Photo/IllutrationAn interpreting operator is on standby at a telephone relay service center in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. His duty is to use sign language or written text to communicate with a caller, whose image will appear on the screen. (Yuko Kawasaki)

When three hikers became stranded on Mount Oku-Hotakadake in October amid the snow and strong winds, they had to call for rescue.

However, since all three were hearing impaired, their situation was particularly dire.

But one of the men in the party used his smartphone to call the Tokyo-based Nippon Foundation phone relay service, although it is not supposed to handle emergency calls.

“I am calling from the vicinity of Mount Oku-Hotakadake, and I need a helicopter,” the caller was quoted as saying.

Itaru Toyama, an interpreting operator, took the man’s call at an operation center of the relay service. He read what the man was saying in sign language in the video images, which were available only intermittently because of poor radio-wave transmitting conditions.

A steep slope covered by snow was seen surrounding the caller. Toyama decided the caller was in imminent danger, so he contacted the Nagano prefectural police. He continued communicating with the caller to identify his location, and he relayed the information to police officials.

The phone relay service is available for allowing hearing-impaired people to communicate with their friends, shop officials, hospital workers or other interlocutors via sign-language interpreters or other intermediaries.

In recent years, workers for the service have received a succession of calls for rescue, along with a growing number of other calls that they are not supposed to receive.

In the backdrop is the near-unavailability of services in Japan for receiving calls from the hearing impaired. The government has taken upon itself to address the issue.

In the rescue call from atop snowy Mount Oku-Hotakadake, the party of three, comprising two men and a woman in their 50s, was stranded last October on the peak, which straddles Gifu and Nagano prefectures. The elevation there was more than 3,000 meters, with a temperature of around 20 degrees below zero. There was snow on the ground, with strong winds raging.

Only about an hour to go before reaching a mountain hut, the woman in the party fell ill and immobile.

So, they had no choice but to call the Nippon Foundation phone relay service.

“I thought my call would certainly be answered there,” the man later said.

He also had the option of calling an acquaintance who can use sign language, but he was worried the person might not answer his call because of work or other circumstances.

The relay service is primarily supposed to help its users communicate with their friends and with workers at facilities they wish to use, such as hotels, shops or hospitals. It is not supposed to handle emergency calls, partly because of the risk of mistranslation and, partly, because the service is not provided around the clock.

But in this case, it provided a vital lifeline.

A helicopter rescued the trio the next morning, but the woman in the party died in the bitter cold. The caller regretted they had not been better outfitted for the inclement weather, but he said, “All three of us could have died had it not been for the service.”

Workers for the service have received, since 2017, a number of calls for help, including from those in an overturned boat and others stranded in the mountains.

According to Toyama, other callers have complained, for example, that they are trapped in an elevator, that cash is not coming out of an automated teller machine, and that a parking flap lock is not going down despite payment done at an automated pay station.

“We cannot, as a matter of fact, turn down emergency calls or requests for help,” Toyama said. “Rejection would only make us feel remorseful, and before everything else, that would only disappoint and vex our users.”


Hearing-impaired people have only the Nippon Foundation relay service to turn to in making emergency calls because few other similar support systems are available in Japan.

The Fire and Disaster Management Agency is offering a “Net 119” emergency call system, which allows hearing- and speech-impaired individuals to make calls via a smartphone around the clock. Only 142 of the 728 fire defense headquarters around Japan, however, had introduced the system as of June last year.

The system had yet to be introduced in Nagano and Gifu prefectures, where the mountain-climbing mishap occurred.

Nippon Foundation officials said relay services have been developed by the governments of six countries in the Group of Seven, except Japan, wherein the expenses are covered primarily by the governments or by telephone companies. Similar mechanisms are also being offered as public services in 19 other nations.

Many of those systems are available 24/7 year-round, and many accept emergency calls, the officials added.

Tokyo has set about addressing the issue.

During an Upper House Budget Committee session last November, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he wants to make sure that a relay service will be seen as part of “public infrastructure” and be expanded.

The communications ministry on Jan. 24 began having the issue studied by a panel of experts and a hearing-impaired individual. The panel is expected to discuss a number of subjects, including around-the-clock services and response to emergency calls, in the months to come.

“The government should institutionalize a relay service so there will be a mechanism for receiving emergency calls,” a Nippon Foundation official said.


The currently available telephone relay service has been test-operated by the Nippon Foundation since fiscal 2013 as a model project. Advance registration on the foundation’s project website allows users to communicate in real time with their interlocutors via operators who interpret sign language or written text.

The service, which has about 8,800 registrants across Japan, receives about 900 calls a day.

The foundation covers about 270 million yen ($2.5 million) annually in expenses for system development, consignment of interpreting operations and other purposes. The government provides about 90 million yen annually in subsidies to interpreting operators that carry out their duties at seven centers across Japan.

The cost of communications have to be covered by the users, in principle, although that may depend on the communications environment.