Syndicate content

Portrait of the month - Yoshimi Horiuchi

Yoshimi Horiuchi

Q: Good morning, Yoshimi. Or maybe I should say afternoon, since it's 3 PM there in Thailand! First of all, thank you so much for being our guest for the fourth episode of "Portrait of the month".

A: The pleasure is all mine!

Q: Where are you from?

A: I'm from Japan. My home town is about 800 km to the south of Tokyo.

Q: Are you totally blind? And, if so, from birth?

A: Yes, I am. When I was little, I had some sight (light perception etc.), but really not much.

Q: Did you go to university?

A: Yes, I graduated in Liberal Arts at the International Christian University, in the suburbs of Tokyo, majoring in Japanese language education.

Q: Did you travel to other countries during your studies?

A: Yes. Actually, my first time abroad was during high school: I went to the United States for a year when I was 18. My second long trip abroad was to Bangkok, where I studied for a year before graduating.

Q: Speaking of graduating, what did you do after that?

A: I worked for a securities company for about two years, translating documents for the non-Japanese employees.

Q: Oh, so you translated between Japanese and English. How come your English was so good?

A: Well, I had studied it for 6 years in high school and then at university. And, of course, I practiced it a lot when I spent a year in the United States.

Q: You said you worked for the company for about two years, meaning that you eventually stopped. What happened exactly?

A: Well, I'd always wanted to work in the development sector, even before starting university. At first I thought of becoming a Japanese teacher in developing countries, and I liked my exchange year in Thailand so much that I thought I'd go back there and teach Japanese after graduating. However, my father got diagnosed with brain tumor, and so I decided to stay a bit close to my family: Tokyo is still 800 km from my home town, but at least it's still in Japan! So I decided to take up any job that seemed slightly interesting... but unfortunately the translation job I told you about didn't inspire me at all: I often got the feeling that I was not really needed, and I used to say that I was there just to warm up the chair. I don't like to do something for which I get paid without really knowing why. However, I still dreamed of working in the development sector, so when I saw the opportunity to study NGO management in India, in 2009, I decided to give myself a chance. I basically wanted to see if it was really something I wanted to do, or just a way to get out of my current situation.

Q: What was the study about? And where?

A: It was a one-year training at Kanthari International, in Kerala, Southern India. The training focused on how to set up and run social projects, be it as business or NGO.

Q: Oh, did you do the training with Jessica Schröder? We interviewed her as well for this column, and I seem to remember she also did the training in 2009!

A: Yes, you're right: we were in the same batch.

Q: Oh, interesting. Well, I know that going to India meant a lot to Jessica. What about you?

A: It was certainly a turning point for me. It was extremely intensive, because we stayed in the same compound for 11 months, more than 30 people from all over the world, and the level of education varied from less than primary education to master degrees. Because of differences in culture and education, I really had to challenge my understanding of perspective and mentality. Besides, being there made me realize that I truly wanted to do development work. Furthermore, we were really really close together, which was both positive and negative: a lot of conflicts, but also very intimate relationships. I always tell people who are interested to go that the human aspect of it was even more important than the skills and techniques that they taught us there, though they were also very useful of course: we learnt how to write proposals, make budgets, manage fundraising and PR... However, I think that I couldn't have experienced the more social and human aspect of it anywhere else. Another thing that really shaped my future self was how they'd constantly tell us to make our dreams come true and not to give up: both in Japan and Thailand, if you have a university degree and you are in your twenties, people expect you to work in a good company and to have a stable income, instead of dreaming to change the world or other unattainable things! Since then, I haven't been afraid to be less grown-up, according to their definition.

Q: What did you do after the training?

A: I first went back to Japan for about two months, and then came to Thailand, to set up my own organization: in order to graduate from Kanthari International, we had been required to write a project proposal and a budget plan, and I started from there.

Q: Is it a blind-related organization?

A: Not at all: I'm the only blind person there, and I think we only have one blind beneficiary in our organization at the moment.

Q: What does your organization do?

A: Our aim is to promote the joy of reading and learning in the rural areas of Thailand: we work in a small community in the north of Thailand, and though we want to reach out to everyone, we particularly focus on children and people from vulnerable groups (disabled people, elderly people, people from hilly areas etc.).

Q: You must speak Thai very well. How did you learn it?

A: I met a Thai girl during my exchange year in the U.S., and I found her language so fascinating that I decided to learn it. So, when I came back to Japan to finish high school, I learned it from an exchange student, who had come to Japan to study massage therapy.

Q: You must be very fluent now, since you've been living in Thailand for quite a while.

A: Yes, it's my 9th year here in Thailand. I still have a long way to go as far as reading and writing are concerned (my vocabulary is much broader in English), but my conversational skills are quite good, and they say that my pronunciation is rather OK as well. So it's good enough to work with Thai colleagues: I'm the only person in the organization who is a non-Thai citizen.

