Mitsuyoshi Yabe and Japanese Cued Speech

by Sarina Roffe gents standingWhen Mitsuyoshi came to me for tutoring several months ago, the idea that Cued Speech was in use in Japan floored me. For years, I have advocated on behalf of some global avenue for Cued Speech users from other countries to communicate with each other. In 2006, the NCSA brought together cuers from 12 countries, many of them European, during its 40th anniversary conference in Towson, MD, and since then I have learned of cuers in Brazil, Malaysia, the Dominican Republic, Poland, Norway and South Africa, to name a few.

When Cued Speech was first developed, Dr. R. Orin Cornett was approached or sought out by deaf educators from around the world. Cued Speech was adapted from its American form to 57 languages and major dialects. Some took off—as in France, Belgium and Switzerland—and others did not. We know of cuers on Native American reservations. The Cued Speech Association UK tells us of its use in many African countries, although we do not have information for them. Recently, Italian deaf educators contacted the NCSA to tell us of its use in their country. We know now that Cued Speech use around the world is alive and well, although we have no formal way of bringing together our efforts.

According to past NCSA President Barbara Caldwell, who worked directly with Dr. Cornett in the early phases of Cued Speech development, D. Robert Frisina took a trip to Japan in 1964 or 1965 and while he was there, he developed a phonemic communication system in Japanese. Educators there were using it before CS was invented. Cued Speech was brought to Japan in the late 1960s from America and was modified to fit and support visualization of spoken Japanese syllables. It was first used in a Japanese school for the deaf.

“In the Japanese educational system, it was believed that deaf pupils should be educated orally in their early age in order to encourage them to communicate more effectively and learn proper Japanese,” Mitsuyoshi said. As in many countries, Cued Speech was the supplement to oralism. “It was popularly used in most kindergartens in the 1980s through the 1990s, which was the peak period. However, its style was not united and was obviously different from each of the institutes for the deaf.”

Mitsuyoshi was raised using Japanese Cued Speech. According to him, more than a dozen deaf schools in Japan used Cued Speech, but they did not use the same system throughout the country.

He says “Most of the young students were required to learn cues and used them until they entered elementary school, but they would gradually forget them after junior high school when sign language was permitted.”

When Mitsuyoshi entered kindergarten, he spent 5-8 hours a day improving his oral skills. “When I was in school, it was easier to communicate with each other using Cued Speech in the same school, but the method was not communicable for outside the school. Cued Speech was very helpful to me when sign language was forbidden. My family learned it and still uses it now if I don’t understand what they are saying. It is definite that cues helped me to be articulate in Japanese and to deeply understand the language,” he said.

Japanese Cued Speech use is declining. It is believed that Cued Speech use significantly decreased in the early 2000s when sign language started being more widely accepted. There is no national Japanese association such as the National Cued Speech Association and only a limited number of institutes continue using it.

When I met Mitsuyoshi, it was after he had learned American cues from Jennifer Bien of the New York Cued Speech Center and had attended Cue Camp Friendship in Maryland. Mitsuyoshi, who lives in White Plains, NY, and is in a certificate program to pursue scientific illustration at the New York Botanical Gardens.

His experience in America is significant, having visited 22 states. Mitsuyoshi lived in Atlanta for 2 years while his father earned his Ph.D. there in agricultural economics. During that time, Mitsuyoshi attended Seigakuin Atlanta International School as the only deaf student. He later attended Gallaudet and later got his MFA from RIT where he studied medical illustration. Mitsuyoshi’s artistic talent comes from his parents, both artists. He knows sign language as well. Mitsuyoshi wanted experience using CS receptively and so he travels to our home in Brooklyn about twice a month. There we began by working on basic English phrases, eventually graduating to conversational Cued Speech. I learned to understand when he was confused – either by an expression or my Brooklyn accent.

Mitsuyoshi is an amazing artist, very skilled, and his motivation for learning Cued Speech and understanding our culture is impressive. His sister, Manko is also deaf. She got her BA at California State University at Northridge and attends grad school for social work at UCLA. During our time, we have had many conversations about Mitsuyoshi’s experience using Cued Speech in Japan.

“I was the only deaf student in my junior high student and they provided no deaf support. Still, I usually ranked around 15th out of 160 students. I have not talked with Japanese deaf people using Cued Speech for a decade. It is gradually declining. I recently met a student at Gallaudet University who attended the same kindergarten program that I did in Japan and he totally forgot the conventional cues and was really surprised that I was still using it.”

Mitsuyoshi wants to improve his understanding of American Cued Speech as well as conduct research on it. “I believe it is valuable to educate the world about using Cued Speech to deaf people to improve their own language skills. They would acquire perceptive ability to think in language formats in their minds.”

Mitsuyoshi has become a permanent fixture in the Roffé home. It took him a long time to accept our hospitality—to drink our water, eat our food and just feel at home here. We learn from each other.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *