Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

One day he was teaching English in Japan, and the next day, he was blind

by William Lang

Contributing Writer

Are you still there? Sorry, you went quiet for a moment, and I thought I was alone.

A-hem, talking about being a foreigner going blind in Japan is rather awkward and hits close to the bone, so please bear with me when I clear my throat. Not being aware of subtle cues such as my listener’s frown, a sideward glance or head-scratch, I tend to ramble on oblivious. My narrative may jump around a bit as thoughts echo in the blackness. If you start to feel disoriented, then you’re getting it.

One of life’s curiosities, I have found, is the fact that the titles of newspaper articles are not decided by the writers of those same articles. By tradition, the combining of sentences and paragraphs into coherent prose is considered so different from the combining of words into a pithy headline that the two must not be done by the same person. What do you think of my suggestion: “Blind man shares secrets of achieving sexual frisson in Japanese ward office.” Wouldn’t that entice the audience? If potential readers didn’t think the promised secret were pertinent enough to their own lives to read it, they ought at least to feel cheered for the blind guy’s sake.

A-hem! … Are you still there?

To most people, the most interesting thing about me is the fact that I am blind. Fair enough. It is sufficiently unusual to warrant a healthy curiosity. “Were you blind before you came to Japan?” students often ask. “Didn’t you consider going home when you went blind?” the foreign teachers often ask. “Has your hearing improved to compensate?” — that’s just wishful thinking.

I came to Japan in 2003. It was about a year after I had graduated from university in Scotland, and I initially settled in Osaka. I could see perfectly well at the time, I was getting paychecks that were more than sufficient to support myself. The sun shone every day, as my memory tells it, and the world was my onigiri.

In 2011, I applied for a job teaching English over the telephone with what seemed to me to be a burakku kigyō, or “shady company.” I read the contract offered, noting multiple bizarre clauses that would have caused me to run a mile just a year prior. I had rejected most other advertised teaching jobs because they involved young kids, whom I no longer felt confident enough to manage, or involved commutes that I no longer felt confident of making. Or when I went to interviews, I was rejected.

I once thought a company in Shinagawa was going to employ me as an in-house English teacher. They were looking to hire a disabled teacher in order to reach a quota of employees with disabilities, which would entitle them to a tax-break. But they also turned me down. They had been employing a blind Australian teacher who had left Japan after the huge earthquake and nuclear meltdowns that year. She had been blind since childhood, though. She had a guide dog and got around with reasonable confidence.

On the other hand, I had just gone blind at the age of 29 and was bumbling about, forgetting where the stairs were and cracking my shins on coffee tables. The company said that they couldn’t take my application any further because of my lack of teaching experience. Teaching English had been my sole occupation for eight years. So I signed the contract with the shady company instead.

I remember going to my local ward office to register as being blind. I must have looked terrible. I had been in a Tokyo hospital for a month due to a sudden spike in symptoms of dizziness and headaches from a mystery illness. I went in on a Friday almost fully sighted, having gone to work as normal the day before but experiencing a worrying loss of peripheral vision that morning. I came out of the hospital with a shunt that drained fluid from around my brain in order to relieve cranial pressure — and totally blind.

I had also picked up a hospital superbug that made me go to the toilet more than is seemly, and with everything coming out green for months. My wife had to check the color for me — darling, you did promise, “In sickness and in health.”

A female civil servant accepted my paperwork from over the desk, and then suddenly clasped my hands between her own. She held me for a minute or so and I felt a tingle down my spine, and my heart racing.

It wasn’t love at first touch, it was the excitement of human intimacy. Without smiles or eye contact, I had been feeling cut off from the rest of the world, hearing only distant murmurs from behind a thick wall.

Sometimes I think about the doctor who did the first lumbar puncture, to check the pressure of my spinal fluid. I didn’t like the idea of a needle being thrust into my spine any more than the next person, but I wanted to get to the bottom of this mystery illness that was causing the dizziness and headaches. In my flimsy green hospital gown, I curled into a ball and tried not to think of what was happening. The oh-so-young doctor approached the bed and said in Japanese to the nurses, “How am I supposed to do this again? Do I use this big needle, or is it the little one?”

Sensei!” The procedure was exceptionally painful and the results suggested that the fluid’s pressure was abnormally low. In reality, the procedure should not have been so painful (I had it done again later), and my spinal fluid’s pressure was extremely high, not low. That bungled test put the doctors on the wrong track for months and, by the time they did another one, it was almost too late.

