Follow the Yellow Tactile Road in Japan: In Praise of Tenji Blocks

They are about a foot and smidgen wide, yellow, have ridges, and run through centre of the streets of Japan like a river. I must confess my initial ignorance, when I first arrived in Japan, I had no idea what they were, and I saw them everywhere.  I also thought them quite annoying. It meant it was difficult to walk side by side someone on the street.

It was a good month and bit before I realised their function.  I was leaving a JR station, I forget which one, but it was in the Tokyo Metropolitan area, somewhere on the Yamanote Line.  I was walking and felt a kind of kicking against my leg.  I thought it was a dog, I stopped and moved aside to let ‘the dog’ pass.  A man of about fifty-something strolled passed me, and he was carrying a white stick.

I suddenly realised, the ‘yellow river’ or tenji blocks, where to assist those with vision problems! You fool, how could I miss that!  Though maybe, I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, we don’t have so many of them in Britain.  So let me tell you a bit about them.

The tenji block or Tactile Tile, was designed by Seiichi Miyake in 1965 and first used in Okayama City in 1967.  They were quickly adopted by the Japanese National Railway later privatised as JR.  They can be found in the many railway stations, and oftentimes, near shops. Each tile either has lines or dots, embedded in it.  Lines mean ‘Go’, dots mean ‘Stop’. They are mostly yellow in colour, but on occasion, the colour is changed to fit in with a certain environment.  It disheartens me a little that the designer is not better known, or for that matter his friend who was becoming vision impaired in the 60’s, who helped him develop the tile.  A search on the Interweb doesn’t even reveal a decent biography, so it is unlikely he was well rewarded for his invention. And today Seiichi Miyake’s tiles can be found in, China, Taiwan and Korea to list where they are used most extensively, although they can also be found in Germany (Frankfurt only) , France (Paris), Belgium (Brussels) , The Netherlands (Amsterdam), The UK (but only really London).  The most noted recent request for them was during the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

I say ‘Kanpai!’ to Seiichi Miyake, thank you for your tiles!


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