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Eriko Hiratsuka

by Judit Kawaguchi

Eriko Hiratsuka, 26, received her master’s degree from Waseda University’s Graduate School of Law in 2010. That’s no small achievement for anyone, but for Eriko, who has severe hearing loss in both ears, reaching her goals has always required extra effort. Although she can only hear sounds above 80 decibels — which is about the level of noise at a busy street corner — she never attended a special school for the hard of hearing. Instead, she studied at regular schools by copying what her teachers wrote on whiteboards and what her classmates did in their notebooks. Her perseverance has paid off and she is now preparing for the National Bar Examination.

While continuing her legal studies, Eriko waitresses at Silent Café, a unique space where the staff and guests communicate with gestures, sounds, sign language and silence. Although Eriko loves serving the banana shakes that the Silent Café is famous for, she’s preparing to serve in court soon. Her goal is to protect the rights of the deaf and other minorities whose voices are often not heard.

Not all hard-of-hearing people know sign language. I can read lips and I hear some sounds, but I am not so good at sign language. I speak well too, so sometimes people don’t notice that I am hard of hearing until they see my hearing aid.

Sometimes not getting a job can be the best thing in your life. When I was at university, many of my friends had part-time jobs working in restaurants. I so wanted to be a waitress. Better yet, a cashier in a bakery. I applied to many places but no one would hire me. “You can’t hear well so you can’t work with people,” I was told. I often cried in the station toilets after interviews. Then one day I read an article about a deaf lawyer. Oh, here is a job I can do, I thought. I could help those who are suffering. That’s how I came to choose law.

Enjoy music while you can. My favorite sound is that of the piano. Most classical music has a lot of low pitch sounds, which are hard for me to hear., so I can’t enjoy those pieces of music. But I can hear “Spring” from Vivaldi’s masterpiece “The Four Seasons.” I feel so lucky. That’s something truly beautiful.

For good communication, the most important thing is your interest in the other person. We must have a desire to listen as well as express ourselves. Some people talk, others use sign language or read lips. We might gesture or write down what we want to say. All these forms of communication work.

We must adapt our behavior for every individual. There are so many types of handicaps in the world, and the challenges we face are different for everyone. We must adjust our behavior to individual needs. This is true to all people, not only for those hard of hearing.

Most Japanese people are kind to others, and they go out of their way to help those who are physically challenged. Once people see my hearing aid, they make an effort to help me.

In a good system, people with different abilities can work together on equal terms. In our cafe customers use stickers to tell us what they want to order. It’s fun and looks nice. But the main form of communication is though silence and gestures. It’s all about caring.

If you think positively, you become strong. I am from Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. My family lost one relative in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Some friends lost their homes. It’s tragic but we must think about the future, build new houses and work.

Protect your ears: They are sensitive. Sometimes I can hear sounds coming from people wearing earphones on the subway. Exposure to loud sounds over a long period of time can lead to hearing loss. Turn the volume down. That’s my advice.

When something is scary and there is nothing we can do about it, just forget about it. Sure, the possibility that I might lose my hearing is scary, but there is equal chance that I will hear as well as I do now right through to old age. Doctors can’t predict the future. I hear now and I enjoy every sound.

When you lose something valuable, you gain something else. I have hearing loss but my eyes are very good. I almost feel like my vision is improving.

Japanese laws are so abstract that even lawyers have trouble deciphering them. For example, according to the second paragraph of the Civil Code 772, a child born within a 300-day period after a divorce is still considered to be from that marriage. Also, if a pregnancy is conceived a month before a divorce, the law sees this as a pregnancy from that marriage. So, in order to register the baby as belonging to a new union after a divorce, the couple must go to court and prove who the father is with DNA tests. Such a lawsuit takes time and money. In such cases, everyone loses — even the taxpayers, who bear a large burden of these legal proceedings.

When you see injustice, make some noise! And keep making it, until you are heard and understood. I don’t have a complex about my situation; I feel lucky. But I know how some handicapped people are at a disadvantage in society, and I want to help them with legal advice. That’s my mission; to help the weak — children, single moms, the elderly and the challenged.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan.” Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com. Twitter: @judittokyo