It’s awkward enough to deal with specialists who, in essence, speak another language from the layperson already. Do everything in your second language and the temptation to close your eyes and ears to it all and put blind faith in the specialist is overwhelming. My advice? Always get a second opinion. And an experienced surgeon.

I did well at the shady telephone-English company. I became one of their top teachers, or so I was told. I suppose it was because I was preparing as well as possible for the lessons, keeping records of the classes and making plans for future lessons. It doesn’t sound like much, but I would guess that most of the other teachers were not doing these things since the pay and conditions were so poor. We were not paid by the month, or even by the day, but by the minute of micro-lessons carried out. Gathering pay was like gathering grains of sand at the beach, with the regulation leaky bucket. “Who are the other teachers at this company,” I wondered? “Do they combine this job with multiple others in the gig economy in order to work around school runs or an irregular schedule? Are they disabled people like me, or have they in some other way fallen through the cracks?”

One day, my boss met me to explain that the contract was being updated, with no major changes, and could I sign it this weekend? Having my wife read the new contract, I found that I would now be agreeing to pay a fine totalling three times the remuneration I had received in the entire period I had worked for the company if I broke any clause in the contract, such as contacting any student outside of scheduled classes. I had met one such student — a Japanese guy who happened to live near me, and who had told me that he was blind. He thought that I was just playing some cruel joke on him when I said during our first phone lesson, “You’re blind? No way! Me too!” I put in my two months’ notice with the shady company, and they manoeuvred against me immediately, cancelling all my lessons and threatening to sue me, since refusal to sign the new contract was surely proof that I was intending to steal all of their students to teach privately. It’s cutthroat in the darkness of the economy’s cracks.

Going blind suddenly in 2010 meant losing my job as an assistant language-teacher employed by a local education board. They were generous with my sick-leave while I was in hospital, but wouldn’t allow me to go on sabbatical to get rehabilitation training and come back to work. They just paid up the remaining four months of my contract and hired a replacement teacher.

A Japanese person would have been entitled to a life-long pension upon registering as blind (or at least until the pension system goes belly-up), but I wasn’t. The rules stated that you had to have paid three consecutive years of shakai hoken, or full contributions to the government-run national insurance system before the first symptoms of your illness had appeared. I had paid two years of full contributions. Until I got a job employed by a branch of government, all dispatch companies and English schools ignored their obligation to sign their non-Japanese employees up to the national system. There are options for individuals to sign themselves up, but I was an invincible young man in my 20s — why bother figuring it all out?

My home country of the U.K. was making things difficult, too. I could go home at any time, but my Japanese wife did not have any automatic right to a visa. We would have to prove that we had high-paying jobs waiting for us (which neither of us were likely to get), or show that we had £64,000 (over ¥9 million) in savings, which would take about seven years of self-denial and scrimping to accumulate.

I didn’t feel especially depressed by the sudden onset of blindness. I didn’t really have the luxury, since I was in such discomfort from the persistent stomach bug: “God, I think I can handle not being able to see a cherry blossom fall again, if only you will make my bowel movements stop coming out green!”

I was certainly frustrated when I couldn’t do something by myself and had to get help, though. It was time to learn a few new skills, and think about how I could contribute to our family finances. In 2011, I signed up for a place in the Tokyo Shikaku Shougaisha Seikatsu Shien Sentaa, a rehabilitation center in Tokyo for the blind and visually impaired. I felt a little tingling in my spine as I entered, akin to the feeling I now get whenever I step foot in a Japanese ward office.

Shadows are falling, and I’ve been here all day

Two steps forward: Writer William Lang found himself having to count steps as he made his way from home to a rehabilitation center in Tokyo's busy Shinjuku Ward. | ILLUSTRATION BY JASMIN PERDON
Two steps forward: Writer William Lang found himself having to count steps as he made his way from home to a rehabilitation center in Tokyo’s busy Shinjuku Ward. | ILLUSTRATION BY JASMIN PENDON

Being in Tokyo and adjusting to the sudden onset of blindness may best be described as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.

At first, I’d often sit alone in my apartment, pacing the room, drinking cups of tea and deciding whether I should wait a while longer before allowing myself yet another snack. Then, as the time approached to put my voice-recorder, braille stylus and paper into my rucksack, and get ready to leave, I would feel the butterflies in my stomach start to flutter.

