From Tokyo’s famous Shibuya crossing to the remotest Okinawan island, Japan’s streets have one thing in common: ‘tenji blocks,’ yellow textured paving squares to aid people with visual impairments.
The tactile paving was invented in Japan more than 50 years ago to help those with visual impairments move smoothly and safely around urban environments.
And they’ve gone global over the years, becoming a familiar sight in cities from London to Sydney.
The tiles, typically found at railway station platforms, pedestrian crossings, and in front of public buildings, are usually yellow, which is often said to be the easiest colour for the visually impaired to see.
They come in two types: squares with long raised parallel strips tell pedestrians they can proceed safely and keep them following the road, while those with raised bumps indicate a change of direction or stopping point like an entrance, or a possible danger like a platform edge, staircase or traffic light.
“Walking along the tactile paving reassures me that it is safe to walk there,” said Toyoharu Yoshiizumi, executive member of the Japan Federation of the Visually Impaired.
Yoshiizumi, who lost his sight at age 12, commutes about 40 minutes every day, guided by tenji blocks – named for the Japanese word for braille.
“Roads are never straight and are often curved or twisted, and thanks to the guide blocks, I feel safe because I know I’m walking along the streets.”
The now-ubiquitous blocks were the brainchild of local inventor Seiichi Miyake from western Japan’s Okayama.
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After witnessing a visually impaired person with a cane almost hit by a car at an intersection, Miyake decided to devote himself to inventing something to keep visually impaired pedestrians safe.
In 1967, Japan’s first tenji blocks were donated for a crossing near a school for the visually impaired in Okayama.
Miyake’s brother helped him develop the tenji blocks and later said he would “never forget the emotional moment” when the tiles were first put to the test by a pedestrian.
It would take another three years for the tiles to reach the first district in Tokyo, and over time they went global, becoming so well-known that they featured as an animated Google Doodle in 2019.
And tenji block innovation continues today.