Present Employment Situation of Blind and Visually Impaired Persons in Japan


Chuji Sashida, Councilor, National Committee of Welfare for the Blind in Japan (NCWBJ), Researcher, National Institute of Vocational Rehabilitation (Japan)

Delivered on November 10, 2006
At the Employment Conference of European Blind Union
Lordos Beach Hotel, Larnaca, Cyprus


By Chuji Sashida
Councilor, the National Committee of Welfare for the Blind in Japan (NCWBJ)
Researcher, National Institute of vocational Rehabilitation


Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is my great honor to be here today speaking to you about the present employment situation of blind and visually impaired persons in Japan.
Thanks are owed to many, but I would especially like to acknowledge and thank President Christakis Nicolaides for his kind invitation and assistance in arranging my participation.


1. General employment situation of blind and visually impaired persons

First, I would like to describe the situation of blind and visually impaired persons in Japan. According to the surveys conducted by the Ministry of Health, labor and Welfare, there are about 301,000 blind and visually impaired persons aged 18 or over who live in their own homes. Of them, approximately 107,000 (35.5%) are of working age (between 18 and 64). Just looking at the totally blind and severely visually impaired persons, approximately 66,100 (22%) are of working age, although the total population of such persons with severe disabilities is 179,000 (59.5%).

The total number of employed blind and visually impaired persons, on the other hand, is 71,800. Of them, some 53,900 (75.1%) are of working age, and the share of blind and severely visually impaired persons stands at 34,500 (48.1%). Approximately 24,000 blind and visually impaired workers (33%) engage in manipulative therapies ("anma" Japanese-style massage, acupuncture and moxibustion), which are widely regarded as the traditional profession of blind and visually impaired persons, and another 12,000 (17%) are employed by government agencies and private firms on a full-time basis.

Breakdown by occupations of blind and visually impaired workers is shown as follows:

Total: 72,000
Agriculture, forestry and fisheries: 9,000
Administrative/clerical: 3,000
Managerial: 1,000
Sales: 4,000
massage, acupuncture and moxibustion: 24,000
Specialized or technical: 5,000
Service: 5,000
Production process-related or simple labor: 7,000
Other 5
No reply: 8,000

It is noted as the salient feature in terms of mode of employment that the blind and visually impaired work force shows high proportion of self-employment. This reflects the fact that many blind and visually impaired persons engage in massage, acupuncture and moxibustion, an occupation that is amenable to self employment. Virtually no visually impaired people are known to work at community workshops, and this could be interpreted as a consequence of the lack of facilities that take into consideration the characteristics of blindness or visual impairment.

Breakdown of visually impaired workers by mode of employment is shown as follows:

Total: 72,000
Self employment: 35,000
Working for family business: 5,000
Director of company or some other incorporated body: 4,000
Full-time employee: 12,000
Temporary worker or day laborer: 4,000
Home-based piecework: 2,000
Sheltered workshop, etc.: 2,000
Community workshop: 0
Other: 2,000
No reply: 4,000

2. Therapeutic work as masseurs, acupuncturists and moxibustionists

First, let me take a look into the situation blind therapists of massage, acupuncture and moxibustion, traditional job opportunities for the blind in Japan.

In Japan 62 out of 70 schools for the blind provide 3 year vocational training courses to those who graduated from high school courses. The training courses at schools for the blind have mostly concentrated on the therapeutic work as massage, acupuncture and moxibustion -- a traditional occupation for the blind since 17th century. In addition to schools for the blind, one university and 5 national rehabilitation centers and 3 private welfare facilities provide 3 year training course for these traditional occupation. According to the recent survey conducted by the teachers group, these training courses had approximately 1,660 students at schools for the blind, while 600 trainees at the college and rehabilitation centers.

The curricula for these training courses meet the national standard required by the law which qualifies a person to practice those therapies under the licensees of Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare. We have approximately 800 students or trainees finishing these training courses who take the examination to be licensed every year. However, only 70% of them could pass the exam for massage, while 60% for acupuncture and moxibustion. These rate of success are more than 25 points under those of sighted applicants.