At my rehabilitation center in Wakamatsu-Kawada, in the heart of Shinjuku, the instructors encouraged us to learn how to commute to the place by ourselves as soon as possible. Until then, we went with a guide. For me, this involved walking 15 minutes to a subway station, taking two trains, and then walking five minutes to the center.

Remembering the route is not as hard as you might imagine. It can generally be broken down into a series of manageable stages: Walk to the end of the road, where you will feel the edge of the curb. Turn left there, and cross every little road (12 of them) until you come to a busy road. When you hear the traffic of that road, search carefully for the traffic lights ahead and to your left, and press the button. Cross when you hear the beeps, using the tactile guidance on the ground in the middle of the crossing. Turn diagonally ahead and to the right, and go forward for about seven steps. If you miss the opening to the station, bumble about in some confusion until someone asks you if you need some help or else you start to fall down the steps. Catch yourself on the handrail if necessary and proceed to the bottom. And so on, all the way to your destination.

The terror often comes with the unexpected. I once got caught in an almighty rainy-season deluge. There were no other pedestrians about, and the noise of the rain was so loud that I couldn’t hear the traffic I normally used to find my turns, assuming that there even was any traffic in that downpour. I spent some minutes going back and forth along the same road, wondering where I should turn, already as soaked as a drowned rat. In the end I had to walk back the way I had come until I found a vending machine I knew, and count my steps very carefully until I was confident I had the correct turning. God bless canned coffee.

On another occasion I was going to cross the road at a crossroads without traffic lights. I usually just listened very carefully to the sounds of traffic, and crossed when there were no cars. This time there was a truck idling nearby. I waited several minutes for it to drive off, but it didn’t move. It was hard to judge that there was no other traffic because of the noise of its engine. “It’s probably OK now,” I thought. With head held high, I strode purposefully toward the other side, as I had been taught. Part of the way across I realized that there was another truck flying down the road toward me. My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but my impending death certainly did. I tensed my legs to sprint to the other side, when I was suddenly yanked backward. A pedestrian that I hadn’t noticed had pulled on my shirt and I returned to the near side of the road. In front of me, wheels screeched as the truck driver slammed on their brakes. The truck driver, having missed me, drove on again. I mumbled some thanks to the person who had helped me. They didn’t answer, but gave me a little shove in the back to indicate that it was safe to go forward. At that moment, I would rather have lain down by the side of the road and waited for the world to pick me up and take me home again. But I walked on to the rehabilitation center, studied braille, how to operate a computer using screen-reader software, how to cook and how to cross roads. I never really did get the hang of the last one.

After going blind, I began to pursue writing, initially as a hobby, and then in hopes of getting paid. Previous hobbies such as shogi and pool had to be discarded. As a writer, I could be treated the same as any other person who submitted a piece of work. I tried poetry, children’s stories, fiction and, finally, essays. I’m sure the group at the venerable Tokyo Writers Workshop would tell me that the natural story arc of this particular narrative must lead to final success: Life is going swimmingly for the main character. Unexpected hardships and toil shatter his peaceful world. He must overcome, and we will end the story feeling empowered. I’m still a bit of a novice writer, so we’ll see what I can do with the ending.

I had to wait more than half a year on a waiting list to enter a rehabilitation center. There were two such centers within close proximity to my apartment. In one, there were communal showers and dormitories. I believe the idea was that people from outside Tokyo could gather and stay in residence, learning intensively with people in the same boat, and then go back home on weekends. The other option was the one in central Tokyo, and it had no dormitories. Students were expected to commute from home. I chose this latter option. The advantage of the former would be that the greater isolation from family would force you to pick yourself up when you fell, rather than instinctively looking for a loved-one for help. I sometimes think of this missed option. Just this week, my Wi-Fi connection cut out and I called my wife at her office.

“Hey! Why isn’t our internet working?” was the gist of my side of the conversation. It turned out that a wire had come loose and, if I had taken the time to get to know the myriad sockets, connections and adaptors, I could have fixed the problem myself.

In the rehabilitation center, I was offered retraining as a masseur. This would require three years of study, and the memorization of the medical names of muscles, joints and pressure points in Japanese before I could get a license. Yet, even while studying, several of the other students asked if I would teach them English. They were probably looking for free lessons, but it nevertheless suggested that English-teaching was still my best option for earning money.