Q: Was it difficult to set up the organization? Did you encounter many difficulties along the way?

A: Of course, I would be lying if I said it didn't take any effort at all! But I think that keeping it running on a daily basis is much harder than it was to set it up. Setting up the group was relatively easy: you look for volunteers and start small programmes within the group; you do fundraising, and you're basically done. Having a registered organization, however, requires much more effort: a lot of paperwork, and much commitment. And still, there's something which is even more difficult: managing the organization on a daily basis, and in such a way that everyone feels fine with his tasks, and that we can improve the services we provide. Besides, I'm just a human being, and it's not always easy to reconcile work and private life. Also, getting around the countryside as a blind person is another big challenge for me.

Q: Yes, I was about to ask you just that. Do you have to travel a lot through the countryside?

A: Our office is in Phrao, a small town in the north of Thailand, and I usually work from there, making documents, receiving guests etc. However, sometimes we need to go somewhere, to do field trips or for the mobile library activities we organize. When we do, I have to depend on my colleagues all the time, because we don't have much public transportation in this town and so they usually drive, either motorbikes or our trucks.

Q: You mentioned some activities you organize. Could you tell me about them in more detail?

A: Sure. In Phrao we have a community library, which is open to everybody living in Phrao district. From the library we also organize mobile library activities two or three times a week, to bring books to different places: village markets, temples, schools... Besides, we have two early childhood literacy centres, for children from hill tribe communities; these are ethnic minorities and have a completely different culture and language. We teach these children the basics of Thai, both in writing and reading, as well as the English alphabet and numbers, to make them ready to enroll in school once they move to the urban areas.

Q: How old are the children?

A: Between 2 and 6. There are 20 of them in the two centres. Finally, we pay visits to disabled people, especially those who cannot come to our library on their own.

Q: Speaking of disabled people... what about the blind? Has your organization ever focused on this particular group?

A: No, I've never put special emphasis on blind people, because I know there are many organizations in Thailand providing services to blind people: there are libraries for the blind in at least 4 provinces, which provide services to the whole country. And they don't provide only books in Braille, but also Daisy or audiobooks that blind people can read for free on their smartphones or computers. So, books are definitely available to them, though in a smaller amount than in some Western countries.

Q: Would you say that accessing books is much less difficult for blind people than for other target groups?

A: It's very hard to compare: it's true that many blind people don't know about the availability of these books, but I think that the problem doesn't lie with blind people, but with Thai people in general. There are many factors causing for Thai people not to read too much: books are very expensive compared to other products on the market, and there are not many libraries or book shops throughout the country. Also, many people see books as purely academic tools rather than means of entertainment. So, you see? In Western countries such as England or Belgium, people feel like reading because books have always been part of their lives, even subconsciously; but here many people don't care too much about reading, because they've never read, and reading is not so embedded in their culture. That's why my organization aims to promote reading in general, because I feel that the core problem is still there, and that we need to solve that before we can move forward; if you only work with blind people, you're just scratching the surface of the reading inaccessibility of this country.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on reading? How did the idea come about?

A: Because I love reading: my family has always read me a lot since I was very young. Also, when I studied in Bangkok for a year, I travelled a lot to different provinces, to see friends or visit organizations; and that's when I realized that very few people read as much as they do in Japan: it's very rare that the topic comes up in a conversation ("Have you read that book?", "What book are you reading at the moment?" etc.). I could clearly feel that reading was very distant from people's lives, and that's why I thought I could do something about that, when I started toying with the idea of doing development work here in Thailand. For me, reading is only possible thanks to the help and support of others: in Japan, most of the books for blind people are made by volunteers. That's why I felt like I also wanted to enable others to enjoy reading, to kind of close the circle: I was helped, and I got to help others, though in a different way. I may not be able to read to them directly or to select books, but I can still motivate them to read! It's the same as with taxis: though I couldn't be a taxi driver, I could still run a taxi company!

Q: I don't want to steal too much of your time. Is there anything else you'd like to add?

A: I think that everyone can be a giver and a taker at the same time, and i really hope I can demonstrate this on a daily basis: I constantly get help from others, and I also try to help as much as I can. We often think that we're not educated enough, we don't have enough money, we're not beautiful enough, etc., to give to others; however, I think that everyone has something to give, as long as he makes enough effort to discover what's within himself. In my opinion, only then he will be really able to feel like a fulfilled member of society. Of course, the best would be to feel great just the way we are, without any giving or taking, but we often feel that things aren't as we would like them to be. And, let's face it: making our contribution in society helps us feel happy, too. Take me for example: I do what I do for others, of course, but mostly for myself; I wouldn't do it just for Thai people. I do it because it's good for me, it makes me happy, and it makes me feel like it's worth existing.

Q: That sounds great. Thank you so much for taking the time, Yoshimi.

A: You're very welcome!