(And other complex situations I’ve found while being visually impaired in Japan)
By Alexa Fukuoka
When I was in my early 20’s, I learned that I have a rare and aggressive form of Lattice Degeneration. Basically, that means my retinas are really weak and prone to detaching. After four surgeries, I was left with permanent double vision, no depth perception, very limited peripheral vision, and some other less interesting complications.
After my eyes stabilized, I decided to relocate to Japan and see as much of Asia as possible while I still had vision. I’ve been in Fukuoka for 5 years now, and my condition has thankfully not progressed any further. Being an expat with vision loss can be tricky at times. Here are a few issues I run into, and ways I manage them. Hope they help other visitors to Japan to plan their journeys!
Trains can be tough
While Japan has outstanding public transportation, it can get incredibly crowded. My condition makes getting hit in the head very dangerous (with the potential to detach a retina and all), and elbows are flying everywhere trying to reach for handles to hold onto.
Even if you don’t have to worry about rouge elbows hitting you, being visually impaired on public transport is daunting. Luckily, most trains have special seating just for people with disabilities. I’m going to be honest; I still get a lot of looks when I use these seats so I try to avoid it. I’ve held my government-issued disability card so that it is visible, and never taken a seat when someone who needed it more was around. Still, it doesn’t seem to change the appearance of me ignoring the rules.
How I handle it: If at all possible, I travel at “off” times. That means no rush hour. I also walk a lot, which is actually easier at times. I know Fukuoka pretty well, so it isn’t too hard to get around.
Bathrooms are hidden
I understand that most people don’t want to think about toilets while they are eating or shopping, so it makes sense to keep the bathrooms available yet out of sight. But for those of us with limited vision, these hidden bathrooms are a pain. Often, they’re down a small winding hallway and there is always some hidden step that I inevitably trip down.
One very memorable time, a bathroom was down a hall to my right. Having little peripheral vision on that side, I missed it and walked to the door at the end of the hall. I burst through only to find an entirely different restaurant filled with patrons shocked by my somewhat loud arrival.
How I handle it: I’ve learned to send a scout if I’m out with a friend. They’ll go first, then come back and describe the situation to me. It might sound silly, but it’s necessary sometimes.
Children roam free
I didn’t think this would be an issue, but it’s something I really struggle with on a daily basis. I love how safe Japan is, and with that safety comes a lot more independence for kids. In America, I’m used to toddlers being held by the hand in the majority of situations. In Japan, there is a lot more freedom for kids, which is again, great.
However, with my visual field being so limited, I often miss where the children have wandered. I’m very afraid to trip or bump into one, and luckily it hasn’t happened yet. I did fall over one dog in Tokyo (it was fine).
How I handle it: I try to go slow in places where I know this could be an issue. Especially at parks, shops, and community events.
Sidewalk parking is a thing
This is perhaps the most frustrating issue on this list, and it comes up daily. Delivery trucks, cars dropping off people, and just everyday drivers park freely on the sidewalk. Sure, it’s for a short time, but it changes everything. I have to look both ways before I cross the road just like everyone else. But for me, looking both ways is pretty much like being an owl (full head twist), and with the flashes and floaters, I can’t always tell when a car is coming.
How I handle it: The answer to this is, not well. Even if there is enough space to sneak past, I can’t typically tell. I give myself extra time when I walk places to make sure I don’t rush and cross a street without being careful.
I’ve been fortunate enough to find a lot of support, and my daily life is much less complicated than I imagined it would be before I moved. Japan has immaculate blind paths and helpful disability resources, which makes things a lot easier. Let me know if you have any questions about living with limited vision in Japan; I’m happy to share my thoughts!
Alexa Fukuoka is an American writer and expat who moved to Japan five years ago. To learn more, please visit www.aahuth.com.