More international sign language interpreters needed for Tokyo Deaflympics in 2025

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Takeshi Sunada, left, director of the Japan International Sign Language Interpreters & Guides Association, speaks at a meeting in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Dec. 11.

Preparations are getting into full swing for the 2025 Deaflympics, an international sporting event for hearing-impaired athletes to be held in Tokyo. However, much remains to be done, including the training of interpreters for international sign language, which is the official language of the event.

This will be the first time for the Deaflympics to take place in Japan. According to the Japanese Federation of the Deaf, 5,000 to 6,000 athletes will compete in about 20 sports at Komazawa Olympic Park and 14 other venues in Tokyo, Shizuoka and Fukushima prefectures on Nov. 15-26, 2025. The athletes will come from 70 to 80 countries and regions.

The Summer Deaflympics started in 1924 and the winter Deaflympics in 1949. They are held every four years, operated by the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf.

“It’s good news that the Deaflympics will be held in Tokyo. But there aren’t enough interpreters for international sign language,” Takeshi Sunada, the representative director of the Japan International Sign Language Interpreters & Guides Association, said in sign language at an explanatory meeting in Tokyo on Dec. 11.

Like spoken languages, sign language differs from country to country and from region to region. International sign language, whose development and use has been promoted by the Finland-based World Federation of the Deaf and other organizations, is viewed as a common language at international conferences for the hearing-impaired and sports events, including the Deaflympics.

In Japanese sign language, arigato (thank you) is expressed by a gesture similar to the chopping motion a sumo wrestler makes when accepting prize money in the ring. But in international sign language, “thank you” is expressed by a movement similar to throwing a kiss.

It is said to be difficult sometimes to communicate at international events without knowing international sign language.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Only 10 interpreters in Japan

As of Dec. 1, there were 3,932 registered sign language interpreters in Japan who can use Japanese sign language. They are officially certified by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

However, according to the Japanese Federation of the Deaf, which was in charge of the bid for the Deaflympics, only a few people can use international sign language, which is rarely used in daily life in Japan. International sign language is only taught in Japan in classes offered by the federation and related organizations.

There is no system to certify international sign language interpreters in Japan, and it is not known how many people in the country have mastered it. According to the federation, there are only about 10 people whom it can ask to work at the Deaflympics as international sign language interpreters.

In May, 2,412 people from 73 countries and regions participated in the Deaflympics in Brazil, where international and Brazilian sign language was mainly used. The federation hopes to have international sign language interpreters at all competition venues during the Tokyo event, and estimates that at least 30 such interpreters will be necessary.

Even after learning sign language, it can reportedly take several years to be able to work as an interpreter. Federation director Naoki Kurano stressed, “Developing sign language interpreters is an urgent issue.”

Creating a legacy

It is also essential to expand other means of communication besides sign language.

Kumi Hayase, 47, the silver medalist in women’s cross-country mountain biking at the Brazilian event, said information should also be disseminated through text and illustrations, including signs written in English and pictograms, which are understood by relatively many people.

Because there are hearing-impaired people who cannot use sign language, many athletes prefer to communicate in writing, Hayase said.

Accommodation facilities must also take relevant measures, as there will be no athletes village at the Deaflympics.

The Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward installed tablets for written communication and room lights that flash in case of fire or other emergencies, among other measures, after becoming the venue for the World Congress of Rehabilitation International in 1988. The hotel said it will consider staff training and other steps to further improve its service.

The Tokyo metropolitan government plans to train interpreters in international sign language and to support the development of systems that convert speech into text or have avatars change speech into sign language.

“We want to promote understanding of the hearing-impaired and make the Deaflympics an event with a legacy of measures for barrier-free communication,” a metropolitan government official said.

Better name recognition

To make the Tokyo Deaflympics a success, the event’s name recognition must be heightened. In a 2021 survey conducted by the Tokyo-based Nippon Foundation Parasports Support Center, only 16.3% of respondents were aware of the Deaflympics, while 97.9% said they knew about the Paralympics.

Since September, when it was decided that Tokyo would host the event, the metropolitan government has been promoting the Deaflympics by setting up special booths at sporting events and other means.

At a meeting of the House of Councillors Cabinet Committee in early November, Masanobu Ogura, state minister in charge of measures for the low birthrate, emphasized that the government “will make sure to publicize the event since the Deaflympics is still not known very much.”

Ogura, who is in charge of promoting an inclusive society, also expressed his intention to consider introducing a host town program at the Deaflympics. Under this kind of program, municipalities hosted overseas athletes for training camps before the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.