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International Association for the Visually Impaired - Supporting the Japanese Studies and Independence of Visually Impaired Students from Developing Nations-


Chief Director Mr. Hiroaki Ishiwata (Right)
and Director Mr. Aiichiro Arai (Left)
of the International Association for the Visually Impaired

In this month’s Close Up, we introduce the International Association for the Visually Impaired (IAVI), a recognized social welfare organization. Here in Japan, for those who seek to obtain economic independence, the fortunes of the visually impaired have traditionally been greatly boosted by acquiring the skills and knowledge of sanryo or the “three treatments,” namely; the skills of massage, acupuncture and moxibustion. Through the efforts of IAVI, young visually impaired people from developing nations throughout Asia and Africa, etc., are invited to Japan, where they are then taught the three treatments and are given opportunities to learn other useful skills such as those related to information technology, etc. What is more, for students who come to Japan using IAVI’s system of scholarships, it is expected that they will contribute in the future to the social welfare of the visually impaired in their home countries. On this occasion, we spoke at length with IAVI Chief Director Hiroaki Ishiwata and Director Aiichiro Arai about how they have supported the visually impaired students who have come to Japan on IAVI scholarships.

Q. Please tell me what led to the establishment of IAVI.

A. Mr. Ishiwata: The predecessor of our organization was called the “International Club of the Blind” (or ICB), and it commenced its operations back in 1971. ICB was the idea of four visually impaired individuals from South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong who were fortunate enough to meet each other while studying in Japan. They felt that it was sad that only they had received such an opportunity. Accordingly, they took steps to give other visually impaired individuals from Asian nations a similar chance. The outcome of their efforts was that ICB was set up by a South Korean individual. As an initial activity in 1976, ICB offered support to self-funded students who were coming from South Korea. In 1981, a scholarship system was established. Then, from the following year, in almost every year students were received from overseas. In 1995, ICB became the International Association for the Visually Impaired, which is a recognized social welfare organization. Over the years since our establishment, IAVI has invited approximately 80 students to study in Japan from some 19 countries throughout Asia and Africa, etc. What is more, our efforts have been recognized in that since 2000 we have received partial subsidies from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) to cover some of the expenses involved in our preparatory training activities for the scholarship students who come to Japan.

Q. Please tell me about the main activities that IAVI is involved in.

A. Mr. Ishiwata: The main activities that we undertake are the interactions that we have with the students who come to Japan on IAVI scholarships. We keep track of them from when they are initially selected until after they return home from their period of study in Japan. As to the scholarship system, concerning youngsters who are visually impaired who happen to live in countries and environments lacking in educational and employment opportunities, the scholarships offer them the opportunity to study here in Japan. The system aims to provide them with knowledge and skills regarding both the three treatments and also information technology, etc. The purpose of such skills is to provide these youngsters with the means by which they can obtain their economic independence. To enable them to become future leaders in the improvement of social welfare for the disabled in their own countries, those who are selected to study in Japan also learn about the environment that confronts visually impaired people here. They also take classes on Japanese social welfare policy. Currently, we have students from Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia studying on scholarships at Japanese schools for the visually impaired, etc. Basically speaking, two students are selected each year for the scholarships. They arrive from late September to early October, and they are put up at Funahashi Memorial Hall where our offices and training facilities are located. Then, for approximately the first half year, they undertake courses in Japanese language, Japanese braille, and also getting around and living in Japan. While this happens, a decision is made about the school for the visually impaired where they will eventually study. In the April of the year following their arrival, they will start studying for a period of three years at a particular school, where they will join a special course for students who have graduated senior high school . In addition to aiming to have them graduate from their courses, we hope that they will gain the nationally-recognized qualifications in the subjects they study.


Students studying Japanese braille at the Funahashi Memorial Hall while surrounded by a mass of teaching materials.
Even after they have entered a school for the visually impaired, the students return to the hall to spend their long holidays there.

Q. Are there few opportunities for education and employment in the home countries of these students?

A. Mr. Arai: In Japan, it is established that the skills of massage, acupuncture and moxibustion represent an important career choice for the visually impaired. Thus, if they attend a specialist school for a period of three years and gain the relevant qualifications, individuals can find employment. However, such systems do not necessarily exist in developing countries. Accordingly, it can be difficult for the visually impaired to achieve their own economic independence. What is more, without such independence, the social standing of the visually impaired in such countries is poor.
Mr. Ishiwata: Here in Japan, in addition to having facilities such as the well-known Special Needs Education School for the Visually Impaired, Tsukuba University; there is at least one institution of learning in every municipality. By contrast, many developing nations only have a single facility. In others, moreover, the educational syllabus for the visually impaired doesn’t go much beyond teaching the basics of braille. Thus, in that they are confronted by such difficult circumstances, many students wish to study here. As to our scholarship holders who come to Japan, they learn the language and Japanese braille. They then prepare to sit entrance exams so as to enter a Japanese school for the blind. After they have been successfully enrolled at an institution, next they have to prepare themselves to pass the national qualification examinations in the subjects they study. However, in that they actually come to Japan, we want these youngsters to also enjoy a wide range of different experiences because it would be a great shame if they only led a life that saw them condemned to a never-ending cycle of study and preparing for examinations.

