As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics draw ever closer, more people in Japan are taking courses in a pidgin form of sign language called International Sign as a means of communicating with hearing-impaired visitors from overseas.
The courses are expected to improve communications standards and enhance volunteers’ skills in a country sorely lacking the human resources to provide quality International Sign interpretation.
During an intermediate class administered by the Japan International Sign Language Interpreters & Guides Association (JIIGA) recently in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, instructor Takeshi Sunada, 58, communicated with his students using various sign language vocabulary.
“I really hope to learn International Sign so I can be a city volunteer at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics,” said one of the students, Masako Aozuka, 53, a part-time worker from Iruma, Saitama Prefecture.
International Sign is regularly used at global gatherings of the hearing-impaired, such as the World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf, and is common at sporting events such as the Deaflympics.
International Sign is not a standardized form of communication and has been described as a highly variable type of signing between two people who lack a common sign language.
According to Sunada, who is also an International Sign interpreter and guide, the number of students has tripled over the last three years to about 100.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has established a program that covers half the cost of tuition needed for people studying International Sign and American Sign, which is predominantly used in North America.
Whereas 110 students tapped this support in fiscal 2014, 341 used it in fiscal 2018.
Opportunities to learn sign languages are also on the rise in other regions of Japan.
The JIIGA, in cooperation with the Hiroshima City Deaf Society, plans to hold courses on International Sign in Hiroshima Prefecture starting next year with the aim of guiding foreign visitors to sites related to the 1945 atomic bombing.
The Nippon Foundation Volunteer Support Center, the organization responsible for fostering volunteers at the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, has launched an International Sign course.
Masamichi Yagi, a 33-year-old man from Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, who took the course in September, said he hopes to help hearing-impaired foreign tourists with everything from ticket purchases to finding restaurants.
“I want to be able to provide hospitality to all people from around the world,” Yagi said.
But a big obstacle is a lack of skilled sign interpreters.
For example, Otomo, a company based in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, that promotes multilingual tours and offers guides specializing in overseas visitors, plans to give customers a choice of international sign languages when selecting guides online. It expects to have about five interpreters on staff when it launches the service.
The Japanese Federation of the Deaf, which is campaigning to bring the 2025 Deaflympics to Japan, will release a book titled “Let’s Try Kokusai Shuwa” (International Sign) in November. The book includes smartphone-friendly QR codes so readers can watch sign language videos.
“We want more people to use the book so they can use International Sign. There is really a shortage of interpreters and instructors out there, so we want to make efforts to train as many as possible,” said JFD Director Sachiyo Yoshino.