As for the employment opportunities for those licensed therapists, more than 80% of them are self-employed or employed by private clinics of these therapies, more than 15% are employed by nursing homes or clinics/hospitals which provide medical service, and a few percent are employed by large companies as a staff member of medical or health care section for their own employees. The opportunity working at large company has intensively been developed since 1991 by the Ministry of Labor in order that large companies should meet the quota (1.8% at present) of employing persons with disabilities. Thus, as of 2005 we have approximately 300 therapists working as "health keeper" at large companies especially located in large cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.

Here let me point out the impending problems concerning these therapeutic work. It is The most controversial issue that employment opportunities for blind and visually impaired therapists has been endangered by the increasing number of sighted therapists. Approximately 1,200 new therapists come out every year from schools for the sighted, while only 800 therapists come from schools for the blind and other facilities. Therefore, it is urgent for us to set up some measure to keep a fair competition under the substantially equal conditions.

In addition to the above mentioned problem, we have to pay a careful attention to the rapid increase of non-licensed therapists -- strictly speaking, we should not call them as "therapist"--, most of those persons are sighted who obtained skills or techniques of massage in the name of chiropratic or reflexology within a short period of term (two to three months) at non-accredited private schools. Quite a few number of these non-licensed masseurs have further accelerated the competition between blind and sighted masseurs during the last ten years. Since 2004, however, local police authorities took the measures to prohibit this kind of businesses by arresting the owners of clinics or employers who hired many non-licensed masseurs including foreigners. This change has been welcomed not only by blind but also sighted licensed therapists.

3. Other job opportunities for the blind

Here, I would like to describe the situation of blind and visually impaired persons who are working in a variety of jobs other than the above mentioned traditional jobs for the blind.

In Japan, the Constitution guarantees all nations to enjoy the freedom of choice in engaging any kind of jobs, provided that the job is not regarded as being against the public policies. Therefore, blind and visually impaired persons have the right to participate in the competitive society as fully as sighted persons. The following job opportunities have been developed through the efforts of many leaders in rehabilitation fields and lengthy movement of self-help organizations in order to guarantee the rights to work for blind and visually impaired persons and to make the public recognize them as effective and indispensable workforce in Japanese society.

Telephone operators --

Training courses are run at three sites across the country, including Nippon Lighthouse Training Center for the Blind. About 300 people are currently employed in this area, which has a history of more than 30 years. However, the occupation faces many challenges, including a reduction in employment opportunities due to the spread of direct dialing phone systems and cost-cutting efforts by companies and an increase in working environments unfriendly to blind and visually impaired operators resulting from, for example, an integrated telephone operation system to the PCs and computer networks.

Audio transcribers --

Training is provided at the Japan Vocational Development Center for the Blind. Although a Japanese kana manual typewriter was initially used to transcribe from audiotape, now blind typists directly transcribed from audiotape into standard Japanese texts consisting of kanji and kana, owing to the development of word processors with speech output for blind persons. With few finding employment at ordinary companies, only about 40 people, centering on the Tokyo Workshop, a day sheltered workshop, are currently working in this area.

Data processing --

There are four training institutions for blind and visually impaired, persons including a two-year special study course at a school for the blind and a four-year university, and they produce over a dozen graduates each year. At present, about 60 blind and visually impaired programmers are working across the country, with several university graduates who studied mathematics are employed by companies as system engineers. It is now possible to sit for the examinations for data processing specialist in Braille.

Private welfare facilities --

A significant number of blind and visually impaired persons work at various facilities designed to cater to the needs of the blind and visually impaired. The heads of these facilities are often visually impaired themselves, while Braille libraries have many blind and visually impaired workers as proofreaders, librarians and shopkeepers at sales department.

