Deaf in Tohoku get free video help

PLUSVoice providing sign language translations


A Sendai-based company is offering a free remote video relay service for people with hearing problems in areas hit by last year’s massive earthquake and tsunami, employing the expertise it has developed in a business venture largely unknown in Japan.

PLUSVoice Co. started the free service, in which sign language interpreters help people in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima gain access to information via videophones, shortly after the disasters struck.

After months of voluntary efforts, PLUSVoice obtained financial aid in September from the Nippon Foundation, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization promoting cultural exchanges and communication support, enabling the company to continue what its president calls its “mission.”

“We don’t seek profits and it is a sense of mission that has driven us to work on this,” said Hiroyuki Miura, the 48-year-old founder and president of PLUSVoice.

According to the Nippon Foundation, victims of the disaster include many who are in need of sign language interpreting and captioning services, particularly for applications for administrative certificates and jobs as well as hospital appointments.

PLUSVoice began its remote interpreting service in 2002 through videophones placed in government offices and shops so that people with hearing problems can communicate with officials and shop clerks.

The company expanded the service the following year, aiming directly at individuals with the use of videophones, email and faxes.

“Hard-of-hearing people used to be unable to order a (delivery) meal, for instance, because they couldn’t make a phone call,” Miura said. “But with one smartphone, they now can place calls wherever they are.”

Toru Tanaka, a 48-year-old barber from the town of Taiwa, Miyagi Prefecture, who is a frequent user of the PLUSVoice service, said: “It is very convenient and has changed my life.

“I know some who hesitate to use it because it costs money, but without this we would have to go out for help, meaning we need to pay for transportation anyway,” he said of the service, which is offered with a basic fee of ¥315 for one call of up to 15 minutes, and in a monthly package for ¥5,250 that allows unlimited calls.

Miura founded PLUSVoice in 1998 after working as a master of ceremonies at weddings in Sendai. He recalled an episode he experienced about three years earlier, which led to a change in his career.

The bride was deaf and many of the guests had hearing difficulties, and Miura was shocked that his conversation skills proved useless.

“I must have been the worst MC ever that day,” he said.

That prodded him to start learning sign language and it didn’t take him long before he started up a business for physically challenged people.

His move came at around the time when mobile phones with text messaging functions were becoming hugely popular in Japan.

Riding on the new wave of mobile devices, Miura worked hard to broaden the customer base for his business, focusing on mobile phone sales. One time he collected requests from people with hearing problems and brought them to a telecommunications company in a set of proposals to improve phone functions.

Another turning point for Miura came one evening about 10 years ago when Michihito Fujii, his 45-year-old research partner for developing an Internet videophone system, appeared on a computer display with a distraught look.

His partner, who is deaf, explained through sign language that gas was leaking in his neighborhood in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture. Miura swiftly made an emergency call and then served — from Sendai, roughly 300 km from the scene — as a remote interpreter for the conversations between Fujii and firefighters.

“I came face to face with the very moment a hard-of-hearing person needed to communicate with another person in real time,” Miura said.

A 2006 estimate by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry put the number of people with hearing or speech disabilities in Japan at about 360,000. Given the country’s rapidly aging society, demand for such support is expected to grow.

However, video relay services have yet to take root and many businesses have pulled out after unsuccessful forays. PLUSVoice itself is struggling as the number of its customers has peaked at about 1,000.

Mitsuhiko Ogawa, director of the All Japan Association of Hard of Hearing People, complained of the lack of public awareness and the financial burdens associated with the use of such services.

“Many deaf or hard-of-hearing people simply think they cannot make phone calls,” Ogawa said. “I myself never thought of making calls until I used it and became aware that my world had broadened.”

PLUSVoice’s Miura believes he has helped create a system for better communication for everyone with hearing problems.

“Every time people at government offices ask me how many of these (people with hearing difficulties) use videophones, I make it a rule to say ‘all of them will use them in the future,’ ” Miura said.

GSDF calls for care

The Ground Self-Defense Force is emphasizing the need to deal more carefully with stress affecting its personnel following the rescue operations in the Tohoku region.

GSDF Chief of Staff Eiji Kimizuka underlined this need at a meeting last week of officials from the Defense Ministry, the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military in Japan to review their disaster-relief operations.

The SDF mobilized up to 107,000 personnel for rescue operations in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

For its part, the U.S. launched Operation Tomodachi, which directly or indirectly involved nearly 24,000 U.S. service members between March 12 and May 4.