết kế mà tôi rút ra được khi du hí tại Nhật Bản - iDesign | Kiến Thức Chuyên Sâu Về Thiết Kế·

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  3. Hi!
    I’ll first answer your question about how do blind people find things: usually they now where they are! Blind people memorize the places where they go often, sometimes letting a sighted person helping them the first time. If they don’t already know where an ATM (or anything else) is, they can still ask… But while having some stranger pointing you an ATM it’s ok, being able to operate it alone it’s surely better than having someone helping you in that!

    Back to the rest of your post:
    I’ve actually seen two blind people waling in the street in just a month stay in Japan… One of the two didn’t have the walking stick, so maybe you’ve seen blind people without noticing them! In the same period of time I’ve also casually met two deaf people talking in Japanese Sign Language, so I suppose they don’t “lock up” all the disabled they have!

    What you call “Braille Walkways” exist also in most other countries (we have it even here in Italy (even if not as many as in Japan)… I thought in the US you also had it! Here in Italy they’re mostly found in train stations. We also have braille in elevators in most public places, and on drugs (the legal ones), but maps in braile are really rare, and we certainly don’t have it on beer can! Amazing!

    BTW, “Braille Walkways” is some sort of English name for that thing or did you made it up? I want to know if I can use that term freely (as you can see English isn’t my first language, I have to be careful) ^_^”’Braille is an alphabet, and surely there isn’t any Braile on those walkways… And the thing in the shampoo isn’t Braille either, so I was wondering how does it actually work (I mean, if it was something written in braille it would be “just another label”, but since it seems just a line of dots, what informations does it give?)

    • Thanks for the insightful comment. I had been teaching English to/babysitting a little girl who had an autistic younger brother. I’ve also taken care of autistic children in America, and so I was a bit surprised about the differences.
      I also live in a really crowded part of Tokyo, so that might be why I haven’t seen any blind people. But then again, you’re right, I haven’t necessarily been looking.

      I’ve never seen what I’ve dubbed as “Braille Walkways” in America, or at least not in Texas or Philly. I guess, now that you mention it, they might be in other states (and definitely other countries). I think they are wonderful.
      I think the braille on the shampoo is just to differentiate from conditioner. So I guess it really isn’t braille. Once again, I’m not really sure what to call any of this.
      I know the braille on the beer cans is legit braille, though. I know they have it on other stuff too, but I’m drawing a blank.

      Thanks for the info, though!

      • Yes, the one on the beer seems definitely legit. Good rule of thumb to check this kind of thing is remember every braille letter fit in a 2 columns x 3 rows grid.
        I’m sure that in Japan people with mental disability is kept a lot more at home or special institutions (maybe recognize an autistic at a glance isn’t easy… but have you seen someone with Down Syndrome in the streets? I doubt so). And I personally don’t feel well about that (but, still, it’s not my country).
        But I suppose that for sensory disabled people things are a little bit better… If they were keeping all blind people at home they won’t be putting all those walkways for them! And a lot of hearing people there study Japanese Sign Language (at least, compared to Italy… I’m ashamed by how LIS (Italian Sign Language) and it’s native speakers are ignored).
        Just to let you get a feel of the difference: here in Italy we have “deaf club”, where 99% of the people is actually deaf… In Japan they have “sign language club”, where half of the people usually is hearing [and they use sign language to teach in deaf schools, while in Italy we mostly don’t].

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