Yuji Sato, who is hearing impaired, has a motto: to be like an “active volcano” as long as he lives.
His immediate goal is to study at an American Sign Language university in the United States.
Congenitally deaf and born to hearing-impaired parents, Sato, 23, takes a top ASL course once a week offered by the Japanese ASL Signers Society while working at a leading computer-related company.
The society was established in 1988 by hearing-impaired people who had studied in the U.S. and other Japanese. It is active in Tokyo and neighboring areas.
Sato deftly communicates in sign language in a classroom separated from the beginners’ class by a partition.
He acts as an interpreter when other students unwittingly blend Japanese sign language with ASL, baffling the American teachers.
JASS, a nonprofit organization, maintains the classroom in a building near JR Iidabashi Station. U.S. ASL specialists are on hand to teach students.
Textbooks are made up of illustrations showing hand motions.
A teacher, for instance, put his hands to his throat and mouth demonstrating the motion meaning “lock the door.”
ASL is a visual language used by the hearing-impaired and others seeking to communicate with them in North America.
A Japanese sign language researcher said the ASL “language system is established and completely different from English in terms of grammar. But there is not much structural difference (between ASL and) Japanese sign language.”
Even students in the beginners’ course are engaged in complex dialogue in class.
Sato has been attending the 90-minute ASL course for two years. Though he can be of help to his teacher and classmates, he said he still has to learn more because he cannot understand difficult lectures.
He has no trouble using ASL in daily conversation but is determined to gain advanced skills to enable him to study at Gallaudet University in Washington, which is considered the world’s only institution of higher learning specifically geared for the deaf.
Sato is aware that his ASL proficiency is insufficient to allow him to keep up with class work at Gallaudet. He will have to study English words rapidly conveyed with finger positions.
Born and raised in Gunma Prefecture, Sato learned sign language naturally from his parents. He said that when he was a child, he envied his older brother for being able to hear, and he always got into fights.
He attended the prefectural school for the deaf, but signing was not offered through kindergarten and elementary school. He said his first- and second-grade teacher taught children by speaking and was very strict. He was unable to understand when the teacher assigned him homework, and he felt frustrated because the teacher scolded him.
But he said he was later blessed with teachers who used sign language, as well as good friends and plenty of good memories.
In his third year in a high school for the deaf, Sato failed to pass the entrance exam for the Tsukuba College of Technology — the only Japanese college where sign language is used to teach the deaf — and he learned there were social constraints for people with hearing disabilities.
He found out that the odds were low for applicants to gain admission at the Tsukuba school because it took only 50 students. And when a friend from kindergarten was admitted to a regular private university in Tokyo, a local newspaper reported that the student achieved “the first remarkable feat since the opening of the school for the deaf.”
Sato, who sought signing lessons at all costs, gave up the idea of going to a university. After studying office automation accounting at a vocational school for a year, he was hired by a lunch-caterer in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture.
He landed his current job after finding out that the firm was using a Tokyo job-placement office looking to fill a quota for physically disabled people. He applied and was hired.
“I am satisfied with my current workplace, but I will certainly go to the United States to study in the near future,” he said.
Sato’s encounter with ASL came at a convention for the deaf while he was still in Maebashi. He began studying it at JASS after coming to Tokyo.
He made his first visit to the U.S. last July to attend the “Deaf Way II” convention at Gallaudet University. About 10,000 hearing-impaired people from 121 countries took part in the event.
He experienced a great deal of culture shock during his five-day stay in the U.S. But the thing that surprised him more than anything else, he said, was learning how the country adapted to make life easier for the deaf.
He said that hotels use flashing lights instead of bells for the hearing-impaired and that text-input broadcasting is the norm. There is also an exclusive telephone service for the deaf so they can easily place food-delivery orders. Some stores use signing.
A graduate school professor who evaluates teachers of sign at American universities became his friend. The professor sent a video letter to Sato after he returned home. Standing in his sprawling front yard, the professor told Sato “see you again” with the finger alphabet.
Sato aspires to study and graduate from Gallaudet.
“I am thinking of getting a job in the United States,” he said, adding that he may even be able to give to Japan what he learns from the U.S.
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