Red. Green. Red. Green. A simple pattern. Or so I thought, until I spent an hour at the Japanese elementary school my son attends. I had come in to do holiday crafts, and was showing the kids how to make a paper chain in Christmas colors. I told them to take a strip of red paper and bend it into a circle. Then take a strip of green paper and loop it through the red circle to start off a chain. Red. Green. Red. Green.
One boy couldn’t get it right. His chain had three reds in a row followed by two greens. I was about to correct him when the teacher gently intervened. She separated his strips by color. “Take one from this pile, then one from that pile,” she instructed. I noticed she didn’t say the names of the colors. That’s when I finally understood: The boy is colorblind!
Colorblindness is the inability to recognize certain colors. People with the most common form have problems distinguishing between red and green because a color detector in their eyes is either faulty or missing. Colorblindness is usually inherited, and affects males far more frequently than females. In Japan, about 5 percent of males are colorblind, which is slightly lower than the rate among men of European origin.
The Japanese word for colorblindness is shikimo, written with the characters for “color” and “blind.” But the second character has a negative connotation, so it’s considered more correct to use the terms shikikaku ijo (color-vision deficiency) or shikikaku shogai (color-vision disability).
The first scientific paper on color blindness was written in 1794 by an English chemist who recognized that he didn’t perceive color as other people did. But the condition wasn’t widely known until 1875, when a train accident in Sweden was attributed to the driver’s colorblindness. In 1916, Shinobu Ishihara, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University, developed a diagnostic method that is still the most common test for color-vision deficiency.
Called the Ishihara test, it is a series of cards bearing circles made up of small, colored dots. A person with normal color vision will see numbers formed by some of the dots; someone who is colorblind will not.
Earlier this year, I received notice from my son’s school that the color blindness test would be dropped from the eye exams conducted at all Japanese public schools. I was surprised. It’s a simple test that costs nothing, takes little time and can identify a condition that is likely to affect one or two children in every class. Why drop it? I stopped by our ward office to ask.
“We understand color-vision deficiencies better than we used to,” a school official explained. “It’s no longer necessary to test all children because most educational and occupational restrictions have been eliminated.”
Educational and occupational restrictions? Because of colorblindness? This was news to me. I started researching and learned that the administration of that simple test set off nearly a hundred years of widespread discrimination in Japan against people with color blindness.
The most famous case involves the Imperial Family. In 1920, Field Marshall Yamagata Aritomo tried to block the engagement of Hirohito, then crown prince, because colorblindness ran in his fiancee’s family. Ultimately, the effort failed, and the couple married in 1924. But the publicity left the general public with the impression that colorblindness is a grave disability, according to Motohiko Murakami, professor emeritus at Keio University School of Medicine and author of a book on color blindness.
“Japanese place strong emphasis on family bloodlines, and any kind of genetic abnormality has been a cause for shame” he explained. “This has led to discrimination in schools and the workplace as well as marriage.” Murakami knows from where he speaks: he is colorblind, and was able to enter medical school only because he faked his answers in the vision test. “I memorized the Ishihara color plates so I could give the expected answers,” Murakami told me. “That’s why my colorblindness wasn’t detected.”
It wasn’t just medical schools that screened potential students. A survey conducted in 1986 revealed that nearly half of the 94 national universities in Japan wouldn’t allow colorblind applicants to enter certain fields of study, such as dentistry, education and engineering. Seven percent of private universities had similar restrictions, as did nearly a third of university-affiliated high schools. At some universities, totally blind students could enroll while an applicant with color blindness could not.
“Fortunately, educational restrictions have been eliminated,” said Yasuyo Takayanagi, the ophthalmologist and activist who conducted the survey. “But discrimination in hiring persists. People with color-vision deficiencies are still barred from some public service jobs, including the police force and firefighting. Some private companies won’t hire colorblind people either. If you ask them why, they have no scientific justification.”
The truth is, color-blindness rarely affects job performance. In a very few cases, it can even be an advantage. For example, colorblind people are good at detecting green objects against a green background such as grass or leaves. Armies prize colorblind snipers and spotters because they tend to pick out objects by shape rather than color, and thus are less confused by camouflage.
Now that testing in schools has been eliminated, the new focus for educators is “iro no bariafurii (color-barrier free),” a catchphrase that means designing teaching material so it can be used by all students, regardless of how they perceive color. The Education Ministry recently issued guidance on how to make classrooms accessible to students with color-vision deficiencies. Teachers should avoid using colored chalks when writing on the blackboard, for example, and instead underline or circle words for emphasis.
In graphs and charts, information should not be presented in color only, but in color combined with symbols, shapes, dotted lines and hatching. This is good advice not just for schoolteachers, but for anyone presenting information visually. After all, an audience of 250 is likely to include at least 10 individuals who don’t perceive color normally.
Improving accessibility is the right approach. Testing at school would be fine if there wasn’t a stigma against color-blindness. But testing that perpetuates discrimination? That, I’m afraid, is a horse of a different color.