Following the massive earthquake that hit eastern Japan on March 11, many hearing-impaired people had no idea in what direction they should be heading to escape. Some only learned of impending tsunami after they reached higher ground, having been led by the hand by someone else. They often found themselves isolated at evacuation shelters, where they faced extra challenges in obtaining information. For such people, March 13 was a momentous day.
It was this day, two days after the quake and tsunami, that sign-language interpreters made their debut at press conferences held by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano at the Prime Minister's Office. It was an example of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government living up to the party's self-proclaimed identity as a party with "compassion toward the underdog."
Able-bodied viewers may have assumed that these interpreted press conferences have been well-received by those who need them, but that doesn't necessarily appear to be the case.
According to one survey, nearly 70 percent of hearing-impaired respondents said that either they "could not understand the press conferences at all," or that they "could only understand part of the press conferences" signed by interpreters.
Of the various reasons for these survey results, "distance" and "expression" are most striking. Because the interpreters are positioned some distance away from Edano during their appearances, their image on the television screen ends up being rather small. As a result, viewers cannot get a close look at the interpreters' facial expressions.
Because facial expressions and grammar are deeply intertwined in sign language, an interpreter's hand movements alone do not provide the viewer with enough information.
In spoken Japanese, too, facial expressions and tone of voice play an important role. For example, depending on where we choose to place an accent, the words "will not resign" can be either a statement or a question. In addition to voice and expressions, nuance can differ depending on the relationship between the speaker and the listener. In getting one's true intentions across, the emotions and trust that comprise the foundations of language are extremely important.
It was not long ago that after failing to bring opposition parties to the negotiation table concerning taxes and the social welfare reform, Prime Minister Naoto Kan incurred the wrath of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) President Sadakazu Tanigaki by asking him via phone to consider joining the Cabinet. Kan's lack of communication skills was also the cause of the recent no-confidence motion fiasco. The communication incompetence of Kan -- who at one time during his years as an opposition lawmaker was famous for being a powerful debater -- is serious.
Both Kan and Edano would do well to pay attention to "distance" and "expression." After all, those well-versed in sign language say that ultimately, they look for meaning not so much in the movement of one's fingers, but in the expressions.
("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)