Photo/Illutration Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike speaks at a news conference on April 10 in the capital’s Shinjuku Ward with a sign language interpreter in attendance. (Shiro Nishihata)

Rie Tahara finds it impossible to ascertain what others are saying when she is out shopping during the coronavirus outbreak, because everyone is wearing face masks.

So, Tahara, 38, who is deaf and communicates with others based on sign language and mouth motions, started entering text messages she wants to say on her smartphone beforehand.

In this fashion, she can make people aware that she cannot understand them with masks on their faces and that she wants them to communicate in writing.

“I am concerned that masks make it difficult for me to figure out not only others’ words but also their expressions and feelings,” said Tahara, who works for a corporation in Kyoto. “I will put my full effort into achieving comfortable mutual communications.”

While masks are giving people a sense of security during the new coronavirus pandemic, they are making daily life difficult for the hearing-impaired such as Tahara and sign language interpreters.

As hearing-impaired individuals and their interpreters express and comprehend meanings through facial expressions as well as movements of the hands and mouth, masks covering most of the face make communication difficult.

Those using sign language are, therefore, struggling to share what they think with others smoothly, since citizens are effectively forced to wear masks in public places in Japan due to the virus spread.

On such occasions as when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency or when Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike called on citizens to stay home, sign language interpreters with no masks on their faces were put in the spotlight.

They attend those sessions to help individuals with auditory problems understood the authorities’ announcements.

In sign language, facial expressions and mouth motions are as important as hand movements from the perspective of grammar, such as numbers and proper nouns shown via how the mouth moves and whether a sentence is affirmative or negative determined with chin motions.

For that reason, it is considered a basic rule for those learning sign language and communications with hearing-impaired people not to cover the mouth with a mask or by other means.

Kohei Ehara, who is responsible for clerical work at the Tokyo Shuwatsuyakuto Haken Center (Tokyo sign language interpreter dispatch center), explained why interpreters do not wear masks, particularly at news conferences.

“Attendees speak in a unilateral way at news conferences and those watching them cannot ask speakers to repeat themselves,” said Ehara. “Masks could make it difficult to precisely share what is spoken just in one round of interpretation.”

Ehara, meanwhile, noted that the center’s interpreters make maximum efforts to prevent spreading the infection, such as wearing masks immediately before the beginning of conferences.

A 52-year-old sign language interpreter in Saitama Prefecture, outside Tokyo, is torn about how to ensure safety, because she often interprets the words of doctors and others at medical centers, and some of her clients are elderly individuals.

“Removing a mask and interpreting quickly and accurately have a significance, but it is also important that I do not transmit the virus,” she said.

Acting on the thought that “not taking off a mask will save the lives of both me and my patrons for now,” the woman currently conducts her business with the facial gear. When her clients cannot understand her, she keeps a distance from them to interpret without a mask.

The sign language interpreter also said she now offers much more careful explanation to her customers to ease their anxiety.

The Japanese Federation of the Deaf, based in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, is calling for those in touch with hearing disorder patients to provide supplementary information by writing or using speech recognition smartphone apps.

“We will take countermeasures so a situation will not arise where deaf individuals cannot obtain necessary information,” said a federation representative.


Hidekazu Muramatsu, 67, president of software maker NetMelon Inc. in Hamamatsu, thought a transparent mask would help sign language interpreters by making their mouths visible, and developed the see-through gear around 10 years ago.

As production of the unique wear has been suspended, Muramatsu is “looking for companies that will manufacture it.”

Muramatsu decided to “create a transparent mask” when hearing a complaint from an acquaintance who had been hospitalized that, “I could not instantly recognize a nurse who took care of me when I was spoken to on a street because the nurse always wore a mask at the hospital.”

Using a material for the liquid crystal of TVs, Muramatsu finished a film whose inside does not fog up. The 0.1-millimeter-thick curved film can cover from the nose to mouth and be reused if washed and sterilized.

The mask also comprises a nonwoven fabric between the film and chin, allowing its user to take in air.

The completed product, marketed in 2012, was named after the notion “look at me.” About 15,000 masks were produced with a package of 10 pieces put on sale for 2,100 yen ($19.50).

Although 10,000 of them were purchased mainly by hearing-impaired people and sign language interpreters, the gear did not prove significantly popular apparently due to the small size of the market, resulting in suspended production.

Following the virus outbreak, inquiries have been pouring in about the product from interpreter organizations and other groups. At the request of the Japanese Federation of the Deaf, Muramatsu said he decided to donate 100 pieces in stock.

Still, there are no prospects for the resumption of production, because while Muramatsu is seeking manufacturers to make the mask, it is difficult for most of them, which have manufacturing facilities outside Japan, to produce it at the time of the global virus pandemic.

“There must be a need for the mask given that it will help not only sign language interpreters but also children to read facial expressions of school and nursery staffers,” said Muramatsu. “I definitely want to restart its mass production.”

(This article was written by Hiroko Saito and Midori Iki.)