SATO Project

Building a society where the deaf play active roles

Junto Ohki
Representative Director, ShuR Co., Ltd.; Advisor, NPO ShuR
Published in November 2020icon-clockTime to read: 2min 16s

I want to change the current situation for deaf people in society

In 2016, at the age of 29, Junto Ohki received the Rolex Awards in the Young Laureates category (for those aged 18 to 30) for his project, “Expansion of the Cloud-based Online Sign Language Dictionary.”

“I was under the impression that the Rolex Awards, which encourage and support innovative projects that contribute to the future of humanity, are often awarded to people working in the environmental field. Nevertheless, it was really meaningful for us to have attention drawn to the minority field of deaf language and culture,” recalls Ohki.

Ohki established ShuR in 2008 while he was still a student at Keio University, under the slogan “Tech for the Deaf,” which means supporting deaf people with IT technology so that they can play an active role in society, just the same as hearing people.

Ohki started by providing free interpretation, information and services to deaf people via mobile phones and tablets. He went on to commercialise SLinto, an online sign language dictionary, in 2011. The idea was revolutionary: the content of the dictionary would expand as users submit sign language videos to the cloud.

Ohki is now extending the business to include remote sign language interpretation and sign language entertainment. He says that a major obstacle in changing deaf peoples’ current position in society is “the lack of proper understanding of deaf people by hearing people.”

“Some people have been deaf since birth, some have lost their hearing completely, while others only have some difficulty hearing. There are varying degrees of deafness in different people. However, for those who have been deaf since childhood and have attended deaf schools, sign language is usually their first language and Japanese is their second language. For deaf people, sign language and Japanese are two completely different 'languages', just like or even more so than Japanese and English for hearing people. This is something that I think hearing people struggle to understand.”

Promoting understanding of sign language and deaf culture in the wider community

What would happen if a native Japanese speaker whose foreign language skills are limited to what they learned in junior high school or high school, saw a Western movie with both audio and subtitles in English? They probably wouldn’t understand the content in detail. First you translate the English into Japanese in your head, and then you understand it. In the same way, deaf people translate Japanese into sign language in their minds, and then understand it. Because the language is different, it is difficult to understand it in exactly the same sense as the original language.

So, it's not simply a case of “if you have subtitles, you can read” or “if you can write, you can do it”, says Yasuto Okumura, a member of ShuR and one half of comedy duo DeafW. “Some people are more skilled in Japanese than others; some can write, some cannot. I think the fact that deaf people are all unique is one of the reasons why misunderstandings so easily arise about us. Sign language has a different grammar from Japanese, so for deaf people who usually think in sign language, it takes effort to translate.”

According to Mika Imai, who oversees the entertainment business at ShuR, “There is very little entertainment for the deaf.” Ms. Imai produces DeafW because she wants to make it possible to enjoy the “real” stories of deaf people and their unique culture in sign language in an effortless way and without having to translate them into Japanese.

Ms. Imai is also working on a “Field Guide to Wildlife in Sign Language,” which uses sign language videos to explain the ecology of living creatures, in order to “increase opportunities for deaf children to satisfy their curiosity and desire for knowledge in the same way as hearing people”. “Many children don't enjoy books because Japanese is not their first language. The textbooks used in schools for the deaf are also all written in Japanese. The teachers translate them into sign language every time. We hope this helps to raise awareness of these issues in society.”

Ohki is convinced that such entertainment projects will significantly help the deaf in both the short and long term. “Although the project is aimed at deaf people, we hope that it will encourage hearing people to take an interest in sign language, deaf people and deaf culture. Rather than learning about the deaf in a studious way, we want people to get to know about deaf people out of interest. If they know nothing about them, then deaf people might as well not exist in their world. It's not so much that people don't want to learn about or understand deaf people and deaf culture; rather, they don't know that they exist in the first place. First and foremost, I think we should teach people about the deaf in order to create a society where they can live comfortably.”

I broadened my interest beyond the familiar, and became more aware of the issues

Ohki himself became interested in sign language when he was a junior high school student and happened to see a sign language programme on TV. He was struck by the beautiful hand movements and the manner of communication, which is completely different from spoken language.

At university, he set up a sign language club and learned sign language from deaf students. That was the first time Ohki had contact with deaf people. “I was fascinated by their different senses in comparison to hearing people, due to their focus on the visual, and I had this feeling of amazement at their unique way of communicating. As I made more deaf friends, my interest grew.”

In this context, he happened to hear a shocking story. “I heard about a situation where the parents were deaf and couldn't use the telephone, so they got into serious trouble when their child had a seizure in the middle of the night. In that area, you could call for an ambulance by fax, but sending a fax didn't occur to them due to the suddenness of the situation. In the end, they had to ask a neighbour for help and luckily everything turned out okay. I felt that even if I couldn't change this kind of situation straight away, I wanted to take a step in the right direction. It was this desire that led me to establish ShuR.”

Ohki was one of the members of the team that selected the villages to be featured in “SATO – 次世代に残したい里” [The Villages We Want to Leave to the Next Generation], a project run by the Asahi Shimbun and supported by Rolex, which aims to communicate the charms of Japanese villages and the challenges they face. In making his selection, Ohki felt that there were similarities between villages, sign language and deaf culture. “Villages are such fascinating places, but not enough is known about them. Sign language and deaf culture are also good things, but are not well known. Both are worth passing on, so I thought it would be a good idea to start by teaching the younger generation about them.”

He says that, in the same way that he himself was once fascinated by sign language, the first step in tackling the challenges faced by villages can be “beautiful”. “Start with something familiar and expand your interest. That first step will lead to the second and third. Without the first step, there are no subsequent steps. That's why it's important to act, whether it's visiting the local area if you're even just vaguely interested, or talking to people who work to protect villages. Because even I didn't start out with the idea of doing what I do now.”

In a society where hearing people are the majority, it is difficult for deaf people to access the information they need to lead their lives. For this reason, deaf people need to exchange information closely. As a result, the ties between them become deeper. “They have their own culture, because they have their own unique language – sign language – and their own way of behaving that is unique to those who speak the same language. We will continue to accumulate small steps to ensure that this culture is passed on to the next generation and is widely recognised by society, so that those who can hear and those who cannot hear can play an active role, on an equal footing with one another.”

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