Imagine you’re a hearing impaired person who wants to hire a sign language interpreter. The process is antiquated and lengthy. You have to send a fax to a local municipal government to make a reservation two weeks in advance, and officials then look for an interpreter whose schedule matches yours. Once they find one, you’ll get a reply by fax.
Under this system, it is impossible to get an interpreter right away to deal with urgent matters.
But Junto Ohki, a young entrepreneur, has not only relieved many people of such anxieties, but also helped change the widespread belief that sign language interpreting is something that should be provided by the public sector as welfare.
Ohki founded his company, ShuR Co., when he was a sophomore at Keio University in 2008. The company now runs a Skype-based sign language interpreting business. ShuR also created the world’s first online sign language dictionary called SLinto.
With ShuR, users can call the company, based in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, from anywhere to ask to use the service.
“I was studying IT business (at university). Though Skype wasn’t that popular at that time, I thought if we use this technology, we can remotely provide sign language interpretation for people with hearing disabilities without actually dispatching interpreters,” Ohki said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “With this, I thought I could solve many problems that my friends with hearing disabilities encountered in their lives.”
With ShuR’s service, hearing impaired people can see a doctor when they get sick or enjoy simple things like shopping.
The 29-year-old Gunma native still remembers clearly when his company offered free sign language interpretation as a trial run in 2012. As an interpreter himself, Ohki took a Skype call from an elderly man who asked, “Is it true that if I make a phone call, sushi will be delivered to my house?”
The man, who had a hearing disability, knew about such delivery services but had been unable to use a phone himself.
“Yes it’s true,” Ohki said in sign language, going on to order sushi for the man.
Twenty minutes later, Ohki received a call from the same man. When he took the call, the first thing that appeared on the screen was a plate of sushi. The man then appeared with a big smile. “What you said was true. Sushi arrived!” he told Ohki.
This kind of experience became a driving force for Ohki to develop the service further.
Ohki’s firm does not charge individual users. Instead, it sells the service to corporations that see the need for better communication with customers and employees, including those with hearing disabilities.
But it was tough to make companies understand why they should pay for the service, Ohki said.
“Most people think that sign language belongs to the field of welfare, and interpretation should be done by volunteers,” he said.
It took some time for Ohki to convince businesses that they would benefit from the service.
But thanks to his efforts, firms like JR East and Kao Corp. use ShuR’s services. For example, customers can use tablets at JR train stations connected to ShuR’s interpreters to ask how to buy a ticket or for directions.
“They were already offering multilingual services, so it was just like adding another menu item to accommodate the hearing impaired,” Ohki said.
Meanwhile, cosmetics and household goods manufacturer Kao’s customer centers use the service to respond to various questions from customers about their products.
About 400 establishments nationwide, including hospitals, shopping centers and customer support centers, are now equipped with tablets connected to the interpreters. Some companies also use the service to have internal meetings with employees who have hearing disabilities, Ohki said.
Until he started university, Ohki, who is not hearing impaired himself, had no experience with sign language or people with hearing disabilities. The only time he saw sign language was on an NHK program when he was a junior high school student.
An avid photographer, in high school he dreamed of becoming a photojournalist who reports from war zones. He even went to the United States to study English, hoping that acquiring photography and language skills would lead to becoming a journalist. While he was chosen as a finalist in a nationwide photo contest for high school students, he didn’t take the top prize. The loss prompted him to rethink his career goals and diversify his areas of study at university.
At Keio University, an old memory came back that would set him on a new course. He remembered the vivid impression from the sign language he saw on NHK and how he thought it was such a beautiful language. Though he wanted to join a sign language club, there was no such club at his university. In the summer of his first year, a female friend asked him to create a sign language club with her.
The pair, who were truly beginners of the language, founded the club and started learning to sign.
Three months later, he was asked through an acquaintance to appear on NHK’s “Kohaku Uta Gassen” (“Year-end Song Festival“) program. Popular singer Yo Hitoto, a Keio University graduate scheduled to sing on the program, was looking for someone who could perform her song’s lyrics in sign language, and Ohki’s newly established club was called in.
“I don’t think she knew we had only studied sign language for three months. But when I was asked to join her, I recklessly said, ‘Yes, we can do it,’ ” Ohki said with a smile.
After intensive training, Ohki and his club mates made a successful debut on NHK’s popular year-end program.
Being part of that show had a tremendous ripple effect. The club was invited to many places across Japan to demonstrate and teach sign language. TV stations and newspapers interviewed him and other club members.
“I thought about the reason why we captured media attention and I came to the conclusion that there weren’t enough entertainment programs for the hearing impaired,” Ohki said.
Ohki then began creating an online travel program with hearing impaired people. As they traveled together for the program, he discovered how difficult the life of people with disabilities could be.
“They can’t even call an ambulance or go to see a doctor because they can’t talk even if they get sick,” he said, adding that learning about their lives led him to establish his company in his second year of university.
As for the online dictionary SLinto, Ohki said the database, accessible to anyone, aims to make the process of learning sign language easier.
“When I was studying sign language, I had a hard time finding the meaning of signs,” Ohki said. “You can Google the word ‘dog’ if you want to know how to say it in sign language, but when you see a hand motion for a specific word, you can’t look up what it means. It’s like having a Japanese-to-English dictionary, but not having an English-to-Japanese dictionary.”
Using a special keyboard displayed on a computer screen, users of SLinto can choose a hand motion for a sign, such as placing an index finger in front of the stomach, and then various video clips similar to those movements will appear. Users then look for the motion they want to know about from among the video clips.
Ohki said they were currently developing an American version of the dictionary and discussing how to promote it in the U.S., which has a huge sign language-related market. The free service generates revenue from ads displayed at the bottom of the screen, he said. He has already acquired a patent for the special on-screen keyboard.
“There aren’t many services that originated in Japan that have spread around the world,” he said. “I would like to make ShuR’s service the world standard for sign language.”
Now, Ohki is looking ahead to the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020. “More and more people with hearing disabilities from overseas will be visiting Japan for the Olympics,” he said. “I would like to create an environment where such people can stay in Japan comfortably without feeling insecure about what to do if they get sick.”