Feeling Japan: A Blind Sudanese Man Shares His Experiences

Society Lifestyle

Mohamed Omer Abdin came to Japan at the age of 19. How has he experienced Japan, which he knows only through sound, smell, and touch?

Mohamed Omer Abdin

Born in 1978 in Khartoum, Sudan. Born with seriously impaired vision, he has been almost totally blind since the age of 12. After entering the Faculty of Law at the University of Khartoum, he came to Japan in 1998. He studied braille along with acupuncture and moxibustion at Fukui Prefectural School for the Blind. Entered the Department of Information Science of Tsukuba College of Technology in 2001. After graduation, he entered the Japanese program at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies in 2003. Currently enrolled in the university’s graduate program, he is carrying out research on the conflict in Sudan. His book Waga mōsō [My Blind Delusions] was published in 2013.

On January 19, 1998, a young man of 19 arrived in Japan from Sudan. His name was Mohamed Omer Abdin. Beyond Japan’s reputation for electric appliances and cars, he knew next to nothing about the country, and hardly spoke a word of Japanese. To make things even more challenging, he was almost totally blind, and could make out no more than the faint outlines of objects.

More than 15 years later, Abdin still lives in Japan. He started to play blind soccer at university, and is now a member of the Tama Hassas team. As one of the team’s strikers, he has helped the team to victory three times in the Japan national championships.

Abdin played in the Japan national championships in 2013. The Tama Hassas finished third.

Japan and Sudan are countries with little in common. We spent a day with Mohamed Omer Abdin to get a feel for his life in this foreign land.

A City of Sounds and Smells

He walks along the arcade with one of the reporting team. “I can normally hear things 10 meters ahead of me, but on a rainy day it goes down to two or three meters,” he says. “And you can’t smell much when it’s raining, either.”

We started on a damp, drizzly day in the Kichijōji district of Tokyo. 

“I can hear a noise on the right. Is it a mobile phone shop? And there’s a smell of new shoes. Must be a shoe shop. And the walls of this arcade are pretty high.” Abdin has such a clear grasp of what is going on around him that it is hard to believe he cannot see.

“When I walk down the street I don’t have any visual landmarks so I use things like the smell of a McDonald’s or the sound of a pachinko parlor to guide me. You can pick up a lot from the way air moves or the way sound reverberates.”

Kichijōji regularly tops the rankings as the most popular place to live in Tokyo. But Abdin says he is not impressed. “Too many people,” he says.

“Shinjuku is another place I try to avoid. It’s really hard to walk where there are a lot of people, so I try to steer clear of crowds. There are probably lots of pretty girls there, though. Too bad I can’t see!” he says with a laugh. “Kanda has a strong smell of deep-fried food. Shibuya smells of the city water supply coming up through the manholes. Ikebukuro stinks of pee around the west exit of the station. But other than around the park it’s surprisingly odor-free.”

So what are Abdin’s favorite areas of Tokyo?

“I like Kunitachi. The scary thing about Tokyo is the way bicycles come speeding along the narrow sidewalks, but the sidewalks in front of Kunitachi station are nice and wide. It’s quiet, too. I always imagine the houses must be spacious there.”

Japanese Life Through Homestays

When Abdin arrived in Japan, the first place he experienced was not Tokyo. He started off in a rural town on the Japan Sea coast of Fukui Prefecture, in the Hokuriku region.

“Around the school, there was nothing but paddy fields. The smells and sounds were very limited. But I didn’t dislike it. I’m very glad that the first place I lived in after coming to Japan was Fukui.” 

Abdin walking near his home. “It’s a quiet residential area with a good environment for raising children.”

It took Abdin three months to persuade his father to let him come to Japan. At first, his father was furious at the idea. “You passed your exams and got admitted to the Faculty of Law at the University of Khartoum, where you were dead set on going. So why do you want to go gallivanting off to the ends of the earth to learn acupuncture and moxibustion?” But Abdin dug in his heels; “Japan provides the best environment for a blind person to study,” he argued. A war of attrition ensued. Eventually, his father sent him to Japan with the words, “I have faith in you.”

