From a global perspective, Japan was comparatively late in developing support for people with visual impairments. The country established its inaugural dedicated training facility in 1965, more than 40 years after the first such center in the world opened its doors in the United States.
Still, Japan was quick to excel. In that same year, an engineer based in Okayama Prefecture invented a travel aid so ingenious it would eventually become a universal way for visually impaired people to navigate their environments.
The revolutionary aid was tactile paving, a system of textured ground tiles that indicate potential hazards and direction of travel. Typically found at stairs, elevators and railway station platforms, the tiles are primarily yellow to allow them to be easily spotted by people with diminished — but not a complete loss of — vision. There are two predominant types of tiles: Those with raised dots indicate caution, while those with long, parallel strips provide directional cues.
Today, tactile paving is ubiquitous in Japan and utilized in more than 20 other countries around the world. And it all began with one man, whose initial goal was to help a friend.
Seiichi Miyake came up with the idea after reportedly seeing a man with a cane almost get hit by a car at an intersection outside his home. He repurposed his research on preventing snow from sticking to car license plates, spurred on because the eyesight of a close friend was failing.
The inspiration behind his invention was Braille. By placing various patterns on the ground, he thought that visually impaired people might be able to “read” the pavement with their feet or a cane, much like they would read a book.
Miyake met with Takeo Iwashi, then-director of Nippon Lighthouse, Welfare Center for the Blind. A friend of Helen Keller, Iwashi was a passionate supporter of people with visual impairments and encouraged Miyake in his work.
After two years and many self-financed prototypes, Miyake settled on a 7×7 “blister” pattern in standard cement, which he believed could be both easily understood and constructed. He named it the tenji block (a nod to the Japanese word for Braille) and dreamed of laying his invention in cities across Japan.
First, he worked with the construction office for the Okayama National Highway to lay 230 blocks at a pedestrian crossing outside the Prefectural School for the Blind. As students and teachers came to test the blocks, Miyake realized that his invention could open up more of the world to visually impaired people, while also sparking interest in their lives among a general public that had, for the most part, shown little interest before.
Operating from his home, where he set up the Traffic Safety Research Center, he began a public relations campaign, sending out information on his work, as well as free tenji blocks, across Okayama Prefecture and to organizations in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo.
However, no orders came.
In 1970, Miyake’s luck changed after a faculty member of the Osaka Prefectural School for the Blind laid a tenji block at the platform of Abikocho Station in Osaka, prompting other stations to follow.
In the capital, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government budgeted for 10,000 blocks in Takadanobaba — home to a cluster of facilities for people with visual impairments, including the Japan Federation of the Blind and the Japan Braille Library — making the area the first designated traffic safety model district in the country.
The success can be attributed to both Miyake and the public, says Kimihiro Yuri, operations executive at the Traffic Safety Research Center.
“Local residents working to eliminate traffic accidents decided that installing tenji blocks would help ensure the safety of visually impaired people, so they joined groups for people with visual impairments in petitioning the government,” Yuri says.
With the initiative showing success, tactile paving was introduced by other municipalities across Japan. The Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry announced that a traffic safety guidance system for people with visual impairments was essential in the delivery of its new model city project and Japan National Railways began installing tactile paving at stations nationwide.
According to the Traffic Safety Research Center, the dissemination of tenji blocks “also gained a tailwind from a shift in welfare philosophy” due to activity abroad. The United Nations’ International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981, which called for the equalization of opportunities, for example, sparked similar thinking in Japan.
In 1985, tactile paving was mandated for broad use nationwide and, in the 1990s, a Welfare Town Development Ordinance that was enacted in each prefecture — starting with Osaka and Hyogo — brought an uptick in installations.
However, the tenji blocks were initially far from uniform, causing confusion when visually impaired people traveled outside their local area.
Hazard tiles had 25, 32 or 36 dots, in parallel or zigzag formation, while directional tiles had four or 18 long bars.
“Decisions made by municipalities about the size and format of tenji blocks were based on research and the opinions of academics,” Yuri says. “With progress in the adoption of the tenji block, it became necessary to make the blocks uniform.”
In 2001, after a series of experiments and in consultation with experts, a national industrial standard for tactile paving was introduced, thereby making compulsory its standard manufacture (a 5×5 blister pattern for hazard tiles and four long bars for directional tiles).
This led to the realization of the global standard from the International Organization for Standardization. The United Kingdom, Australia and the United States became some of the early adopters of the technology, incorporating tactile paving into transportation systems and the urban environment in the 1990s.
Since then, tactile paving has been introduced in almost every continent, and the number of countries adopting it continues to rise.
Today, it can be found on almost all sidewalks and pedestrian crossings frequently used by visually impaired people in Japan. Japanese law requires all buildings of more than 2,000 square meters to have the raised surfaces near potential hazards, such as stairs, escalators, ramps and platforms. There should also be tenji blocks around a railway station’s outdoor area, as well as tiles that stretch from station entrances to manned booths or platforms.
Public spaces of less than 2,000 square meters, meanwhile, must make a reasonable effort with their installations.
The legislation has proven a relief for people with visual impairments.
“I have fallen down the stairs before while changing trains because there were no tenji blocks to guide me,” says Kazuhiro Matsumoto, a member of Nippon Lighthouse. “Now, because of tenji blocks, I can keep away from danger.”
Based in Fukuoka, Matsumoto commonly uses tactile paving with a cane when commuting. He says it speeds up his transfer time and provides peace of mind. It has also given him more confidence to get around, particularly when in crowded stations.
“Tenji blocks haven’t transformed my lifestyle but, because of them, the number of places where I can walk safely have increased,” he says. “I’m not always nervous while walking now.”
Matsumoto concedes that following the system of raised dots and lines was not intuitive, but it is now second nature.
Learning is key to using it with ease, according to Shoji Matsushita, a researcher and trainer at Nippon Lighthouse.
“Everyone’s grasp of tactile paving is different, and the environment can sometimes make it more difficult to follow, so we encourage walking practice,” Matsushita says.
Cristina Hartmann, a New York-based deaf-blind author, also had teething problems with tactile paving when she visited Japan as a tourist.
“Japan’s tactile pavements were so extensive that I didn’t understand what they were for at first,” she says, adding that she had encountered a similar system only a few times prior.
After learning the system, Hartmann was able to walk more independently (she usually travels with a sighted partner), orient herself in large open spaces and keep walking on the left while on curved streets, instead of drifting too far in one direction.
Still, tactile pavements have limitations; they help visually impaired people navigate only in settings they already know. At an unfamiliar intersection or when transferring to a seldom used railway line, users do not know which way to go.
For Matsumoto, one solution is voice guidance, which is typically delivered by navigation apps.
Blindsquare uses GPS and a smartphone compass to tell the user where he or she is in relation to public places such as cafes, museums or post offices. The user can then use directional tactile paving to complete the journey.
An invention called NaviLens is set to disrupt the market. Designed by a Madrid-based company of the same name, the technology uses a colorful marker based on a QR Code to provide audible information without the use of GPS or Bluetooth.
The app can read multiple markers from a distance, in all light conditions, in one-thirtieth of a second. In addition, it works on angles up to 160 degrees without focus, which is critical for users who do not know the location of the markers.
“NaviLens can revolutionize tactile paving by allowing visually impaired people to be independent in unknown spaces,” said Javier Pita, CEO of the company.
Within this year, the company is scheduled to finish installing the technology in all Barcelona’s Metro stations and bus stops. Started in 2019, the work involves NaviLens markers being printed on vinyl and placed over tactile paving intersections, as well as at station entrances, exits and interior junctions.
According to Pita, the company is now planning on collaborating with nonprofit organization I-Collaboration Kobe to introduce NaviLens to the port city.
Alongside the development of such technology, research into and development of tactile paving continues in Japan. Even with the standardization of the block pattern, experts say tactile paving can be improved.
Osaka-based Hirobe Kouki Co. manufactures photoluminescent tactile paving studs that work in both light and dark, enabling their use as emergency markers, too. The company also supplies glow-in-the-dark ceramics that can be applied to the edges of steps, where tactile paving ends.
Work to find better construction materials also continues based on research, environmental considerations and feedback, such as reports of tactile paving that is slippery when wet.
Researchers are also working to make it more durable.
Tenji blocks need to be replaced approximately every 10 years due to exposure and wear and tear. Many repairs, however, are being overlooked, says Nippon Lighthouse employee Matsushita, pointing out that some of Japan’s pre-2001 tenji blocks can still be seen in Kobe.
Furthermore, inspections should be carried out after renovations or other construction work to establish whether new tactile paving is required. Without doing so, what was invented to protect visually impaired people could injure them.
Tokyo Metropolitan Welfare Association for the Blind reports on such cases to draw attention to the problem. At Shibamata Station in Tokyo, volunteers found places where blocks were missing or incorrectly laid. The Keisei Line stop also had tiles with nonuniform blisters totaling 41, 36 or 25.
Further research on the color of tactile paving would also be beneficial, according to Yuri of the Traffic Safety Research Center.
Although public amenities and facilities overwhelmingly use yellow blocks, some private organizations install brown or grey blocks for aesthetic reasons.
“Color is as important as tactile sense for people who have low vision, and there are many with low vision among the visually impaired community,” he said, adding that he wishes for color standardization.
Takaki Miyake, director of information at the Japan Federation of the Blind, says that contrasting colors — rather than yellow specifically — are most important for the effective use of tactile paving, but yellow should remain the default option.
“People know the yellow tenji block and announcements at stations ask passengers to wait behind the yellow line (the tenji block),” he says.
Alongside greater awareness of barrier-free environments, demand for tactile paving is rising.
Kyoto-based Arao International Japan operates an online shop called Koujishizai that ships tactile paving nationwide. Shoppers can choose from block-type, stick-on type and stud type, or even opt for construction from scratch using paint and a mesh. There are even matting options without the need for glue, for short-term use.
Such variety allows more organizations to adopt the paving. The paint-and-mesh method suits new buildings, while ready-made tiles are ideal for repairs or small spots, says Arao representative Jun Kawashima.
The sales uptick could give Japan a boost, too.
With Tokyo set to host the Paralympic Games in a year’s time, tactile pavements will be in the spotlight. It’s the perfect time to show how Miyake’s simple invention for a friend can continue to help change lives around the globe.
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