The packed room quieted down as Rie Saito took the stage. Instead of picking up the microphone, however, she smiled and silently pointed to the big screen next to her. This was the beginning of her speech — at a political rally on March 15 — which she based around a Power Point presentation.
Saito, who lost her hearing at age 1, plans to run in the April 26 election in Tokyo’s Kita Ward Assembly as a Nippon wo Genki ni Suru Kai (Party to Revitalize Japan) candidate. A best-selling author who was once the No. 1 hostess at a club in Tokyo’s Ginza district, Saito was known as the hitsudan hostess who used writing to communicate with her customers.
“I have been wanting to do something to support people with disabilities to bring out their dormant potential and create an environment where they can be active,” she told The Japan Times in an interview last week, using mostly written responses supplemented by occasional verbal answers and gestures. “Entering the world of politics was a way for me to take action in that direction.”
A deaf candidate or lawmaker is nearly unprecedented in Japanese politics, both at the local and national levels. The Japanese Federation of the Deaf says it is only aware of one hearing-impaired municipal assembly member, in the town of Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, who won a seat in the 2001 local election. The Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly also has a record of a deaf man who ran in the 1981 election unsuccessfully.
With little in the way of precedent, the 31-year-old is expected to face obstacles in her campaign, let alone her future political activities even if she wins.
Under the Public Offices Election Law, candidates running in ward assembly elections are prohibited from distributing leaflets during the week-long campaign period, which starts April 19. Saito’s famous message writing could be considered a violation of the law. According to an official at the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly’s election administration committee, such decisions are made on a “case-by-case” basis, and ultimately depends on the judgment of the police.
“It seems to me that people with speech or hearing disabilities are excluded from the beginning. I think we need to come up with a new election system and hope that my candidacy can serve as a wake-up call,” Saito said.
If she wins a seat in the Kita Ward Assembly, Saito would face other obstacles — including that the current system only records what is verbally stated during committee and plenary sessions. At Saito’s rally on March 15, she demonstrated a recently developed software program that would read out texts typed into her PC in a natural female voice, explaining that such a system would enable her to have a voice.
“A system like this would tear down a major stone wall for people with disabilities,” Saito said.
An Aomori native, Saito lost her hearing when she was only 22 months old, after a bout of meningitis. Instead of sending her to a special school for those with hearing disabilities, her parents sent her to a local public school. That is why, she explained, she cannot use sign language, but reads lips instead.
In her autobiography “Hitsudan Hosutesu” (“Writing Hostess”), published in 2009 by Kobunsha Co., Saito revealed her past — from being teased for sounding like “an alien” as a child, to her rebellious days of getting in trouble at school and at home, to how she wound up coming to Tokyo and eventually becoming a top hostess at a club in the glitzy Ginza district.
“One of the jobs of a politician is to listen to the locals and voters’ voices. Listening to the stories of many people from various backgrounds and ages is something that I did a lot as a hostess,” Saito said. “I believe I can utilize that skill as a politician.”
As someone who uses writing as a key source of communication, Saito values the meaning of each kanji. Just adding a stroke to the kanji meaning hardships can transform it into one that means happiness, she told her customers. During the interview with The Japan Times, she wrote that her favorite character was “love,” because it is made up of two parts that separately mean “receiving” and “the heart.”
Saito is a single mother whose daughter is 4 years old. Raising her all by herself, Saito used a special microphone that sent out signals to a vibrator on her wrist when her daughter cried as a newborn. Because her daughter cannot read yet, to communicate with her Saito uses a hiragana panel that pronounces the letter when you press a corresponding button.
“My daughter sees her friends talking to their mothers and realizes that we have a different situation. But not once has she ever complained about my not being able to hear,” Saito said. “If I could hear just once, I wish I could hear her voice.”