Abdin spent three years studying Japanese, braille, acupuncture, and moxibustion. He lived mainly in a dormitory, but at weekends he got to know the Japanese way of life through homestays.

Abdin says he will never forget the Japan he experienced by traveling on local train lines.

“I once bought a Seishun 18 ticket, which gives you unlimited travel on local trains, and made it all the way to Kumamoto. I love the local dialects in Japan. I went by local trains because I wanted to keep hearing for myself the point when the dialect changes. It was really fun every time new people boarded the train. Especially during the day! Then the elderly women board the train and you get to hear plenty of local dialect—pretty much all of it is them moaning about their daughters-in-law. When people get emotional, the dialect comes out stronger and the inflections at the end of the words get fiercer and fiercer. Some of the things they said were hilarious. I had to struggle to keep from laughing at times.”

Communicating in Japanese Is a Serious Problem

Reading on a bus. “I wasn’t able to read in Sudan because there were no devices like this.”

Of course, Abdin had plenty of difficulties in those early years, particularly since he came here after studying Japanese for just one month. “I tried pretending I understood Japanese, but that didn’t even last 10 seconds,” he laughs.

“At first, everything was like a code. I didn’t think of it as a language. It’s a completely different world from Arabic. I found the rhythms interesting—even if you don’t understand the meaning, the rhythm somehow transmits the feelings of the person talking. I tried to get a grasp of the tone of voice and sense by the atmosphere whether someone is angry or happy.”   

“If I don’t ask other people for help, I can’t do anything. Not being able to see means you are really quite dependent on other people for help. So you can’t get by if you can’t use super-polite language! For me, being able to communicate is a very serious problem. Being totally immersed in a completely Japanese environment, from which I couldn’t escape by using another language, actually worked out very well.”

Favorite Kanji Character

Learning kanji characters was also fun.

“The teacher at the school for the blind made characters for us out of clay. I learnt the shapes of kanji and their radicals by touch. Japanese has lots of homophones, so if you go by sound alone they seem to be the same thing. First of all I had to listen and then build up a mental database. Take the word kōgi, meaning ‘protest,’ for example. The bit is also present in the word hankō, which has a meaning of demonstration [against something]. The gi bit uses the gi from a different kōgi, this time meaning ‘lecture.’”

He says his favorite kanji of all is kashimashii, meaning “noisy.” This is a character that many Japanese people do not know how to write.

“It’s written using the character for ‘woman’ three times. And it’s true! Women are always talking at the same time without listening to what others are saying. When you hear their conversation, you have to wonder if they are really listening to each other at all. It’s the same the world over. I think this kanji encapsulates that quite nicely.”

Appreciating the Taste of Fish in Japan

My wife gets angry if I sneak off to a conveyor belt sushi bar without saying anything!

It is soon time for lunch. Abdin is keen on conveyor-belt sushi, so we enter a sushi bar. He says the first time he tasted sushi made with yellowtail in Fukui, it seemed unfair that Japanese people were keeping something so fantastic to themselves.

“The fish in Fukui was amazing. There were all kinds of different types—mackerel, bluefish, herring, and so on. Japanese people take the bones out before eating fish, but I’m quite good at getting the bones out in my mouth! The bits round the bone are good to eat, you know. In Arabic, we have a saying, ‘Around the bone tastes the best.’”

Abdin skillfully eats pieces of sushi using his hands while he speaks. His wife has told him that he puts on a frightening face when eating.

“It’s not that I don’t like what I’m eating; it’s because I’m eating cautiously. If you can see, you get an image of the food and you think to yourself: ‘That looks tasty,’ or ‘I don’t like the look of that.’ When I’m eating, I don’t know until it’s in my mouth, which is a little scary. In Sudan, we eat with our hands and you can get a sense of what it is through touch. But in Japan, using chopsticks, you can’t even do that. I just expect the worst when I put something in my mouth.” 

Abdin is very fond of Japanese food, and he particularly loves Japanese-style breakfast.

