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Surfing the Silent Waves, Saga of a Deaf Filmmaker

By Tomoko Otake, The Japan Times, 2/19/2012

As a young documentary filmmaker, Ayako Imamura had been wrestling with feelings of emptiness. Deaf since birth, the 32-year-old Nagoya native has shot about 30 short films documenting the lives of deaf people in Japan since 2000. But at one point in her career, she realized that her creative energy had come from her anger at — and the frustration with — the lack of social support for the deaf. And while she aspired to be a bridge between the deaf and hearing communities, she felt that she herself had put up a barrier between her and those who didn't use sign language.

Then she met Tatsuro Ota.

Ota is a 49-year-old surf and Hawaiian goods shop owner in Kosai, Shizuoka Prefecture, a scenic city flanked by the Pacific Ocean to the south and Lake Hamanako to the east. Visiting him three years ago, Imamura was surprised by the lack of even the slightest bit of reservation the deaf shop owner had in his communication with customers and friends, many of who were not deaf and didn't know sign language. She was even shocked to find that people regarded him simply as a Hawaiian-looking surf shop operator, and not as a hearing impaired man.

Imamura followed him around for two years, looking for answers to her question: "How can you have so much fun communicating with people who can hear?"

Her heart-warming and moving account of the man sporting an Aloha shirt and a broad smile is the subject of her first feature-length film, "Kohi to Enpitsu" ("Coffee and A Pencil"), scheduled to be shown in Tokyo next month. The movie, which features Japanese subtitles handwritten by Imamura and also narrated by her, is now being translated into English to be submitted to film festivals overseas, according to producer Mami Akutsu.

The title of the 67-minute documentary film comes from the tools that Ota uses to break the ice with customers. Ota — who, on top of being a surf shop owner, is a surfboard builder/repairer and a competitive surfer — came up with the idea of offering a cup of coffee to everyone visiting his shop, after seeing first-time shoppers leave the store the moment they found out that its owner is deaf. So the standard procedure for him when a customer walks in is to pour fresh Kona coffee into a paper cup and place it on the counter, then point to a sign that says: "I have hearing difficulties. Please use memos."

In one scene from in the movie, Imamura captures an amazing relationship that develops between him and a family who visits the store for the first time. Initially, the visitors appear uncomfortable, apparently because they didn't know until entering the shop that its owner couldn't hear. As they nervously divert their eyes away from him and look vacantly at the various cute Hawaiian goods lining the shelves, Ota looks on. And then he takes out a paper board and starts scribbling something down with a pencil.

Next, by pointing to a bunch of trophies displayed on a shelf behind the counter, he tells them with a smile that he won all the trophies himself in surfing competitions over the years. The mother and teenage-looking boy get curious, and follow up on the conversation by writing stuff down.

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