TOTTORI – Daigo Ishibashi, 40, got a lump in his throat when the Tottori Prefectural Assembly passed a groundbreaking sign language promotion ordinance in early October, the first of its kind in Japan.
“I felt proud. It was a historic day,” Ishibashi, secretary-general of the Tottori association of organizations for deaf-mutes, said in an interview through a sign language interpreter.
“Those with hearing impairments are unable to communicate without sign language, which is life for them,” he said.
As part of his efforts to promote sign language, Ishibashi visited Tottori Gov. Shinji Hirai in January 2013 with other officials of the association to request that an ordinance be established to expand its use.
The prefectural bureaucrats responded by setting up a study team for a sign language ordinance. Ishibashi specifically requested that the prefecture “teach sign language at schools, not only at those for the deaf,” and the demand was incorporated into the ordinance.
The prefecture is now compiling sign language instruction manuals for public elementary and junior high schools.
Ishibashi, who hails from Tottori’s western neighbor Shimane, has been deaf since birth. While growing up, he learned to understand what people were saying by reading their lips.
When he enrolled in the prefecture-run Matsue Deaf School’s senior program, Ishibashi saw his classmates communicating in sign language for the first time. He described it as a “culture shock.”
“I decided to start learning sign language immediately,” he said.
When he was around 20 and campaigning to increase the number of sign language interpreters, an elderly deaf man told him that he sometimes experienced discrimination because people found his hand gestures unsettling.
“I thought something was wrong with our society and that we needed to promote sign language,” Ishibashi said.
In 2006, he established a nonprofit organization in the city of Yonago, where he resides, to send sign language interpreters to City Hall and local hospitals to offer support to residents with hearing impairments.
“I hope to narrow the gaps between the deaf and hearing people,” Ishibashi said. “We are just standing at the starting point.”