On a bullet train speeding through the Japanese countryside, Sora Adachi and Uiko Yano pass a tablet back and forth to each other. They’re drawing portraits of each other and then laughing at how badly the portraits turned out. Laughter is part of the foundation of Uiko and Sora’s friendship, and it’s a huge part of their personalities too. They lovingly joke around, play with social media face filters on their phones, travel and embark on adventures, and share a mutual love of chai tea lattes.
But what connects Sora and Uiko is deeper than coffee or laughter — it’s their passion for God’s Word in Japanese Sign Language.
LOOK AROUND YOU
In a little house just outside of Tokyo, Uiko and Sora work together on the ViBi (which stands for “Visual Bible and Video Bible”) team, which is translating the Scriptures into Japanese Sign Language. Uiko serves as the project manager and Sora is an exegetical research assistant who also works as the team’s public relations staff member. There’s one noticeable difference between Sora and Uiko: Sora is hearing, and Uiko is Deaf.
Sora grew up in a household where she knew about God and went to church every Sunday, but it wasn’t until college that she made a decision to follow Jesus. Before joining the ViBi team, Sora only knew spoken Japanese and English.
“Because I’m a hearing person, I could not communicate in Japanese Sign Language when I first started working with [the team],” she recalls. “But they’re so patient in teaching me how to sign and how to communicate with them. … It’s a completely different world [compared] to the environment and culture in which I grew up. When I first started working here, I thought: ‘There’s not going to be any culture shock.’ But Deaf culture is totally different. In the Great Commission, Jesus says ‘go’ and make disciples. But going somewhere doesn’t mean going somewhere far. Actually within your country, within your community, within your city, there’s a whole new world going on. For me, as a Japanese hearing person, it was a Deaf community in Japan. I had no idea that there were so many Deaf people within my community, within my city.”
Watching Sora and Uiko interact, you’d never know that there’s a cultural barrier between them. They communicate with ease, alternating between teasing each other and having deep conversations about passages they’re trying to translate. Uiko will push her glasses up on her nose when they slip down because she’s passionately signing. Sora takes long swigs of her bottled tea and nods along, following Uiko’s hands. Both are incredibly intelligent, competent and fun women who have varied hobbies and interests. (When I asked Sora what her hobbies were, she said: “food” while Uiko mentioned that she enjoyed stand-up paddleboarding in the canals near Tokyo Tower.)
Years ago, they probably never would have been part of the same community. But now, they work together to translate Scripture for the Deaf of Japan.
THE RIGHT TO KNOW GOD
As I sit and listen on a warm September afternoon, Sora explains why it’s important that the Deaf have Scripture in their own language. She paints a mental picture, and asks me to imagine a world where I have no Bible, or just part of it. She points out that in this scenario, there would be no way for me to access God’s Word except by going to church every Sunday.
She asks me to think about what would happen if I went to a church where a pastor only preached from the book of Matthew. How would I know the story of creation? Or the heartbreaking, emotional beauty of the Psalms? She asks me to consider: What if the pastor taught, based on limited access to Scripture, that God says women should stay at home and only serve their husbands? What if he told me that women are better to be seen and not heard?
If I had no way, between Monday and Saturday, to study the full counsel of God’s Word and learn about Jesus on my own, all I’d know about God and his Word is what I’d see or hear on a Sunday.
Admittedly, I’d never really thought about that before. And I recall something Uiko had signed to me earlier in the day: “Everyone, no matter who you are, [has] the right to get to know ... the Word of God.”
SEEING THE BIBLE
Uiko Yano wasn’t a Christian when she began working on the Japanese Sign Language translation project. When she did encounter Christians, Uiko was told she needed to read the Japanese Bible to understand God. But because she’s Deaf, she wasn’t interested in learning more about Christianity — a religion she assumed was about rules.
On and off until 2009, however, Uiko worked with ViBi because she needed a job and enjoyed translation. She became a full-time staff member in 2009, and her first job was to work on the book of Matthew.
“Eventually I started translating the book of Matthew, and I started wondering, ‘Is this the Word of God?’ It was totally different from what I was told as a child. I was told that it was all about rules and obeying the rules,” Uiko signs. “Instead, it was all about what love is and what God has done for us. So I thought to myself, ‘Maybe what I've thought was true about God was actually wrong.’ I got to know God through translating the Bible. And that's how I got to understand why God is who he is, and became [a] Christian.”
Uiko is passionate about Scripture and its holistic impact on the Deaf in Japan. The Deaf community is small to begin with in the country, and the Christian population among the Deaf is even smaller. Her desire is that the Japanese Sign Language Bible will transform people’s hearts and also the way that they see their value in God’s eyes.
I’m moved as Uiko talks about how much of an injustice it is for Deaf to be told to learn to read Japanese to communicate with God:
“When we [Deaf people] read Japanese, no matter how hard we practice, we will never be able to get that connection between the texts and sounds because we simply cannot hear. When it comes to something that ‘speaks’ to our hearts, it would definitely be by seeing someone sign.”
