Maybe you have landed on this page because, like many of my friends visiting Japan, you are wondering, “What are these yellow blocks on the sides of Japanese roads?” Or maybe you are wondering who invented them. These yellow blocks are made to help people with visual impairments to navigate the public space. They are Braille blocks, a Japanese invention called tenji blocks in Japanese, “tenji” being the Japanese word for Braille writing.
How Do Braille Blocks Work?
First, Some Context
In the 17th century, acupuncturist Sugiyama Waichi, who was blind, popularized anma, a term that refers both to a massage technique and its practitioners. Sugiyama also established 45 medical schools for the blind that taught massage techniques. People with visual impairments quickly became associated with the profession, which allowed them to be independent financially. During the Tokugawa period (1603–1867), sighted people were prohibited from becoming anma.
Nowadays, a lot of visually impaired people are still working using the skills and knowledge of massage, acupuncture, and moxibustion. To access these jobs, they go to specialist schools for a period of three years.
Young visually impaired people have fair access to education in Japan, such as at Tsukuba University’s Special Needs Education School for the Visually Impaired. It is also interesting to note that the International Association for the Visually Impaired also gives grants for students from other countries to study in Japan.
So, traditionally, visually impaired people in Japan’s social structure is a bit different from other countries. It is common that they are independent with an active lifestyle, which may be why Braille blocks have been born and installed fairly early in Japan.
How to Use Braille Blocks
The blocks have raised surfaces, making them tactile paving that can be felt with the soles of the feet or a white cane, and give basic information about the environment.