Sound of Silence: Ayako Imamura and the hearing-impaired

By Trishit Banerjee | Translated by Kiyou Kamisawa

Ayako Imamura speaks to Voice Up Japan about being a deaf filmmaker and how she has learnt more about the community by capturing them on cameras. She speaks about the challenges to the hearing-impaired during a disaster and how the society should rather start addressing the problem by recognising there is one.

‘Deaf people aren’t helpless but merely humans who speak the sign language’ was something Ayako Imamura realised during her time at California State University, Northridge where she was studying along with 250 other hearing-impaired students. In the past 17 years, she has made 27 films and continues to share stories from this community in hope that one day the world shall be equal for them. According to a 2006 survey conducted by the Japanese health ministry, there are about 358,800 severe and partially hearing-impaired people in Japan but only around 14% of them use the sign language. Imamura’s humane treatment of this subject has provided a voice to this community which has often seen its ‘differences’ being labeled as ‘disability’.

Right from her childhood, Imamura dreamt to be a movie director. “When I was a child, there were no subtitles for TV programs so I couldn’t enjoy watching TV with my family”, she writes on her website. It was her father who rented ‘E.T’ with subtitles from a video rental shop. For Imamura, the display of friendship between an alien and a human moved her enough to pursue a career in filmmaking.

At the age of 19, Imamura decided to study filmmaking in the US. Being ‘different’ did not restrict her from chasing her goals. “Japan being an island country relieves itself by being same to everyone however, there are people of different nationalities in the US. I think that it helps in being used to differences,” she says.

Challenges of being hearing-impaired in Japan

The Japanese Act on Employment Promotion etc. of Persons with Disabilities has been in effect since 1960 and has been amended over the years to ensure that companies and government organizations  hire a certain percentage of the workforce from those who have physical, mental or intellectual impairments. Between 2016 and 2017, there was a jump of 4.5% amongst the number of people with disabilities who were employed by the private sector. The government has set a target to increase this number by a further 18% to 585,000 by 2022. 

Even an ambitious goal such as this comes with its own set of challenges. “Such legislations are useful however, workplaces with little to no understanding of the deaf people usually end up giving simple jobs to them,” Imamura says. “Deaf people also feel lonely, anxious and dissatisfied when they cannot communicate smoothly with those around them,” she added. Although large companies hire a higher percentage of people with disabilities, many of the janitorial jobs assigned to them are in decline due to outsourcing of such tasks. Furthermore, it is far challenging for a deaf person or other differently-abled people to leave a job due to dissatisfaction. 

Imamura promoting her documentary ‘Silence on that day’

Even though the government has recognized sign language interpretation as important for press conferences, many broadcasters choose not to show it. “Some elderly people with deafness have difficulty reading and writing letters. To make a more inclusive society, it is necessary to not only have subtitles and sign languages but also illustrations,” Imamura says.

Even within the hearing-impaired community, there are minorities who often maintain silence in fear of being ostracized. “There are deaf LGBT people and deaf people with Asperger’s too. There are deaf people who differ to others in opinion,” Imamura highlights. The choice between silence or leaving the community altogether is often a crisis amongst these individuals.

Being hearing-impaired in a disaster

Imamura’s latest documentary ‘Silence on that day’ records the struggles of the hearing-impaired over the past 10 years since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. The decade has also seen the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake, 2018 Western Japan Rain Storm and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Each of this disaster has been a backdrop in the making of the documentary.

Imamura during shooting

With disasters, the discussion is often restricted to victims and recovery on a public scale. There is seldom any discourse regarding its effects on the differently-abled such as the hearing-impaired. “Since the population of deaf people is around 1 in every 1,000, people who can hear wouldn’t notice it,” Imamura says. “If people start to think that among various types of people in the world, some happen to be deaf, this situation will slowly begin to change,” she added.

During the 2011 disaster, organizations such as the Japanese Federation of the Deaf (JFD) led nation-wide efforts by establishing a ‘Central Headquarters’ in providing support to the hearing-impaired in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. Emergency requests to mass media, particularly the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, were made to ensure that the hearing-impaired had equal access to information. Requests were also made to assign sign language interpreters at press conferences conducted by TEPCO such that information regarding the nuclear disaster reaches all.

In spite of these efforts, several gaps were exposed that remain to be addressed. “Even with existing facilities , there are only a few evacuation centers where you can get information and communicate as a deaf person,” Imamura highlights. “Communicating in sign language and written conversation, writing and pasting information about relief supplies, etc. is needed to support the people. It is necessary to devise ways to obtain information visually,” she added.

Due to differences in available facilities, support for the hearing-impaired has seen stark differences during the 2011 disaster. While Iwate already had a facility for providing welfare services, Miyagi and Fukushima didn’t. During the Great Hanshin/Awaji Earthquake in 1995, the government released a list of names for the hearing-impaired at the request of JFD and others. However, that was denied during the 2011 disaster due to the ‘Act on the Protection of Personal Information’. Therefore, the overall damage due to the disaster on people with hearing impairment still remains unknown.

Forging a way ahead

For Imamura, the first step to address the challenges of people with various disabilities is to recognize that such people exist. “Nothing is born from ignorance,” she says. She also dislikes the word ‘disabled’ as its existence stems from the word ‘able’. Therefore for her, disability exists only in relation to people without disabilities. “It will be taking a step forward once we realize that. After that we can start to think how we can eliminate the obstacles,” she explains.

It is only this year that the government has finally decided to initiate a public service which will allow the hearing impaired to place calls anytime using online operators. While the Nippon Foundation has been providing a trial service of the same since 2013, it will be terminated this year. According to their data, around 28,000 calls are made monthly to help the people with scheduling appointments and rescheduling deliveries. However, a survey of 126 people using this service by Information Gap Buster in Yokohama in April 2020 revealed that 44% of the respondents had their call rejected as people on the other side refused to engage with an operator. 70% of the respondents also failed to confirm their identity while contacting banks and credit card service providers using an operator. Further, as of March 2019, only 3.4% of all financial institutions in Japan were equipped for such a public service according to the government’s Financial Services Agency.

“The only thing I want to say to the people of the world is just the way you have people who can hear, you have those who can’t,” says Imamura. She wants the world to experience the warmth, charm and richness of the community which often stands ignored. Although a quote attributed to Hellen Keller reads “Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people”, it rests upon both the society and the administration to ensure that none is cut off from any.

You can read more about ‘Silence on that day’ here and about Ayako Imamura here.