Q. What about the students who have returned home after studying in Japan, what sort of activities do they become involved in?

A. Mr. Ishiwata: With respect to the students who have studied in Japan, in utilizing the skills that they acquired in the three treatments, some of them have opened treatment clinics in their own countries, while others have achieved both independence and have also contributed to their own societies by working at facilities for the disabled. Still others have played more of a background role in instructing others in what they have learned and also spreading the message about their experiences in Japan. What is more, I believe that each of them is playing a significant role in improving the social welfare of the disabled in their own country.
Mr. Arai: Concerning those who have completed their studies and returned home, I am happy to report that when visits by groups from Japan that involve the inspection of facilities for the visually impaired take place, our former students are in a position to act as interpreters, etc. Regarding exchanges with Japan, in other words occasions that involve the visually impaired of different countries, our former students are a wonderful asset in that they are able to lend a hand. They are also terrific in that, based on their first-hand experience, they can provide information regarding Japan in their home countries. To give you just one example, one of our students from Malaysia posted a video on YouTube. It featured elements such as the warning braille-blocks that we have here in Japan to help the visually impaired get around. There was also footage of the brail and audio guidance functions with which Japanese ticket-vending machines, etc., are equipped. The impact of the video was significant. Because of the systems that are in place in this country, the visually impaired in Japan are able to get to where they want to go by themselves by just hopping on a train and receiving the assistance of staff at railway stations. By being able to carry home such knowledge with them, I believe that our former students can be a great asset in the development of infrastructure for the benefit of the visually impaired in their own countries.


Braille dictionaries at the Funahashi Memorial Hall.
A single Japanese language braille dictionary occupies a complete row of shelving. (Left).
Ms. Sho, a member of the IAVI staff, demonstrates the use of a braille printer. (Right)

Q. Concerning the activities that IAVI undertakes, what sort of issues do you face?


A. Mr. Ishiwata: Despite being contacted by more and more people who wish to study in Japan, the reality is that almost every year there is a decline in the subsidies that we receive from MEXT. As such, the issue of insufficient funding is a serious one for us. Rather than trying to perform our own financial balancing act, I would like to see a comprehensive effort made that joined together the visually impaired in Japan with those organizations that support them. Such a system could then be used to better receive students from overseas.


Mr. Arai: While the government has expressed the desire to have tens of thousands of overseas students studying in Japan, it is unfortunate that the visually impaired have not been included in such calculations. We know that there is a strong demand among the visually impaired overseas to have closer links with Japan. Thus, I feel that steps should be taken to put the necessary support systems in place.

Q. Please tell me about your future activities.

A. Mr. Ishiwata: In the future, I would like to continue to publish booklets which introduce the countries of origin of our scholarship students. In March of this year, we published an edition of our “Student with the White Cane” booklet on Kyrgyzstan. I would also like to publish similar editions on Mongolia, Myanmar, and Vietnam, etc. I want to be able to create books on each of the countries that also introduced the situation for the visually impaired in each. Furthermore, I would like to create the opportunity for our former students who have returned to their own countries to be able to once again meet up in Japan in order to both exchange information and offer support to one another.
Mr. Arai: If we were able to develop an opportunity by which students could further deepen the relationships that they enjoy with one another, I would be very happy because I believe it would help them to develop even further as individuals. With respect to our former students, in that Japan as with everywhere else continues to change and evolve, I would like them to again have the opportunity to come and experience such changes for themselves. If that were to happen, I feel sure that they would come up with new ideas by seeing what might be “taken from Japan and tried in their home countries.” Through channels such as SNS, we have arrived in an age whereby it is no longer necessary to meet face-to-face in order to communicate. Nevertheless, I would like there to be the opportunity for all our students, both past and present, to at least meet up once again here in Japan.


The “Lotus Tsushin” regular newsletter and the “Student with the White Cane” booklet on Kyrgyzstan published by IAVI.

Q. It seems that recently there have been a number of accidents involving visually impaired people. On hearing of such incidents, what are your thoughts?

A. Mr. Ishiwata: Concerning those students who come to this country and believe that “Japan is a friendly nation for the disabled,” I feel that we all share a responsibility to ensure that such trust is not betrayed. With respect to both social hardware and software, I would like us to become a society in which both the disabled and the non-disabled helped each other by opening up their hearts.
Mr. Arai: Worldwide, there are countries for which it would be difficult to say that visually impaired residents can achieve independence and do many things for themselves. In that such a lifestyle is possible in Japan, I think that our students view this country in a positive light. Thus, considering the true meaning of “independence,” I would like us to create such a society.