Deaf bartender raises game to thrive in Ginza

Kyodo

Dai Igarashi is a bartender in Tokyo’s glitzy Ginza entertainment district, attending to customers like any barkeep but with one difference — he is totally deaf.

As the manager of Bell Sign, which caters to hearing-impaired people, Igarashi communicates in sign language. But since people with normal hearing also visit the bar, he keeps writing boards on the counter to communicate or resorts to lip-reading and speaking.

Igarashi, 31, was born deaf and attended a school for the hearing-impaired until he was 21. Part of his education was learning oralism — a method that teaches lip-reading and breathing patterns used in speech to communicate through oral means — in junior high school.

Oralism teaches people how to interpret and mimic mouth shapes, but it isn’t perfect. For example, words that evoke similar lip movements, such as “tabako” (cigarette) and “tamago” (egg), or “gomi” (garbage) and “kopi” (copy), are often difficult to distinguish by the deaf.

In high school, Igarashi learned sign language, which made him feel happy because “I could express myself,” he said. He mastered it in two months.

This helped him become more active. He eventually joined the school baseball team and served as president of the student council in his third year. He also met his future wife, Yuka, who also is aurally challenged.

After staying at the special school for two more years to learn how to use personal computers, Igarashi was hired by a private railroad and then moved on to a mobile phone company.

Colleagues at the two firms were kind enough to communicate with him via writing or entry-level sign language. During the busy hours, however, he felt frustrated because workers did not have the time to write messages or use sign language. He also felt out of place at conferences or social gatherings because he could not follow what was being said.

Suffering from depression, Igarashi quit the mobile phone company. But several months later, he joined a welfare equipment sales company in Osaka, where the owner, Tatsuo Hamada, 54, appointed Igarashi to manage Bell Sign, a bar he opened to employ people with auditory difficulties.

In late March, Igarashi got drunk and was brought to a police station after he was found sleeping on an Osaka street. He was not confident he could support his 30-year-old wife and their 8-year-old son, Noboru, and live up to his responsibilities as the manager of Bell Sign.

“The pressure on me was becoming unbearable,” he recalled.

Hamada became furious. “Don’t be a big baby! You have a family to support,” he yelled.

Hamada employs Igarashi and six other hearing-impaired people at his business, including Bell Sign.

“Being deaf serves as no excuse in business,” Hamada said.

He said he is strict because he cares for them. “For the sake of their growth, they shouldn’t confine themselves to the silent world,” he said.

Working as a bartender, in fact, Igarashi gradually regained the joy of communicating with other people and became confident. He is now active and communicates fearlessly through writing, lip-reading or even speaking.

“I feel elated when I see customers smile as they speak with me,” he said.

Igarashi has returned to the “auditory world” he once turned his back on. He used to avoid asking why people at drinking parties laughed, fearing he would ruin the atmosphere. “Now I don’t hesitate to frankly ask when I don’t understand,” he said.

Bell Sign has been in business for a year.

“I will make this bar a place equally enjoyable for people with and without impaired hearing,” he said.

A man with hearing difficulties in his 20s who frequents Bell Sign said, “I feel relieved when I speak to Mr. Igarashi.”