Ex univ prof becomes first totally blind person to pass Grade 1 of the Kyoto Kentei test

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hiroshi Nagao smiles in front of the Bouka-kaku at Shosei-en Garden within Higashi Honganji temple in Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto.

KYOTO — A former university professor has become the first totally blind person to pass Grade 1 of the Kyoto Kentei, which tests applicants on a broad range of topics relating to the culture and history of Japan’s former capital, Kyoto.

To pass the test, Hiroshi Nagao listened to audio-reading materials for the blind, and visited shrines and temples likely to come up in the notoriously difficult exam (only around 10% of exam-takers achieve a passing mark).

Nagao, who moved to Kyoto four years ago, says he now aims to be “a guide in an ancient capital,” to help visually impaired people enjoy the city.

Failure-forged determination

“Write 150-200 letters on Iwashimizu Hachimangu.” “What do you call someone who helps a geiko or a maiko get dressed?” These are example questions from the exam, which comprises about 60 brainteasers in total, including the writing of a short essay.

Nagao, 64, passed the annual test held in December, having failed on his first attempt. During the exam, a companion read the questions aloud and Nagao answered by typing his answers into a PC. Nagao says he was determined to pass after having unwittingly erased all his answers near the end of the previous year’s test.

The Kyoto Kentei was launched by the Kyoto Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2004. Officially referred to as “a certifying exam in tourism and culture of Kyoto” it is thought to be the only test of its kind in Japan, quizzing examinees on their knowledge of a specific locality.

To date, about 145,000 people have taken the test, which is popular among tourist guides and hotel staff. Grades 2 and 3 are computer-scored multiple-choice tests, but Grade 1 requires written answers to each question. The pass ratio for Grade 1 ranges between 1% and 18% each year.

Nagao was born blind in one eye. During his fifth year in elementary school, he began suffering retinal detachment, losing sight in his other eye shortly thereafter.

A native of Hikone, Shiga Prefecture, Nagao graduated from Ritsumeikan University, then worked as a teacher at Shiga Pref. School for the Visually Impaired.

After retiring from a professorship at Miyagi University of Education in April 2018, Nagao moved to Yamashina Ward in Kyoto, drawn by the peaceful atmosphere of the temples and the city’s coffee culture, among other charms. He first became familiar with Kyoto as a college student, and even after graduating, would often visit for leisure and other purposes. Nagao recalls thinking, “If I’m going to live here, I’m going to learn more than anyone about the place,” which led to his interest in the Kyoto Kentei test.

Triple-speed playback

Nagao was the driving force behind the translation into audio books of about 10 Kyoto-related tomes — covering such subjects as literature, nature and architecture — by Kyoto Lighthouse, a social welfare corporation based in the city’s Kita Ward. As one of his study methods, he would listen to the books at 3x speed. He also arranged for other necessary materials to be translated into braille. Nagao would use his PC to note down important words and explanations, using the machine’s talk function to memorize information through repeated listening.

To further bolster his knowledge, he would often visit shrines and temples that were expected to be the subject of test questions. “Details become imprinted in my mind after experiencing the atmosphere of such places first-hand and touching things like columns and stone steps,” he said. “[There’s a Japanese phrase that roughly translates as] ‘understand with a glance,’ whereas in my case it’s more like ‘understand with a touch.’ I can memorize even complicated names in this way.”

To aid him on such trips, Nagao called up on the services of Tatsuya Hirai, 70, a guide certified in helping disabled people get around outdoors. “On some occasions he would walk for half the day,” Hirai recalled. “I was surprised by his zeal.”

To pass Grade 1, examinees must achieve a minimum score of 80%. “I guess you could say I scraped a pass,” Nagao said. “[During the test] my heart was pounding faster than when I sat my university entrance exams.”

Notification of his passing grade arrived late January. Though happy to have passed, Nagao recalls feeling a sense of frustration over a question that had stumped him. In February, to put his mind at rest, he visited Bouka-kaku at Shosei-en Garden within Higashi Honganji temple in Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto. Nagao had being unable to come up with the name of the two-story structure during the exam.

Future plans

“There a certain kind of excitement that’s only possible to feel by visiting a place,” Nagao mused. “I’d like to convey this kind of sentiment to help visually impaired people experience a new type of joy.”

To kick things off, he plans to further upgrade the Kyoto-related data on his website, “Mutsuboshi-kun-no Tenji-no-heya” (Mutsuboshi-kun’s braille room). Nagao also hopes to serve as a guide for visually impaired students on school trips to Kyoto.