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Japan's closed captions allow 'barrier-free' movie experience for everyone

A computer screen showing the production of closed captions for people with hearing disabilities is seen in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on March 9, 2022. The text is created by listening to the film's audio track, including dialogue, sound effects and music. (Mainichi/Kyoka Ogaki)

TOKYO -- In Japan, closed captions are called "barrier-free subtitles," and they're designed to make seeing a movie smooth and easy for deaf or hard-of-hearing viewers, describing in captions every audio detail from the dialogue to sound effects and the tone of the music.

    They also describe some events and characters on screen, and have features particular to Japanese closed captions to smooth reading names and terms in kanji characters, all to make the films easier for everyone to take in.

    The nonprofit organization Media Access Support Center (MASC) produces these closed captions, as well as audio guides for people with blindness or low vision. At the MASC office in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward, center secretary-general Koji Kawano, 58, was working on a computer. He has been doing subtitling for 30 years.

    Kawano stared at a scene unfolding on his screen, with a look that suggested he was determined not to miss a single sound. He then quickly typed in the characters' movements, such as "in the ticket gate," as well as lines like, "super fast." Using the movie script as a "reference only," he listens to the audio and transcribes it into text. He also avoids, as much as possible, summarizing lines as is done for foreign film subtitles. This is because some deaf and hard of hearing people want to catch every word.

    Kawano also tries to avoid expressions that are difficult to understand for people who have never actually heard the sound. For example, the sound of knocking on a door is labeled as "knocking on the door" instead of "ton-ton" (knock-knock).

    Other efforts include changing words originally written in kanji characters to katakana phonetic syllabary to make them easier to read, and adding the readings to the kanji names of characters appearing for the first time, so that everyone can grasp the story smoothly. All this means it takes about two weeks to closed caption one film.

    Kawano described closed captions for people with hearing disabilities as "something that can be used for everyone." It removes barriers for all viewers, so that for example viewers with small children can understand what's unfolding on screen by looking at the captions when their kids talking drowns out the audio.

    This photo shows augmented reality glasses that display closed captions that flow along with the story. (Mainichi/Kyoka Ogaki)

    He also aims to address the needs of Japan's aging population. These captions have the potential to become an important tool for ensuring people who become hard of hearing as they get older can keep enjoying movies.

    In addition, closed caption-capable augmented reality glasses, which display the captions on the lenses as the story goes along, are increasingly popular.

    Expectations are high for efforts to enable everyone to enjoy entertainment barrier-free.

    (Japanese original by Kyoka Ogaki, Live Content Department)

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