Tokyo cafe dishes out a lesson in hiring bias


At a cafe near the University of Tokyo, clerks with hearing impairment are communicating with customers through writing and sign language — and their work is being welcomed and appreciated by a steady stream of customers.

“It serves nice food and is very comfortable,” says Naoki Ueno, a university freshman, who was visiting Sign with Me for the first time and enjoying a meal with friends.

On the wall of the soup cafe is a whiteboard covered in over 100 messages left by other diners. “I’ll surely come again after improving my sign language skills,” says one.

Masahiro Yanagi, the 44-year-old owner, who himself has hearing disabilities, opened the cafe in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward in December 2011. It now serves as an oasis for university students and regular customers.

Based on his own experience, Yanagi noticed that the employee retention rate for hearing-impaired workers is low. He was once even told that he was “useless” after changing jobs and being assigned to a department in which he was unable to make use of his expertise.

Although he says companies are ready to hire the hearing impaired, he found that didn’t mean such establishments had work environments that allowed them to play active roles.

Keenly aware of such shortfalls, Yanagi had an idea for a new business when he visited an Indian restaurant and was able to place an order with a foreign employee by pointing at a picture on the menu.

“Business can be done without spoken language,” Yanagi says, when talking about his decision to widely disseminate his message that more and more jobs would become available for people with disabilities if disabled people also decided to hire them.

Yanagi chose a location near the University of Tokyo, one of the most prestigious universities in Japan, for his cafe as part of his plan to make his efforts known as much as possible and reach a younger audience, and it became successful enough for him to, open a second Sign with Me cafe near the original outlet in April last year.

Ordering is simple: Customers point at food pictures and, when needed, make themselves understood through writing, sign language and gestures.

“I wasn’t initially confident in my sign language,” says Hiroshi Watabiki, a university student and Sign with Me part-timer, who was at the time communicating with others in writing. “But I’ve improved my skills as I continue to use signing, and I’ve been praised by customers. I want to keep on working here after graduation.”

“First, I want our efforts to be known and then hope to increase the number of outlets to create more job opportunities in the future,” Yanagi says of the space that is proving popular with customers.