By Anders Kofoed Pedersen*
In a suburb of Tokyo, hidden away in a tiny office full of computer and video screens, Uiko Yano sits with four co-workers watching, editing and re-watching videos of Scripture signed in Japanese Sign Language (JSL). This is the Video Bible (ViBi) team, and they are working on the first ever visual Japanese Sign Language Bible. Uiko has become a critical member of this team. Her journey to get here is something only God could have orchestrated.
Deaf but not different
Uiko grew up in a traditional Buddhist environment on a small island off the western coast of Japan. She was born Deaf just like her parents, her grandparents, her uncles and aunts (except one) and her four siblings. Of the 300 people on the island, 30 were Deaf, and about half of the island’s population knew how to communicate in JSL.
Her first language is Japanese Sign Language. Since so many of the people on the island knew how to communicate in JSL, she didn’t think much about what hearing people thought of her. On the island there were plenty of people just like her, so she never saw herself as different.
Spending so much time with Deaf people in all age groups, Uiko learned the different signs used by older and younger people. This turned out to be a great help when she started working with ViBi many years later.
Coercion did not bring change
At the age of six Uiko entered a Deaf boarding school with her siblings. She was there for 13 years, returning home only during holidays. At school Uiko heard about Christianity for the first time. A group of older girls made the younger girls participate in nightly prayer meetings during their only hour of free time.
“If we didn’t attend they would be mad at us, and there was especially one girl who was quite bossy. I felt liberated when she graduated four years before me! At least I had a few years where I didn’t have to go to the meetings. Surprisingly enough, all this didn’t make me a Christian,” Uiko says with a grin.
Uiko struggled to understand the messages at Christian meetings. The speakers used signs for Christian terminology that she didn’t understand, and no one seemed to be interested in explaining them to her.
The journey to Christ
Uiko didn’t think much more about Christianity until, in her early twenties, she met people engaged in the Video Bible project, including Mark Penner, an American translation consultant who grew up in Japan and has been involved with the Deaf community since his early twenties.
Mark asked Uiko if she would be interested in temporary translation work with ViBi. She needed work and liked translating, so she said yes.
“I worked on the first draft of the Book of Esther, and started to like what I read,” Uiko remembers. “I thought it was nice. I wanted to go to church and tried to visit a few, but didn’t find one that appealed to me.”
ViBi had limited funding and couldn’t yet keep Uiko employed. For six years, Uiko’s connection with ViBi was sporadic, but in 2009 she was asked to become full-time staff.
“We wanted her because she is an absolutely phenomenal translator!” Mark says. “The amount of information and detail she can keep in her head while signing is stunning, and this is so important when you want the flow captured on video.”
Uiko’s first job was to complete a full draft of Matthew’s Gospel. It was time for her to unpack the ‘Christian terminology’ she’d encountered long ago in boarding school. God had plans for her in this in-depth encounter with His Word. While working on the translation and talking with ViBi colleagues, Uiko met Jesus.
Spreading the word…
“It wasn’t one particular passage, but through translating the whole of Matthew I heard God was calling me,” Uiko says.
Mark Penner witnessed this part of her journey toward faith in Jesus.
“I have known her for quite some time now,” shares Mark. ”It’s been an amazing journey to see how she’s opened up to Christ.”
According to Mark, the newness of Uiko’s faith in Jesus has helped her to engage Deaf people in Japan in meaningful conversations about God.
“She [can see] what Deaf people are interested in…” says Mark. “When she talks about Christianity, people get interested—and if they are not, she doesn’t try to force it. People are interested in her new life as a Christian, and she just tells them what she knows…I’m sure she would be a great theologian. She’s not only interested in the Word, she cares about other people.”
Besides what she does for ViBi Uiko desires to meet with people in the Deaf community in smaller groups to help them understand what the Bible says, especially older people.
“A lot of [older people] can’t read or write,” she explains. “I grew up with my Deaf grandparents on the Island and know their signs. A lot of young people don’t know how to speak their signs, but I do. It’s a gift, and I want to use it!”
To every Deaf community
No complete Bible exists yet in any of the hundreds of sign languages used across the globe.
“It is so important for Deaf people to have the Bible in their own language,” explains Uiko. “A lot of Deaf people can read, but it is very difficult for them because it’s not their first language and they would only understand a portion. With the Video Bible in Japanese Sign we can help them to understand so much more.”
So far, Uiko and the team at ViBi have translated 13 books of the Bible into JSL. The ViBi team shares its experience and expertise with other translators across Asia and across the world. They hope that every Deaf community and every Deaf individual will, like Uiko, have the chance to see Jesus speak their own language.
From before the world began
Most recently, Uiko has been translating the book of John. She says it’s been her favorite work so far.
“I’ve just translated the first four verses, where John speaks about how the Word became flesh. It’s beyond imagination to understand that the Word was, even before the world existed. Before working on the translation I couldn’t grasp these verses. Now I see the poetry in them and it gives great meaning,” Uiko says.
For Uiko, every day at the office is about treasuring and translating the Word that was in the beginning. From before the world began, God planned to call her and use her to call Deaf men, women and children to Himself—in their own sign language.
Photos by Marc Ewell.
This story was written for the Wycliffe News Network.
*Anders Kofoed Pedersen is a freelance journalist and motivational speaker in Denmark.