Japanese society has a tradition of caring for those with disabilities. JTEC panelists were told by their guide that already in the time of the Shoguns certain occupations related to what might be termed chiropractic medicine (e.g., acupuncture and massage) were reserved for blind people. Traffic lights at busy intersections in modern Tokyo issue "bird calls" to signal blind pedestrians when it is safe to cross the street; both street corners and subway stations are equipped with inlaid strips of bumpy, bright yellow material to safely guide those who are blind or have low vision to the edge of the curb or platform.

On the other hand, it is clear that people in wheelchairs would find it difficult to get around independently. The Tokyo subway and rail systems, for example, would for all practical purposes be completely inaccessible to them, as would numerous shops and restaurants. Thus, concern for the disabled does not in Japan always equate with integration into mainstream society, which is nowadays the goal in the United States.

While progress in assisting people with disabilities may not be uniform, it seemed to this writer that at about half of the sites visited, the JTEC panel's hosts were extraordinarily proud of their accomplishments in helping people with disabilities -- a much higher proportion than one would expect to find in the United States. One explanation suggested by the panel's guide is that Japanese companies feel a need to prove that they are of value to society as a whole and do not merely exist in order to make money. This altruistic view was explicitly supported by our hosts at Canon and, where applicable, is certainly to be applauded.

An intriguing alternative explanation arose in an enjoyable conversation during a leisurely afternoon stop at NACSIS (National Center for Science Information Systems) that was a pleasant departure from some of the other, too-hurried site visits. Dr. Hisao Yamada, the deputy director, told JTEC panelists how he has long been concerned by Japan's low office productivity due to problems associated with text processing. Typically, users must type in katakana (phonetic) symbols; software then generates the appropriate kanji. But office workers must read kanji as they type katakana, and often they don't know how to properly pronounce the former because they haven't learned to read and write the scholarly kanji well! Furthermore, there are often multiple words that sound the same, so software has difficulty finding the correct kanji for the given katakana. Thus, one might in a certain sense conclude that Japan is "print disabled" with regard to its own language. Several of the panel's hosts attributed the relatively low penetration of PCs into Japanese homes to similar I/O problems.

Whatever the reason, the almost universal interest in systems to help the disabled is remarkable and praiseworthy. In participating in this study panel, this writer's personal objectives were to acquire familiarity with currently available access-related products and to learn about on-going or planned research that may lead to better solutions for the future, and about which information is unfortunately hard to come by in the United States. The many systems (both research prototypes and products) panelists were shown or told about during the brief tour are summarized and classified in Table 5.1.

Table 5.1
Japanese Systems to Help the Disabled: Summary of Research and Products

Dr. Yamada sounded a cautionary note with regard to the great deal of work currently under way throughout Japan on voice input, in the hope of circumventing the problems associated with keyboards. Yamada noted that the problems that make it hard for software to automatically translate from katakana to kanji also make voice input a much more challenging task than some researchers would like to admit. Yet another problem here is that the human voice changes during extended work sessions, as the speaker becomes tired or bored. While these are certainly valid points, in the panel's assessment, so many resources are being directed towards voice I/O technology that significant strides are and will continue to be made (as the demos that panel members heard corroborate), to the benefit of the general public and also of people who suffer from visual and hearing impairments.

Indeed, it seems that redirection of the target goal, or the merging of efforts by two teams at different sites, could in some cases result in key breakthroughs within the short term. To give just one example, researchers everywhere have for years been struggling with the problem of how to make the GUI accessible to people who are blind and easier to use by people with low vision. If the software for ETL's raised-pin output device were slightly modified, and the system reprogrammed to accept input from a GUI driver rather than from a pair of cameras, the results could be dramatic even at the current low resolution. It might be similarly advantageous for the NEC-IBM/Japan-Hitachi consortium to consider ways to incorporate the ETL technology into their system.

Much of the work that the JTEC panel saw was explicitly product-oriented and based on extensions to existing concepts rather than radically new ideas. But meticulous and painstaking attention to the development component of R&D is essential if the research component is eventually to yield useful products, and the dividing line between the two is in any case often fuzzy rather than crisp. The enthusiasm and dedication of the Japanese researchers pursuing the various projects that the panel saw, the overall high quality of the work, and perhaps most importantly, the sheer number of efforts underway, make it likely that exciting innovations in relevant technologies lie "just around the corner" at some of these labs.

In conclusion, it was an honor and a pleasure for the author to visit the various sites referred to in this report, and in this chapter in particular. It is the hope of the JTEC HCI panel that its "outsider's" perspective may prove of value not only to those in the United States who wish to know more about Japan, but also to the teams directly involved in the research efforts discussed.

Published: March 1996; WTEC Hyper-Librarian