Yoshimi Horiuchi is passionate about reading. She is also blind. The fact that as a bibliophile she has never seen an actual letter, never read a sentence on a page of a book and has never been able to write with a pen and paper makes her something quite extraordinary.
Born blind, 35 year old Yoshimi is the founder of Always Reading Caravan, an NGO that sets up mobile libraries in rural northern Thailand. “As a young girl I loved books,” she told Citylife as we visited her at Rang Mai Library, Phrao District. “They took me out of the small rural society of Kochi, Japan, where I was brought up. My imagination took me far and wide.” Although never able to even see the words on the page, Yoshimi relied on her family to read her stories, and even from a young age she opted for adult books and fiction over the more playful picture books that her sighted peers were reading. “One of the first books I fell in love with was Little Women, written by Louisa May Alcott,” she said as her own personal story emerged, flittering seamlessly between fluent northern Thai, English and the odd mutterings in Japanese.
As a young girl Yoshimi joined a local blind school and by the time she was a teenager she moved to a blind boarding school in Tokyo. “After I left Kochi I was exposed to a diverse range of role models,” she said. “I wanted to learn English as I loved the language and I had dreams of being a teacher or an interpreter.” Only around 10% of all books in Japanese are translated into audio or braille, so by learning English, a new world of literature would be at her fingertips, quite literally.
“After much convincing, my family finally agreed to let me visit America through a scholarship that promoted language and cultural learning,” she continued. “Sadly, my experiences there were something less than desired as I was placed in the Midwest, in a very white society. What made matters worse was that it was a car-centric community so as a blind girl I could barely get around as there was very little in the way of public transportation.”
What spurred Yoshimi to carry on, continue learning English and not give up on her dream to read more books, was another girl on the scholarship programme – a Thai girl named Rattaya. They met in the first month and soon became good friends thanks to their cultural similarities and shared experiences in white America. “When she spoke Thai to me, the language was like music to my ears,” Yoshimi said with a wide smile. “Although I continued with my English, I knew that I wanted to also learn Thai and experience this country that only a month or so ago I had no knowledge of nor interest in.”
At just 18, she returned to Japan to study Thai language and prepare for university. At that time Rattaya headed to Chiang Mai University and the two lost contact forever. “I would love to reconnect with her,” she told us. If anyone knows a Rattaya, nicknamed Fai, then get her to read this article!
In her first year at the International Christian University in Japan, she participated in a programme that visited northern Thailand to help with a building project for hill tribe communities in connection with Payap University. “I was finally able to visit Thailand and it was even better than I had imagined. The people were sweet and they all wanted to learn about us, share stories and we were both mutually fascinated by each other.”
That summer Yoshimi returned to Thailand again, this time helping teach English and Japanese to blind masseuses through a charitable organisation focused on empowering blind people. “I found any way to get back to Thailand and I even did an exchange year with Thammasat University so I could come back again – I already knew it was where I wanted to start my work life.”
Despite having to stay in Japan for a few years after graduation to stay close to her father who grew unwell during her final year of university, she was always finding ways to learn more about the future she had begun to envisage herself. “I visited India on a scholarship that taught people how to run social projects and social enterprises,” she explained, her plans slowly coming together. “I often get bored of things and chop and change between hobbies and interests, but reading was a constant. I never became bored of books. With a growing interest in international development work, I knew I wanted to pair the two and make something of it. Books are so important, and one thing I noticed in Thailand was that unlike Japan and the US, when you told people you liked to read books you were often teased for being a nerd. The education system doesn’t promote reading and even things like cartoons are banned in schools – sending all the wrong messages about reading and literature.” She also added that books are expensive in Thailand, often costing the same as four of five meals – so for the poor and marganilsed people in Thailand, they are a more of a luxury than a necessity.
During her time in and out of Thailand, she also realised that although teaching opened up gateways to development work, teaching English or Japanese was not worthwhile when the students struggled with their own language to begin with. “To learn a second language, you need to be good at your own language already,” said Yoshimi. “If people can’t read, or don’t like to read, how can they ever learn a new language properly?”
It was around 2010 that Yoshimi was invited by the Warm Heart Foundation in Phrao to come and help with reading-based activities in northern Thailand. “I got to known Michael Shafer and Evelind Schecter, the founders of the foundation, through my old university,” she continued. “The opportunity was exactly what I was looking for and within a few months I decided this is exactly where I wanted to be.”
With the help of Warm Heart Foundation, Yoshimi began connecting with the local community on the back of a motorcycle loaded with as many books as she could carry. “This was the start of my mobile library – sharing books for free with people in remote areas who otherwise would have no access to literature whatsoever,” she said joyfully, her story now reaching its most recent chapter. “After a year of sharing books with the local community, I decided to open up a base of operations – a community library where I could keep my books and open my doors to anyone who wished to use the space.”
Today, Rang Mai Library has almost 7,000 books in Thai, English, Japanese and even a small handful of books in a few types of braille. They charge nothing to take out a book, but simply ask for a 10 baht registration fee so they can track their in- and out-goings. As the team grew, a few key members joined up including Porntip Prompan (mobile library manager), Nathapon Khamsaen (home visits for elderly and disabled people and book corner manager) and Sasiprapa Wannatigul (cooking, crafts and storytelling) who are key members of her growing team that reach out to more communities and manage new exciting activities.
“We found that although visiting schools was initially a good idea, we saw much better results by going to communities and setting up our own extracurricular activity days at the library itself, inviting children to visit, play and hopefully fall in love with a book or two.”
Yoshimi is very clear about her aim. If she can inspire a child or an adult to see the importance of books, fall in love with a novel or just pick up something to read, then she has done her job. “The results of what I am doing are not quantifiable, as it is the children of those who I hope to inspire now who will be the ones whose lives are turned around by books,” she explains while laughing at how difficult it can be explaining that to immigration every year she tries to extend her volunteering visa.
Yoshimi has set up remote libraries across the town of Phrao, in places such as bus stations, hospitals, banks and temples. They have also set up two permanent children’s literacy centres in hill tribe communities that are permanently staffed and do weekly visits to those who are too physically or mentally disabled to visit their library or mobile library (which has now been upgraded to a truck packed with books) on their own.
“No matter where you live, you should be surrounded by books,” she said as we set off to visit a Lahu orphanage just out of town that is funded by the local community. “We don’t impose and we want people to be relaxed before they pick up a book, but we hope to sow a seed of literature in the hearts of those we meet. Take these Lahu kids for example, they can read and write already, and they already feel that books are not boring. We make books fun, and through that we give those who otherwise would have no access to literature a head start in their lives. Books are expensive and libraries are scarce in Thailand, and it is that vicious cycle that we are trying to break, here at least.”
Yoshimi was born blind, unable to ever read a sentence on a page or a poem in a book. But nestled in bed as a child, with the sweet sound of her grandfather’s voice echoing the words on the page of Little Women, her life was transformed. A world of opportunity opened up her imagination and focused her determination so that, despite being blind, she has turned into a bookworm and a warrior of literature. In fact, Yoshimi expressed her feeling that if she were not blind, she probably wouldn’t have decided to work in development at all; her ‘disability’ in fact enabling her to see the missing links in society.
Yoshimi’s love of literature transcended the physicality of letters on pages and became a lifelong passion. Now she has an opportunity to bring books to those who otherwise may never read a novel or a poem in their life, just as it could have been for her. In spite of her project being small in scale, she hopes that some of those who use her library or join in her activities will end up as inspired and dedicated as she became in rural Kochi, one day inspiring others to also expand their horizons through words.