Amazed by the eloquent efficiency of the sign language he saw on TV as a fourteen-year-old, Junto Ohki never forgot about the beautiful language while he pursued another dream. Ohki began learning sign language in the learning group he founded in his first year at Keio University SFC, appeared in the major Japanese annual music show, Kohaku Uta Gassen, to sign for a famous singer, and created Japan’s first all-sign-language podcast, through which he made many Deaf and Hard of Hearing friends and learned about problems and difficulties they are facing in the current Japanese society. With a mission to solve these issues, he started ShuR Group, company specializing in sign language services such as remote interpretation, in November, 2008, at the age of 21. Ohki is currently working on creating SLinto, the world’s first crowd-sourced online dictionary for sign language, using the special sign language keyboard he patented in his freshman year.
It’s been four years since you founded ShuR. Has your goal changed in any way?
Junto Ohki (JO):
It’s becoming more and more clear each day. There are always more problems to solve, and I see them more vividly because I speak sign language much better now. I’d say my ultimate goal is still the same, though.
Simply put, I really hate unfairness. It’s not about egalitarianism. I know people are by no means equal. Things like which part of the world you’re born in, which gender you are, and what color of skin you have determine a lot about how your life will be, and there’s no point in complaining it’s not fair. If we could, we’d all choose to be born to a rich family, with a pretty face. We just can’t control those things. We’re born the way we are.
And I believe being Deaf is one of those things we can’t control. I don’t see it as a “handicap.” Some people can hear. Others can’t. That’s all. But because that’s not something we can change by hard work or determination, it should never be the reason for any unequal treatment in society. People are not equal, and that’s why opportunities should be.
What are some examples of inequalities the Deaf and Hard of Hearing are experiencing in the current Japanese society?
For example, up until 2001, which is very recent, the Pharmacists Act had a disqualification clause that prevented Deaf people from obtaining a pharmacist license even if they passed the test. A woman named Kumi Hayase became the first Deaf pharmacist in Japan. She had to petition for two years after passing the exam.
There are also many companies who will reject applicants based solely on their TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) scores even for positions that are supposedly for the handicapped. The test contains only two sections, reading and listening, and the highest score you can get is 990, 495 for each section. Now if you can’t hear, you can’t do the listening section, which means you’re always missing 50% of the score. Still, most companies require at least 700 on the TOEIC, and they’re extremely rigid about it. You might be an excellent writer of English, but if you’re deaf and missed the listening section on the TOEIC, they’ll never call you back for an interview.
I understand there are positions that absolutely require hearing, like telephone operators, but those are exceptions. When companies reject you based only on your test scores knowing the test itself puts you in disadvantage, that’s deliberate social exclusion. We may end up with different outcomes, but there’s something wrong with a society that won’t allow us to stand at the same start line. I heard so many stories like this when I started ShuR, and it was just really upsetting.
What’s your vision for the world in the next ten to twenty years?
I feel there’s so much distance between the Deaf and the hearing right now. I really want to narrow the gap, not only in Japan but all over the world. Social issues surrounding the Deaf are different in every country, but I believe each can use some assistance in changing the situation for the better. I hope to help the Deaf and the hearing everywhere learn more about each other through our service.
It’s very exciting to think the positive change started in Japan may spread to the world.
I’m definitely thinking about the world at large. It may not be a million-dollar market, but I want to make Japan known to the world as the best-and-only maker of sign-language keyboards. If you think about one country’s budget for purchasing sign-language keyboards, it’s probably only a tiny, tiny percentage of their total welfare budget, which may not be that much in the first place. But if you think of that tiny percentage coming from every country in the world, that actually would have a pretty big impact on our country’s economy.
Besides, I’d love to surprise other countries. Everyone in the Deaf community knows Japan is so behind when it comes to sign-language-related technology. It’s a strange thing, really, because we’ve always been one of the leading countries in technology. We’ve just been neglecting to seek ways to use our technology for social welfare. I’m a tech geek who happens to know a lot about sign language, so I want to combine those two to bring change to the world.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
View Ohki’s COUNTDOWN Challenge:
SLinto: The World’s First Crowd-Sourced Online Dictionary for Sign Language