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The First Sign Language Starbucks Café in Japan

At the heart of Starbucks are people. Yes, some of our readers might be raising an eyebrow, questioning, “Wait, but Starbucks is all about coffee, right?” While Starbucks indeed is a coffee company, there is something else at the core of the company: the people – both the customers and employees of Starbucks. The human connection among the people built around coffee provides the foundation for creating a solid community, and this is the powerhouse of Starbucks. This community spirit and personal connection act as the engine that keeps on pushing Starbucks to the forefront of the industry and is also the secret behind its unbeatable success in the market for decades. Two great examples of this are Starbucks Japan Regional Landmark Stores and Starbucks Japan JIMOTO Frappuccino (Regional exclusive Frappuccino flavors), which we have discussed in more detail in two previous articles.

The First Sign Language Starbucks Café in Japan

In this series of three articles, we have deep-dived into different endeavors and projects taken by Starbucks Japan to create the perfect 'third space' where people can connect and experience the community spirit. Today’s article - which is the third in the series-zooms in on a truly remarkable and unique Starbucks store in Japan.

On June 27th, 2020, Starbucks Japan took a milestone step in its commitment to inclusion and diversity when it opened its first Signing Store in Japan. Wondering what a Signing Store is? It is a Starbucks store where the primary medium of communication is Sign language.

sign language

Although the main method of communication between the customers and the staff is Sign language, anyone, regardless of their hearing abilities, can enjoy this store as a space where they can be their authentic selves and feel entirely at home. The staff working at this store consists of deaf, hard of hearing, and normal hearing partners (employees), and all customers are welcome whether they know sign language or not. Although this is the fifth Signing store for Starbucks globally, it is the first to open in Japan. This store has already created better opportunities for 19 new and existing deaf and hard of hearing partners upon its opening. From its background story to its unique operational system, everything about this store deserves to be told as it can truly light a fire of inspiration that anything is possible.

The Concept behind the store – a story of passion, inspiration, and inclusion

Although this store opened in 2020, the story behind this store goes way back. Since it opened its first café in Japan in 1996, Starbuck Japan has been employing partners with disabilities and challenges. Currently, more than 350 partners with disabilities such as hearing impairment are a part of the Starbucks family, significantly contributing to Starbucks' success as a diverse and inclusive community. Since 2002, Starbucks Japan has provided various support, coaching, training programs, seminars, tools, flexibility in work schedules, etc., to help the partners develop their careers. Starbucks Japan took a remarkable step in 2018 when it committed itself to the "No Filter" viewpoint toward inclusion and diversity, where each individual is embraced without any assumption or bias. Initiatives are taken to break down the barriers that might have existed in the workplace so that every person can be their true selves at work and feel at home.


As part of this initiative, Starbucks Japan has been holding a meeting with all the deaf and hard of hearing partners express their ideas and opinions freely every year. At one of these meetings, when the deaf partners were asked what would be the thing they wanted to do in the future as a part of the Starbucks community, the overwhelming majority of them answered the same thing - they wanted to open a store of their own (a store run by deaf partners). This lead to pilot sessions where deaf partners run various Starbucks Japan stores for a few hours. These trial sessions seven times since 2018 were highly successful; the partners were exuberant and were ready to do this in an actual signing store. When the CEO of Starbucks Japan, Takafumi Minaguchi, asked the partners about what made the experience so special for them, they answered that it was the first time that they could speak in their first language the whole day at work. And that was an eye-opening answer for the CEO and the entire Starbucks that made them realize diversity and inclusion are not something that can be spoken about lightly because it is an entirely different reality for the people who live as a minority group.

The passion and inspiration of the partners combined with Starbucks’ commitment to its promise have resulted in the first Signing store in Japan. The concept that this store is built upon is "Infinite Possibilities," and the store truly lives up to its base concept as this is a place where deaf and people with normal hearing come together, breaking barriers and creating human connections opportunities, and truly limitless possibilities.