I sat through my Japanese and English braille classes, and cooking classes. I paid close attention to instructors telling me how to get about using a white cane, but an oddly powerful desire not to get flattened by a truck kept me from truly believing in the instruction. I concentrated on learning computer commands and keyboard shortcuts compatible with JAWS — the best commercially available screen reader, and learned to use Word, Outlook, Excel, Google, Wikipedia and so on. Now if only Microsoft would stop radically redesigning its operating system every few years, I could avoid periodically recurring weeks of panic and stress as I relearn everything.

Tap cane to the left while simultaneously advancing right leg. Swing cane to the right while simultaneously bringing forward left leg. Feel cane slip past the edge of the pavement, adjust angle and continue.

I learned to get from my apartment to a local supermarket, two local train stations, a specialized library for the blind (Nippon Tenji Toshokan) and another library. But I found that I wasn’t using these routes unless I had a strong reason to. The ability to make sudden plans to set off somewhere would have been useful, but I now have to plan my journeys down to the smallest detail and practice until I’m confident I won’t stray from the path, which is a time-consuming process. I forced myself to go once a week to the library, and once a week to meet a guide at another train station so that I wouldn’t forget how to do it, or lose the courage. Then my wife and I had a child, and I decided to give myself a break. My life was about to become stressful enough. Almost the only times I wander about by myself now are after drinking several glasses of wine, and going to a bar. I follow my carefully planned route to the bar on the way there, and tend to get totally lost on the way home. It is a credit to the patience and kindness of the people of Tokyo at midnight on a Friday that they have somehow always put me on the right track for home.

I would like to be a quiet family man but, a tiny apartment with two adults and a screaming baby doesn’t always promote harmony. So it happened that after two years or so of not going out alone, I set off in the general direction of the local bars one evening.

I got to a bar. I was sober, only a little tipsy for courage. I made it to the third floor, found the counter, and introduced myself to the barman and a married couple sitting nearby. I didn’t tell them how stressed I was generally, or how much effort it had taken to step outside my front door. I chatted about music, English teaching, Scotland, asked about the bar and the married couple’s lives. I felt positive and refreshed after this interaction, which took one beer. I asked the barman for another.

“I think you’ve had enough,” he said.

I didn’t understand. I’m in my late 30s at this point. I know my limits, and I was barely tipsy. I wasn’t talking nonsense, I hadn’t stumbled into the bar, or slurred my words. “I’m fine,” I said brightly.

“I wouldn’t want you to fall on the stairs,” said the barman, who was also the owner.

“I won’t,” I said.

“Look,” he said. “I will be held liable if anything happens to you. You should go home.”

A deep depression settled over me in an instant. I had waited for two years before reaching out for a little human contact, and had immediately been slapped back and ordered to go elsewhere.

I couldn’t get a regular job as an English teacher. Everywhere I tried wanted someone who could teach kids (no longer for me) or just someone who could see. So I started teaching students privately at my home. I began with one acquaintance, then got a second. I launched a blog to drum up interest. I put up a Union Jack outside my apartment (and me voting for Scottish independence, too). Little by little, I gathered students. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme, but it contributes to the family finances. I did some translation work and started getting paid for writing.

The end.

So, did I hit the requisite levels of success to make a good story arc? I didn’t become a blind mountaineer, nor start a tech company. Before my illness, I was getting by. For a while I wasn’t, but for today at least I am getting by again. I even had the confidence to have a kid, wipe a baby’s bum and burp him. But I still make mistakes. The other day I picked up my laughing son, now 3 years old, and threw him into the air to make him laugh some more. I hadn’t noticed that I was standing in the doorway, where the frame was lower than the ceiling. My son bashed his head, and took a lot of convincing that Dad hadn’t bashed him deliberately.

I have to say, Japan may be one of the best countries in the world to go blind. If I can make my own way to a train station, I can inform the station staff that I would like assistance. They will walk me to the platform, make sure that I get on the correct train, and radio ahead to the station I want to get off at so that I am met on the other platform. If I went home to Britain, I don’t know what job I would end up doing. My mother told me that, in my hometown, the government provides jobs to local blind people stitching together mattresses. In Japan, I can get by. It’s far from ideal, but I can get by. I hope you feel empowered.

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