Have books, will travel: Sight-impaired Japanese expat introduces joy of reading to Thai youth

On one of her early study trips to Thailand, Japanese native Yoshimi Horiuchi met a teen boy with muscular dystrophy, who had been out of school for most of his life.

The boy’s weakened muscles caused him to fall in the first grade and the school told his grandmother, the boy’s only caregiver, that they could not care for him. By the time Yoshimi met him, the boy was illiterate and housebound. When asked what he enjoyed doing the most, he said watching television.

“It was really sad to hear this because it was clearly the only thing he could do: he couldn’t read, he couldn’t run around, he couldn’t create something,” Yoshimi says. “I thought it was such a waste for the community. If you could have educated this boy, maybe he could have been a village chief in the future, or at least a very active member of society who could help others as well.”

Yoshimi, 33, was born with almost no vision and lost what little light perception she had early in her university studies. While she thrived in school in her native Japan, she thought, “if I had been born in this environment, I would not be so different.”

“I thought, ‘If I have the opportunity to do anything in Thailand, I must do it in a mobile way,” she said. “I must do it in a way in which I can reach those who are unable to access many activities.”

That visit would, in part, plant the seeds for the Always Reading Caravan (ARC), a “non-governmental, not-for-profit, and non-religious organization” in Chiang Mai’s Phrao District, which Yoshimi founded in 2010. The ARC now runs extensive mobile library services for those unable to access the ARC’s Rang Mai Community Library in Phrao. The 700 members of the library can choose from more than 7,000 books, and Rang Mai also runs weekly and monthly activities for small children and youth.

The ARC also has mobile library activities for people with disabilities and elderly people in the local communities. “That is also very important and close to my heart because without people’s help, I’m not here, at all. I want them to be empowered so that they can also empower others.”


Joy in ‘The World of Reading’

Yoshimi, a native of Japan’s Kochi Prefecture, speaks fluent Thai and can read Braille Thai. Her initial interest in the country and knowledge of the language were sparked by chance encounters – first by befriending a Thai fellow exchange student while studying in the U.S. whose friendship left her wanting to know more about the country, and then meeting a Thai person with low vision in Japan who could teach her to read the language in Braille.

Yoshimi moved to Thailand, choosing to base herself in Phrao on the recommendation of American Michael Shafter, a former professor who runs the Warm Heart Foundation in the area. He pointed out the dearth of library services in the province to Yoshimi and how disabled people were often separated from the general community.

The ARC aims to reach these people with mobile library activities, stocking a truck with books and activities for youngsters, and driving out into remote parts of Phrao and the surrounding areas. Yoshimi says the ARC’s mobile library activities differ from other such programs because of the number of fun options they offer the children, such as craft activities, games, toys, pop-up books, puzzles, Legos and the like.

“It’s like a mousetrap,” she says, laughing. “We try to put a lot of biscuits around, so that the [mice] come in. But by the time they are already inside, they can’t retreat from the world of reading. That’s why we say that our biggest mission is to promote the joy of reading and learning, not just reading.”

Yoshimi says that despite Thailand’s high adult literacy rate – 96 percent according to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics – that sense of joy is too often missing.

“People are afraid of reading activities,” she says. “They are a little bit traumatized by school reading assignments and aren’t really exposed to reading for pleasure.”

That’s why she introduces toys and other elements. “It’s so that children will feel that, ‘Oh, the library is not a bad thing at all!’”

ARC purchases most of its books and materials using donated funds, with Yoshimi estimating that they purchase about THB5,000 worth of books monthly, in addition to the donations they receive from “readers around the country.”

Yoshimi laughs when asked if she plans to remain in Thailand running the ARC for several years. “No! From the beginning, I never thought I would take ownership of this project. I wanted it to belong to the community,” she says. “The most important thing is to promote reading in the countryside and create a model that makes it easy for people in smaller communities to see what we are doing and copy us.”

She says Thailand, and all countries, can maximize the potential of their nation by “empowering people who are so-called marginalized or disadvantaged… What they think is disadvantaged!”


By Noel Boivin

An earlier version of this article was featured in UNESCO Bangkok’s “UNESCO Stories” series.​


Read more stories by UNESCO Bangkok:

Transgender special needs teacher aims to make sure every student feels accepted

Karaoke Class: Making learning Thai fun in remote mountain villages


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