Music, as the saying goes, is a universal language. But while songs can cross borders, they’re still mostly inaccessible to one group — the deaf and hard of hearing. Knowing this, sign language artist Saori Fujimoto is now using sign language to bring K-pop hits to more people.
As a sign language artist, she posts videos that are part interpretation, part choreographed performance. Fujimoto was born and raised in Japan and had little interest in K-pop and Korea until she visited the country during a short-term cultural program in high school. That was when classmates introduced her to K-pop idols and she became a fan of acts like the group TVXQ.
Now, she works as both a sign language interpreter and entertainer in South Korea, a combination of her longtime and newfound dreams. She hopes to touch others by conveying the meanings and emotions of songs with a positive message and, naturally, started with the biggest boy band in the world, BTS. VICE spoke with her in Seoul to talk about her journey.
VICE: What does a sign language artist do?
Saori Fujimoto: A sign language artist interprets music with an important message through sign language. It’s someone who touches people’s hearts and gives others comfort. It’s a little different from sign language interpreters, who usually translate vocal language into sign language — a sign language interpreter focuses on delivering information, while a sign language artist moves people with content.
What do you do as a sign language artist?
YouTube videos are mostly for those who can hear; or there are videos only for deaf people, without any audio. There was a lack of content that everyone can enjoy together. Based on Korean Sign Language, I create a totally new performance.
My videos are not just sign language interpretations of songs for deaf people, nor are they only dance covers. What I do is express emotions and rhythm through choreography and sign language, which people can appreciate regardless of their hearing ability.
I think the reason why BTS is beloved by fans all over the world is because there’s a deeper meaning in their songs. They’re meant to move and empower people. BTS’ albums are popular around the world, with fans listening to the songs and analyzing music videos. That’s why I started interpreting their songs and posting my performances on YouTube.
Why did you choose the BTS song “ON” for your first YouTube video?
The lyrics from “ON,” like the line “Even if I fall, I come right up, scream,” touched me. It’s a song about not giving up and trying again even amidst pain and hardships. I could relate to the lyrics and also felt that the song was like my personal story. “ON” is a song with a fast tempo, so it was difficult to accurately deliver the meaning of all the lyrics in sign language, but people who are hard of hearing said the video is interesting and new.
What was the reaction like to your videos?
I was careful in interpreting BTS’ songs and, unexpectedly, BTS fans, known as ARMY, thanked me for my work. “This is beautiful. I have a brother who is deaf and mute so this is very close to home. Thank you,” one fan commented on YouTube. That was memorable. On Twitter, some stories about my videos were shared with the hashtag #deafarmy.
I’m particular about my facial expressions in videos. If you look at the “ON” video that I made, you’ll see that my face is very serious. In the “Dynamite” video, I dance with a bright and happy look on my face. One fan in Japan sent me a message saying that she doesn’t know Korean but gets a feel for the song’s vibe through watching my facial expressions while dancing.
Do you do your own choreography?
I create my own choreography using sign language. The choreography contains the meaning of the lyrics, but rather than just translating it, I make a new performance by interpreting the music as I feel and add emotions to my moves. Sign language has different meanings depending on not only facial expressions, but also palm and body orientation. For example, if you mention “mother” in sign language and keep your body turned to the right, it means the subject is still a mother, without having to mention “mother” again. Moreover, depending on which side you look at, the meaning changes.
What made you interested in Korean Sign Language?
I was a promoter for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and Paralympics. I participated in the torch relay, interviewed the athletes, and wrote an article in Japanese. At the time, I was very impressed by the players who challenged their limits. Being in the Paralympics, I saw people translating for the athletes in sign language on the spot. I realized that I wanted to communicate with more people by learning sign language in Korea. I was also just interested in learning a new language and fell in love with studying it.
I heard that you’re the first non-Korean to pass the written test for Korean Sign Language. How did you do this?
I studied 12 hours a day for one to two months before the exam. I realized for the first time that I could study this hard. I took classes at the Seoul Sign Language Institute for several months. To pass the test, I had to study theoretical subjects such as “Welfare for People with Disabilities,” “Understanding Hearing Impairment,” and one for the Korean language.
I took the first written test in July 2019 but failed by one question — you can only take the test once a year. I kept studying but the library I used to go to closed because of the pandemic, so I even bought my own study desk. I received offers asking me to appear on TV shows but I turned them down because studying sign language was my priority.
What was your childhood dream?
I liked dancing and wanted to be an entertainer when I was young but my parents were strict and opposed it. So I joined the entertainment industry as an employee.
I worked in the Japanese branch of a Korean entertainment agency and was once a part of an advertising company too. While working at the entertainment company, I was very interested in what the artists were doing. They were mostly my age and were just like me, so I thought I too could do something that would move others and make them happy. Supporting artists was meaningful work but the desire to perform myself remained. I wasn’t young anymore when I started my YouTube videos but I wanted to finally pursue my dream.
What’s the hardest thing about being a sign language artist?
It’s hard to convey the meaning of the lyrics precisely through dance moves and sign language. The Korean Sign Language that people use in their daily lives has a different word order and grammar compared to spoken Korean, so it’s not exactly a direct translation. I try to make choreography that is easily understandable for deaf people.
What else do you want to do in the future?
I want to make content that people all over the world can enjoy, beyond the limits of language. My goal is to make everyone feel the emotions and meaning of a song while watching my videos. I hope that many people see my performances, have fun, and find comfort and happiness. I know this sounds ambitious but I want to be a cultural diplomat who spreads Korean Sign Language around the world.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This article originally appeared on VICE Korea.
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