Photo/IllutrationA visitor touches a stuffed bird in the "Life" gallery at a museum for the visually impaired in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture. (Yukiko Oga)

MORIOKA, Iwate Prefecture--“A touch is worth a hundred words” is the motto of the tiny museum here that has been helping visually handicapped people see the world through their hands.

Masataro Sakurai, who went blind when he was an elementary school student, founded the museum, now called Sakurai Kinen Shikakushogaisha no Tameno Tedemiru Hakubutsukan (Sakurai memorial touch and see museum for the visually impaired), in 1981.

It initially opened in his house in Morioka’s Kitayama district, when he was working as a teacher at a school for blind. However due to health problems, he closed the museum in March 2011.

The idea of opening it stemmed from his own experience as a curious teenager. When Sakurai was a high school student, he got into trouble when he touched a stuffed snake in a museum, “even though he could only 'see' it by touching,” said Wakana Kawamata.

Kawamata is the daughter of one of Sakurai’s old colleagues and she stepped in, took over the collection and reopened it in her parents’ house in the Higashinakano area of the city in July 2011.

Sakurai died in 2016 aged 79, but the museum bearing his name continues.

It boasts about 3,000 items in three galleries of “life,” “culture” and “universe,” including many stuffed animals, sharks and birds, architectural models of landscapes and of famous landmarks worldwide, and a 1-billionth scale model of planets.

In mid-November, Kirara Tono, a fifth-grader from the prefecture-run Morioka School for the Blind, visited the museum accompanied by her teacher. She is amblyopic and can only get a vague idea of shapes and finds it difficult to distinguish colors.

Tono was here to learn about items and characteristics of birds that are described in a classic story included in the Japanese textbook “Daizo jisan to gan” (Old Daizo and the geese) by Hatoju Muku.

Kawamata took a stuffed duck and stuffed young falcon from the shelves to help explain the differences between aquatic fowl and raptors.

“The beaks of waterfowl are broad and round, but a falcon is a raptor so the beak is sharp and pointy,” said the 35-year-old as she guided the hand of Tono to the stuffed birds.

When Tono touched the beak of the falcon, she muttered, “It's bigger than I expected.”

As the museum’s motto has it, touching real animals or models is often “worth a hundred words.” For the visually impaired, it's hard to work out the differences between animals that appear in tales, such as foxes and “tanuki” raccoon dogs.

When children touch the stuffed animals of fox and tanuki, they often express wonderment as to how different their shapes and textures are.

“Observation by touch is different from learning by listening or by reading braille, and the impact can be huge,” said Kawamata.

Kawamata remembers that Sakurai once joyfully told her how a boy created a clay model of a hammerhead shark after touching it at the museum, so he could share his experience to a nonblind friend.

“I believe observation by touch is not just a substitute of vision, but also has infinite possibilities,” said Kawamata.

Most of the museum collection was either acquired or produced by Sakurai over the decades.

Feeling society’s lack of understanding for the visually impaired, Sakurai became a teacher for the blind. He later opened the museum in 1981 “in the hopes of broadening the world of visually impaired people.”

The small private museum’s reputation spread by word of mouth.

It was talked of having rich resources coupled with Sakurai’s well-versed commentaries.

Kawamata found out about Sakurai and his passion for the museum through her father when he was about to close it and when she was working in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo.

The entire collection was relocated to the second floor of her parents’ house and she also moved back to her hometown.

An NPO was set up to operate the museum, but maintenance and operation of the museum is largely funded by the Kawamata family.

At the end of November, the museum received the Hanawa Hokiichi prize from Saitama prefectural government for its contribution to helping visually impaired people. The prize was named after the famed blind scholar, who was born in today’s Honjo city of Saitama Prefecture in the mid-18th century.

Admission to the museum is free, but reservations are required.