Larger Than Life: The Legacy of Helen Keller in Japanese Disability History

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 2:10 PM
Williford B (Hilton Chicago)
Wei Yu Wayne Tan, Hope College
Helen Keller is, arguably, the best known American disability activist in modern Japan. Popular genres from manga (comics) to biographies about Keller inevitably make reference to her triumph over the stumbling blocks of blindness and deafness. This idolization of Keller skews current views of the historical context of her travels to Japan and the contributions she made to Japanese society. This paper proposes to explore the reception of Keller in Japan on her first tour there in 1937 as a way of understanding the politics of disability activism. It begins with a survey of the background of Keller’s travels and introduces the life and activism of Iwahashi Takeo, who became one of Keller’s closest allies and friends and the lynchpin of philanthropic work. It seeks to clarify the roles of Japanese pioneers linked to Iwahashi in the context of the international networks of activist connections that had developed. First, the discussion focuses on the rights to education for blind students in early twentieth-century Japan—an area which was thought to have benefited from Keller’s visit. Second, it examines the existing institutional support for Japan’s blind population, particularly in cities like Tokyo and Nagoya where historical records provide some important insights into the welfare and professions of blind people. Without denying the significance of Keller’s connections with Japan, the paper aims to evaluate claims of what Keller did (and did not) do for Japan and how the larger-than-life portrayal has helped (and worked against) our reading of Japanese disability history.