Unique Ordering Methods to Make Everyone Feel Welcome

When you first enter this store, you might not even realize that it is a signing store as it is run smoothly, efficiently, and with a welcoming warmth like any other Starbucks store. But once you do reach the counter, you will notice some unique ordering processes at work based on high-end yet highly user-friendly technology and innovative communication tools. This means that anyone, regardless of their hearing abilities or their ability to speak sign language, can order drinks and food easily at this store and use this store as their favorite 'third space.' At this store, you can any of these ordering methods:

  • Sign language: This is the primary medium of communication at this store. The partners running this store are mainly deaf and hard of hearing Starbucks partners, and they speak Sign language to use this to communicate with the staff.
  • A digital voice input system: Although the name of the system might sound 'high-tech,' it is an effortless and effective way for normal hearing and speaking customers who do not know Sign language to make their orders at this store. There is a digital tablet into which you can speak your order, and the tablet converts it into written words which the deaf partners read. Voila!
  • A detailed menu sheet: There is a menu sheet to choose and customize your order as much as you want. If you do not know sign language and do not feel so comfortable with technology, this is an excellent way to make orders at this store.

Starbucks Frappe

In addition to these genius ordering methods, a digital display machine is installed at the location where the orders are picked up. This screen shows the serial number of the order that is being made at the moment, and this number coincides with the number printed on the customer's receipt so the customers can track their order and feel assured. When the order becomes ready, a fun animation on the screen asks the customer in sign language to collect the order. Also, this monitor displays common sign language words such as words used for greetings, the sign language of the day, etc., so customers can learn more about the sign language while waiting for their orders.

These ordering methods, the welcoming atmosphere, and the friendliness of the partners working at the store all come together to make this store a place that is truly welcoming to any person without any exceptions. When you come to this café, you will see all kinds of customers – a customer of normal hearing who comes here every morning to pick up his takeaway coffee saying that he uses this Starbucks as any other Starbucks store, a deaf mother and her normal hearing daughter enjoying a quality time with their drinks and desserts, and many other deaf, hard of hearing, and normal hearing people coming here to enjoy a great time and to create possibilities and human connections. To create a community with this level of inclusion and diversity is indeed a rare achievement.

In-store Art and Interior Design to Celebrate the Deaf Culture

The interior design and artwork displayed at the store reflect the store's deep connection to deaf culture and celebrate it through artistic beauty. The store has ample space of 2240 square feet and 83 seating capacity. At the center of the store, the letters of ‘STARBUCKS’ are written in the hand signs representing the characters of ASL (American Sign Language). This same design has also been embroidered onto the aprons worn by the partners working at the café.

The walls of the café showcase a colorful artwork created exclusively for this store by an artist with a personal connection to the deaf community – Hidehiko Kado. Hidehiko Kado is an artist from Nagasaki prefecture, a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults, someone whose one or both parents are deaf), and has been using art as a medium for self-expression and communication since a very young age. His artwork often features Sign language motifs and animals with Sign language in pop and fun illustration. The original artwork that he created for this store is called "Talkative Hands."

Before the artwork was created, Kado had many conversations with the deaf Starbucks partners to create something that would reflect their passion and inspiration. The idea behind this artwork is an intense desire and hope that Sign language will be a bridge that makes meaningful human connections and that the awareness and knowledge of the world of Sign language can be spread more widely throughout Japan in a fun way.

Talking handsImage from Talking Hands

The art has many sign languages drawn in fun, bright, and heart-warming colors along with the words they represent, including common words used in a café such as Frappuccino, espresso, mug, etc., and common greetings and words such as thanks, passion, support, etc. This art encourages the people at the café to use sign language to create deep human bonds. If you want to take a better look at this unique artwork, you can do so here at the artist's official page.

Useful Information about the store

Address: Nonowa Kunitachi, 1-14-1 Kita Kunitachi, 186-0001, Tokyo, Japan

Phone: 042-505-9223


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