Clerical workers at private companies --

Since 1980s, blind and visually impaired persons became to work as clerical staff at private companies by utilizing assistive technology such as OPTACON, Closed Circuit TV, word-processors with speech output, refreshable braille lines (braille displays), PCs connecting to the Internet. These persons have mostly been trained at Nippon Lighthouse, National Vocational Center for the Disabled and Japan Vocational Development Center for the Blind.

Teachers at regular schools --

Since the mid-1970s, teacher recruitment examinations have been offered in Braille in Tokyo, Osaka and other prefectures. Opportunities to sit for a teacher recruitment examination in Braille have increased dramatically since 1996, when the National Government issued a recommendation calling for greater efforts to employ teachers with disabilities to nationwide prefectural boards of education. At present, eight blind persons who have passed a teacher recruitment examination conducted by a prefectural government, as well as over a dozen who lost their sight after becoming teachers, teach sighted students at regular schools. In 1981, Japan Visually-Impaired Teachers Association was established under the initiative of visually impaired teachers who teach at regular schools. At present, this group has more than 60 members who are working as teachers at schools from elementary level to university level.

Teachers at schools for the blind --

About 15 teachers who have passed a recruitment examination in Braille are teaching in regular study courses at schools for the blind, along with several others who have been transferred from regular schools after losing their sight. In contrast, there are approximately 600 traditional manipulative therapy teachers throughout the country.

Local government employees --

In 1974, Tokyo Metropolitan Government introduced a welfare worker recruitment examination in Braille as the first local government to do so, thus paving the way for inroads by visually impaired persons into local government positions. Other prefectures, including Kanagawa and Osaka, followed suit, and introduced recruitment examinations in Braille. Today, about 20 prefectures open their doors to blind and visually impaired jobseekers, with about 80 blind and visually impaired persons working as local government employees, including those recruited through special quotas for people with disabilities. National government employees --

In 1991, it became possible to sit for some of the general-service civil servant recruitment examinations implemented by the National Personnel Authority in Braille. The first blind applicant passed the class 2 examination in 1996. The person was subsequently employed by the Ministry of Labour (at present the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare). Several more visually impaired people are working as national government employees as a result of special recruitment or through continued employment following the loss of eyesight. In addition, approximately 100 traditional manipulative therapy instructors are working at national rehabilitation centers for visually impaired persons.

University professors --

There are about 20 blind and visually impaired persons who work as a full-time professors at a national, public or private university or junior college, with another 10 or so employed as part-time instructors. Their specialties encompass wide-ranging fields, including education, literature, sociology, law, social welfare, natural sciences and information technology.

Lawyers -- It became possible for a blind person to take the bar examination in Braille in 1973, and the first blind applicant passed it braille exam in 1981. At present, two blind persons who passed the examination in Braille and two partially sighted persons who passed the examination with CCTV or magnifying lens are practicing at law offices. In Japan, the government has reformed the legal training system and introduced the new bar examination for the graduates from law schools. This wasthe first year for those graduates from new lawschool system to have new examination. Among those graduates, one blind person took the examination and passed all phases of the tests last September. He has now started his internship as trainee at the Instgitute of Legal Training and Research in Tokyo.

Medical Doctors -- In 2001, eligibility for a medical license was revised through an amendment of the Medical Practitioners Law, and this opened up the possibility of being granted a medical license for totally blind persons. In 2003, a man who had lost his sight while still a medical student passed the national medical examination through orally, and subsequently received a medical license. After two-years internship, at present, he is working as a fullfledged medical doctor in the neuropsychiatry department of the medical bureau at his alma mater in Osaka. In addition, a blind persons who lost his sight thirty years ago while still a medical student became a successful applicant last year. He also received the medical practitioner license in September of 2005 and started his internship at a hospital in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Company executives -- Most of blind and visually impaired company executives are noncongenital, and were already running their companies prior to losing their eyesight. Formed by serving company presidents, the Japan Blind Executives' Club has about 50 members. From year to year, they hold general meetings in various parts of the country to commend new blind company executives and encourage them to continue running their companies.