“Just like in the States, [where] a lot of people speak and read [spoken] English and that's important for you, for us Deaf people, it is important and necessary for us to see the signs with our eyes,” she explains. “If we were to listen and read without signing, that would be difficult or impossible. In other words, it is the same as if you were told not to use English and use [your] hands to communicate instead. That would be difficult for you. That's why sign language is important for me.”
A FOUND FAMILY
The ViBi team meets every morning before work to study the Scriptures together. They carefully take their shoes off at the front door of their office — which is actually a small house — and put on slippers before walking through a narrow hallway into the kitchen, grabbing breakfast foods from the fridge or coffee from the pot on the counter.
There’s a winding, steep wooden staircase that leads to two rooms where most of the team has set up their offices. But downstairs, the team drags chairs and stools around a table into a room right off the kitchen: their conference room.
I sit on the stairs and watch the translation team discuss James 4 in Japanese Sign Language, knowing that without Sora interpreting for me, I wouldn’t understand what was being said. But I’m fascinated by their passionate conversation. I learned later on that they were discussing what James said about judging others, and the lines between judging people and correcting them. As the dialogue unfolds, I think about my own team at Wycliffe USA; we have similar group discussions as we analyze Scripture during our devotional times.
Watching their interactions, getting to know each team member individually, and watching them function as a translation team, the idea of “found family” forms in my mind — a group of people knit together by circumstances, experiences and interests though not by blood.
A PART OF THE FAMILY
Rie Yagi moved to Tokyo without her family members to become part of the ViBi team as a video editor. She is a gentle, meek young woman and admitted that it was hard for her to learn how to do things on her own and be away from the people she cares about.
But the Deaf Christian community has been a second family for her: “Because I live on my own, I have to do everything [on my own]. And that's been challenging for me,” she signed. “And because I don't have many friends in Tokyo yet, I don't have anyone to talk to. That's why I go to church where there are Deaf people, and I talk with them in Japanese Sign Language.”
Being part of the Japanese Sign Language team isn’t just a job to Rie: it’s about being part of a community.
At my team’s first dinner in Japan with the ViBi team, Toshie Otsubo sits to the right of me and watches for a few minutes as I struggle with my chopsticks. With the kindness and gentleness that I’d soon learn Toshie is known for, she repositions my hands on the chopsticks and shows me how to hold my fingers correctly. She points to her own hands a few times to indicate the correct way, and when I finally manage to pick up a gyoza (dumpling), she claps her hands with excitement.
A few moments later when I forget how to hold them properly again, she gently assists me without judgment. This is exemplary of who Toshie is; the ViBi team laughs goodnaturedly when she organizes everyone’s shoes at the front door or takes dishes from everyone at lunch to clean, but they value how much she loves and serves them. Sora told me one afternoon that she’s essentially the team’s grandmother — someone who takes care of them and makes sure they have everything they need. I’ll never forget the tears in her eyes and mine as she clasped both of my hands in hers before I left Tokyo.
Toshie is always thinking about others before herself. Even though she’s the oldest member of the team, she constantly approaches conversations from a posture of learning. “It’s an opportunity for me to learn … reflecting on myself and trying to make changes within myself. It’s truly a joyful time in [Christ],” she signs.
“Koichi Hori is one of only three Deaf exegetical consultants in the world,” Sora tells me one afternoon. I don’t think he’d ever boast about that fact or think it was important; Hori (as he goes by among the team) is one of the most naturally kind people I’ve ever met. He’s always smiling or laughing. Watching him work is fascinating because even though he maintains his good natured attitude, he’s incredibly focused.
Hori echoes Rie’s sentiment: the ViBi team is his family. Hori grew up Deaf in a hearing family, similar to many of the ViBi team members. Even with family and other contexts that you’d expect to be inclusive, he and others would feel isolated and be encouraged to speak rather than sign. “Even at the Deaf school, I was forced to speak rather than sign,” Hori signs.
Hori’s parents divorced when he was young which left him feeling lonely. Later on in life, Hori met a missionary who shared the Good News of Jesus. The missionary became like a spiritual mentor and father to Hori, teaching him about Scripture. The ViBi team has become like Hori’s second family. And one of his absolute favorite things about working with the team is celebrating birthdays.
When Hori mentions birthdays, my curiosity piques. I love celebrating birthdays with my Wycliffe USA team, but I wondered why it was a big enough deal for him to mention. Hori explained that in Japanese culture it’s not customary to celebrate your birthday with coworkers; you celebrate your birthday with family members.
“We [ViBi's staff] celebrate each others' birthdays and we joke around with each other [as if we were a real family],” Hori signs. He smiles and continues: “Ephesians 3 talks about how our Heavenly Father gives the love of Christ abundantly to both our earthly family and our church family. That really encourages me.”
The ViBi team is knit together by something greater than their backgrounds, experiences or even their language. They’re a family anchored in the truth; their roots are deep in Christ. “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:17b‑18, NIV).
“I’m really honored to be a part of this project and a part of this family,” Sora says with a smile. “Because we are just like family.”