“Grilled fish with nattō (fermented soybeans) and miso (soybean paste) soup is an extremely balanced, healthy breakfast. Sudanese people normally don’t eat breakfast so they lose their concentration mid-morning. My wife makes Japanese food in her own style. We sometimes have miso soup and bread together on the breakfast table!”

At the Supermarket

After lunch, we take a train and a bus to the university where Abdin is studying. Why does he keep pausing while he feels the handrail on the stairs in the station? “The handrails have signs in braille,” he explains. 

Going through a railway ticket barrier. He walks through so quickly that the team interviewing him gets left behind.

“Even though I can’t see, I can still hang around downtown or go shopping. This is everyone’s right, of course, but it is the government that puts the environment in place. It might not be perfect yet, but Japan has a good environment for blind people. It makes life a lot easier.” 

Abdin talks about a service in supermarkets in which staff give in-store guidance.

“At the entrance to the supermarket there is a button for you to press. You explain that you are visually impaired and would like an escort, and a member of the supermarket staff goes round with you as you shop.”

We watch as Abdin presses the button and a male security officer approaches. He guides Abdin to the sales floor, leading him by the hand. “Where were these cucumbers produced?” “What sort of color are these?” Abdin fires questions one after another, and the officer answers politely. At the cash register, the officer puts all the shopping into the bag Abdin has brought with him.

“I would love to see this sort of thing introduced in Arabic-speaking countries. So many disabled people are unable to make the most of their real abilities. I want to live in a society that allows everyone to participate.”

Doing His Best for His Family

Using a computer in the university research lab. Abdin is looking for ways to resolve the civil war in Sudan.

Abdin is currently job hunting, but says he has reservations about the Japanese style of working.

“You get up in the morning, get on a packed train, spend all day in an office, and just when you think it’s time to go home your boss comes over and suggests going out for a drink. You end up eating stuff you don’t even like, then when it’s late you get on a packed train again and get home at midnight. Next morning, you get up at six o’clock . . . and the whole thing repeats itself, day after day. I think the spirit of the Japanese people is being worn away by packed trains and working long hours for the company. It’s such a waste. Mind you, I’m not working, so it probably just sounds like sour grapes.”

“I have a family as well, so I can’t expect too much when it comes to work. But it’s tough. Sometimes, if I get through the first stage of the screening I think I’m going to make it, but in the end I don’t get the job . . . Companies just don’t want to take on a man of 35 who has never had a job. I think my only option is to look for a job in research.”

Abdin married in 2010. His wife came to Japan from Sudan to marry him, and the couple now have two children.

“It was fate. A friend introduced us, and the first time I heard her voice over the telephone I just knew she was the one. I proposed during our second telephone call. My wife was born and raised in Sudan, and when we got married it was the first time she had been to Japan. She couldn’t speak Japanese, but I wasn’t worried at all. After all, I can speak for her if need be.”

Bringing up children must be tough in Japan if you aren’t used to it.

“Japan has a good environment in place for bringing up children, but there are differences in values and culture. Children understand if the color of their face is different. We don’t eat pork or anything made with alcohol. Snacks have all sorts of things in them, but it is hard for kids to understand when you tell them they can’t eat the snacks that all their friends are eating. I want to teach my children about Islam, but at the same time I want them to take in the good points of Japan. It’s a very delicate balance.” 

Will he stay in Japan or return to Sudan? Abdin now stands at a major crossroads. We asked if he has ever regretted coming to Japan.

“I sometimes wonder if it would have been better for me to stay in Sudan and study law. But once you have started along a path, there is no turning back. I made up my mind to come to Japan against the wishes of my parents. So no, I have no regrets. People often blame others for their own mistakes, but I chose it myself so unfortunately I have no one to blame but myself!”

His first child was born just two weeks after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan in March 2011. Her name is Aya, which means “miracle” in Arabic.

Abdin treasures his two daughters.

“Her birth was a miracle. She was born surrounded by many kind and compassionate people. Even today she has so many people to help her.”

Many more miracles are sure to happen in Abdin’s household.

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