4. Employment policies Here, I would like to make a short introduction about one of employment policies in Japan. I will explain only the outline of Japanese quota system which has a close relation to the increase job opportunities for blind and visually impaired persons.

Quota system

In Japan, the Law concerning the Employment Promotion of Persons with Disabilities obliges public organizations and private businesses to meet a certain employment quota (statutory employment quota) for persons with disabilities set in terms of the disability share of an employer's overall work force. The statutory employment quota effective from July 1998 is 1.8% for the private sector and 2.1% for the public sector. The statutory employment quotas are subject to a five-yearly review.

The employment of persons with disabilities by private businesses and public organizations is surveyed on June 1 each year. In 2004, the actual employment rate was 1.46% on average in the private sector and 1.71-2.21% in the public sector. Most public organizations exceed the statutory employment quota.

In regard to the employment of blind masseurs at hospitals/clinics, the law has a special regulation which sets very high quota for this particular job. It says that a private hospital should make effort to hire blind masseurs until the number of those surpasses 70 percent among the employed masseurs at the same hospital. However, this regulation is not recognized as an effective one, because the law does not oblige the employers to hire under the levy and grant system, but just oblige the employer to make efforts in hiring blind masseurs.

Levy and Grants

A monthly levy of \50,000 is collected from firms failing to achieve the statutory employment quota (those with a work force of over 300 only) for each person who should have been employed. The proceeds are used to pay bonuses/rebates to firms which exceed the statutory employment quota or to subsidize employers who have incurred costs to employ persons with disabilities.

Typical grants relating to the employment of blind and visually impaired persons include those designed to subsidize 2/3 of the costs arising from the introduction of equipment to be used by blind and visually impaired workers and those designed to subsidize 3/4 of the costs arising from the employment or outsourcing of support personnel who provide blind workers engaging in administrative or clerical duties with a range of assistance, including the Braille transcription of documents, reading aloud and navigational guidance when going out, for a total of 10 years.

5. Impending problems

On conclusion I would like to indicate the several impending problems to be solved in order to improve the employment situation of the blind in Japan.

1) As for the massage business, we are afraid that the competitive rate in the market will be much higher year by year. To solve this problem, we have to develop potential market other than self-employment or hospitals, while we have to keep our priority in the market. On this point, since February of 2005, Many self-help organizations of the blind, including Japan Federation of the Blind, are paying close attention to the negotiation of Free Trade Agreement between Thai and Japanese government, because Thai government proposed the introduction of Thai traditional massage therapy to the Japanese society, which could be a crucial effect to prevailance of non-licensed therapists in Japanese society. As a tentative agreement, Japanese government did not accept the proposal of Thai government. But, this matter willsoon come up again in two or three years.

2) In regard to the examinations to become civil servants, teachers etc., we have not yet opened all of them. It will be important for us to broaden the opportunities for braille and/or oral examinations to cover all public and private examinations.

3) As for the accessibility to education, we have not yet solved the discrimination problem for blind applicant who wish to study some specific field such as medicine. As mentioned before, we have two successful applicants in the medical practitioner license. But, these are cases of students who had entered medical schools as sighted persons. In the near future, I guess some faculty will face to a challenge by blind student wishing to become a medical doctor.

4( In Japan, the number of newly blinded adults has increased rapidly since 1980s. This means that we have to provide more choices to those people to work -- not only to become therapist but also to go back previous work after finishing rehabilitation training. If we have some successful blind person to do so, this person will be a good role model for other newly blinded people.

As I mentioned, in Japan we have several serious problems in employment of blind and visually impaired persons. However, it is the fact that we have a rather longer history of developing new employment opportunities and activities of self-help organizations which have successfully contributed to the improvement of quality of lives of blind and visually impaired persons.

Now, I believe it is the time for us to share our experiences and ideas to solve our common problems among us. Let us talk and move forward together hand in hand to realizing the societies where we can enjoy the fruits of freedom of choice in every respect of our lives.

Thank you very much.