Regular bookstores or libraries might not be much use to blind people, but there’s one place in Tokyo where they can not only read and borrow books and meet others in similar situations, but also get advice on improving their quality of life — and even buy a range of everyday goods.
The Japan Braille Library in Tokyo’s Takadanobaba district, which celebrated the 70th anniversary of its establishment last month, has played an instrumental role in the lives of some 300,000 visually impaired people in Japan.
One recent morning, some 20 people gathered at a meeting room in the four-story library to study Braille. Graduates of a Braille-reading program run by the library, they meet twice a month to further improve their skills. For Tetsuo Nozawa, the chair of the meeting who lost his sight at age 60 due to a hereditary disease, the library, he said, has made his “second life” possible.
“Because I lost my vision halfway through my life, I didn’t know anything about the blind community until I came to the library,” Nozawa, 75, said. “I just found life so hard, as I was so unfamiliar with everything that had to do with blindness. I didn’t even know the term ‘hakujo’ (white stick for the blind),” the retired trading-company employee admitted.
Then 10 years ago, he found and enrolled in the library’s three-year Braille program. He can now read books with no problem, but still finds the group’s gatherings important.
That day, the group read passages from the 2008 book, “Anata ni Taisetsu na Kaori no Kioku wa Arimasuka” (“Do you have Memories of Special Smells?”), a collection of essays by famous contemporary writers. Then each member made a three-minute speech about their daily life or ongoing projects, Nozawa said, noting that he considers such non-reading aspects of the group just as important in fostering the community’s interaction with the rest of society.
“Blind people cannot survive a day without the help of non-blind people,” said Nozawa, who commutes to the library from his home in Yokohama.
“Reading Braille is fine, but we also must contribute to the society. And one way to do that is to let non-blind people know how we can be helped, because many people don’t know how to help us.”
Proactive attitudes toward society run deep in the history of the library, now popularly known as “Nitten” (an abbreviation of Nihon Tenji Toshokan, its name in Japanese). The private facility, which receives government subsidies but is funded mostly through donations and sales of goods, wouldn’t be here today had it not been for the dogged determination of its founder, Kazuo Honma, who lost his vision due to illness at age 5.
A book-loving son of a wealthy businessman in Hokkaido, in November 1940 Honma opened the nation’s first Braille library in a rented house in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward. At that time it had just 700 Braille books, all of which had been manually created by volunteers. From there, Honma started lending books nationwide free of charge using the regular mail.
The library’s collection grew, helped by volunteers’ efforts to put books into Braille. However, with war drums beating ever louder, Honma had to evacuate with his books. Nonetheless, the library’s services continued, said Tetsuji Tanaka, the current chairman of the library, who was close to Honma until his death in 2003.
During World War II, Honma continued mailing books all over the country from Ibaraki Prefecture, where he evacuated to first, then from Mashike in Hokkaido, where his parents lived. Tanaka said that Honma carried the books by putting them on a hand cart; each Braille book was made by volunteers and was indispensable for the library, as there was no more than a single copy of any of the books in those days.
But Honma, who was known for his friendly personality, was also affected by the upsurge of nationalist sentiments in Japan, Tanaka recalled.
“He was such a calm man, and he loved chatting with people,” Tanaka said. “But I was once shocked to find that, in the old issues of the Braille magazine Honma edited, he wrote: ‘Even blind people like us must find ways to contribute to the holy nation.’ “
Bulky paper books impressed with raised Braille dots arranged in various six-dot rectangles were the only reading material for blind people until 1958, when reel-to-reel tape recorders went on the market. A lot has changed since the arrival of audio books, however.
Now the library not only has volunteers who turn books into Braille using computer software, but also those who read out books in print to lend them as CDs. The library is equipped with numerous studios for recordings. Then users listen to audio books through portable audio devices called Plex Talk, designed for playing CDs that contain much more data than conventional disks because special data-compression technologies are used.
The library also operates a government-subsidized digital library called Sapie, through which registered users can download Braille and audio data onto their PCs and mobile phones through the Internet. In fiscal 2009, data for 89,630 Braille books and 1.65 million hours of audio recordings were downloaded through the service, according to the library.
In the last several years, the library has also expanded its services outside Japan. In addition to providing Braille textbooks for children in developing nations elsewhere in Asia, the library — thanks to funding from an individual donor — has provided computer training for Asian leaders in the blind community.
David Hathaway, a blind English teacher who lives in Nagano City, is in charge of that initiative — the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) scholarship program — which is held in Malaysia, where he teaches basic and advanced computer skills.
A total of 64 students from 17 countries across Asia have taken the monthlong course held there every summer since 2004. Participants learn how to operate basic Windows programs and how to create documents and send/receive e-mails. So successful is the course that some of its students have gone on to learn computer programming, Web page design and database management, Hathaway said. Participants have spread their knowledge in their respective countries, including Sugam Bhattarai, a Nepalese man who recently opened the first Internet cafe for the blind in his country.
Hathaway, who came to Japan from Britain in 1999 as an assistant language teacher on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, received computer training at Temple University in Tokyo after his three-year teaching stint in Nagano. He says that blind people, especially young ones, are quite comfortable with the use of computers, thanks to advances in so-called screen-reader software, which identifies and interprets what is displayed on computer screens. Even standard iPhone and iPad products are now equipped with a screen-reader function, making it easier for blind people to access what’s out on the Net, he said.
In fact, so many young blind people have now become adept at digital technologies and social media such as Twitter and Facebook that some have lost touch with Braille — partly because reading through Braille takes much longer.
Still, Hathaway, who is fluent both in Japanese Braille and spoken Japanese, says that reading books through Braille brings him a sense of joy and fulfillment that he just doesn’t get from listening to audio books. “I’m 33 and I’m in a transitional generation between those who grew up with Braille and those who haven’t,” he said. “Of course, PCs can read texts to you, but listening to audio versions of books does not make you closer to them. When you read books directly (by touching Braille) you feel you have an intimate, deep relationship with the books.”
In that respect, the Braille library, which lends more than 10,000 book titles a year using the post, will long remain an important resource for him and many others.
What’s potentially more important, Hathaway says, is that Nitten has a special atmosphere that Braille libraries in other countries, including the ones back in Britain, don’t have.
“I think the Japan Braille Library has a friendly atmosphere,” he says. “It has stores that sell goods, such as watches with Braille dots on. It has vending machines. And the library staff are very friendly. It has a lounge-like atmosphere.”