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Japanese Sign Language

Mike Cash

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I just received notification in the mail today that I successfully passed the 3級 level of the Japanese Sign Language Proficiency Test (手話技能検定). Since it is supposed to take about two years and I managed it in six months I am rather pleased with myself.

Fascinating stuff and I just wish I had started learning it years ago.

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Until I started learning it, I had never personally known, met, or in any way interacted with a deaf person in my entire life. I had only seen people using sign language in public here on an average of something like once a decade.

NPO手話技能検定協会
 

thomas

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Congratulations Mike! What exactly motivated you to start with sign language?
 

nice gaijin

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That's very cool, Mike! Have you had much opportunity to use it? I'm sure those interactions are noteworthy, I've only witnessed people signing to each other a handful of times myself.

About 5 or 6 years ago I was visiting a friend of mine in Bizen, Okayama, and there was a segment on the morning show teaching some signs. I didn't realize the variety of sign languages until then, and it made total sense that the sign language would reflect the grammar and vocabulary of the spoken language. To this day, I still remember the signs for 昨日/先週、掃除をした。

In fact, my sister-in-law is an ASL interpreter, and has been encouraging me lately to take it up. I can already feel myself getting sucked into a youtube vortex!
 

Mike Cash

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Congratulations Mike! What exactly motivated you to start with sign language?
Thank you. Ever since I first started learning Japanese, way back when, and first had to contemplate how it is possible to use another language while not translating in your head in order to do it I have been fascinated by the idea that language must at some level exist independent of the set of sounds we are used to thinking of as being a language. After all, people who have never heard a sound in their entire life are capable of thought and language acquisition.

Over the years I have occasionally run across the NHK-E program for learning sign language and have looked at it a bit and managed to pick out a sign or two here and there by watching and listening, but it has always been somewhere in the middle of the 24 week series and it is just impossible to jump into it in the middle. By coincidence I happened to catch Episode 1 of the new run in April and decided that would be a good time to actually look into the feasibility of learning it.

Have you had much opportunity to use it?
Having the experience of never having had any opportunity to use Japanese until I learned Japanese and knowing how that turned out, I was fully confident that learning it would lead to opportunities to use it.

One of the very first things I did was to google sign language circles in my area. I found there is a group that meets about 300m from my home. In Japan, sign language circles are everywhere and serve almost like an auxiliary group to the local organization for deaf people. There are always a few deaf people who are active in helping to spread the use of sign language, so they show up and help out. And there are always different activities being put on by the deaf organizations, where hearing members of the circles often attend, participate, or help out.

There are about as many opportunities as one wishes to create.

I've only witnessed people signing to each other a handful of times myself.
I've been here long enough to have personally witnessed the revolutionary transformation in the way Japan deals with people who have disabilities. I can remember when you would practically never see anybody out in public. These days it is no longer unusual to see blind people or people using wheelchairs who are moving about on their own, going about their day just like everybody else and hardly getting a second glance.

Things are a bit different with the deaf, whose disability is not visibly apparent. They've always been there among everyone else....the reason we've not noticed them by their telltale signing is that historically they have tended not to sign in public. They have been subjected to bullying, teasing, mocking, and just general tormenting from the hearing in Japanese society for so long, and had it beaten out of them (sometimes literally) at the schools for the deaf which prohibited sign language that they just went very insular with sign language and as a matter of prudence didn't sign in front of people they didn't know. This has only recently began to change. The deaf in Japan are right in the middle of having the equivalent of their civil rights movement.

I was getting on a train in Tokyo last Thursday and by coincidence there were two old ladies signing to each other who got on at the same door where I boarded the train. I talked to them just a bit before I had to get off two stops later.

I didn't realize the variety of sign languages until then, and it made total sense that the sign language would reflect the grammar and vocabulary of the spoken language.
I thought it was just Japanese with the spoken words replaced by signs. I soon learned how very wrong that was. While it shows very unmistakable influence from the Japanese language and culture it is surrounded by, it is very definitely a separate language unto itself. In fact, various local governments around the country passing ordinances recognizing the status of JSL as a legitimate, separate, real language (instead of a bunch of desperate gesturing) is a large part of the impetus behind the change in attitude among the deaf community alluded to earlier.

There are aspects to it which are very reminiscent of kanji. Hell, some of the signs are kanji. But many others employ elements similar to kanji radicals, which make them much easier to learn, recognize, and remember. And many combine to form compounds, causing what would be some rather rarely used and hard to remember vocabulary items in spoken language to actually be really easy to remember in signing.

I've tried to get my wife to learn also, but she's not interested. She thinks it must be impossibly difficult. So every now and then I show her a sign for something and have her guess at the meaning. I purposely choose obvious ones and she always says, "But that's just a gesture!" And I tell her, "Yeah, it's not a super-secret code designed to baffle everybody. It's a practical means of communication. When gestures work, gestures are used."

Speaking of ASL and the fact that deafness is an invisible disability...

One of the things that surprised me at first, when meeting deaf people, was their asking me if I was deaf too. That was an eye-opener.

Another thing that surprised me was the assumption that since I was attending a deaf event or sign language event in Japan and I'm an American then naturally I must know ASL. I don't have the first clue about ASL. The people who have learned a little ASL are happy to have the chance to try it out on the gaijin, though. You know how it is when someone says something to you in Japanese and you don't understand it? You don't know if it is a word you haven't learned yet, a regionalism, bad pronunciation, or what....you just know you didn't understand it. Same thing with me watching them sign something I might understand if it was JSL, but I can't tell the difference between ASL I've never learned and JSL I haven't learned yet. They always seem so disappointed when I tell them I don't know any ASL.
 

nice gaijin

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There are about as many opportunities as one wishes to create.
Such a good point! And the same totally parallels my own experiences with learning languages, it stands to reason that the same goes for sign languages; just through learning it your opportunities to use it will increase, but sometimes it takes a little more effort to create those opportunities.

It's really interesting that the deaf community in Japan is still finding its footing in society, thank you for taking the time to explain about all this! I'm going to share this post with my sister-in-law, she'll doubtlessly find all this fascinating. And an interesting anecdote she shared with me illustrating sign language as its own self-contained language replete with dialectal differences: She was telling me recently about a time she was doing over-the-phone interpretation and one of the people was saying they had to take the... lettuce out? She had to pause to confirm the interpretation, and it turns out the same sign for "lettuce" on the west coast is used for "garbage" in the east. Another example is "pickle" and "cake."
 

Mike Cash

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As a non-written, totally visual language, and as a minority language spread mainly from person to person, JSL shows a very high degree of regional differences. It is largely immune to the blending and homogenization seen with spoken languages and caused by the proliferation of print, radio, television, etc. While there is some degree of uniformity on some things, it is very far from there being a single universally agreed-upon standard recognized nationwide.

I saw a very extreme example of this when four deaf people...all from Gunma but from different cities.... were discussing Obon and no two of them agreed on what the correct sign was for "Obon", nor did any of them even recognize what the other used for "Obon" as anything they had ever seen before.

Adding to the trouble for hearing learners is the fact that different dictionaries by different publishers will also list completely different signs for the exact same word.

One of the fascinating things about it is the 3D nature of it and the way native speakers make use of the space around them. Whether a sign is done high or low, high to low, front or back, front to back, left or right, left to right, or the opposite of all those has significance. Similarly, left-handed people do it all in mirror-image of the way right-handed people do it. I do some activities right-handed and some things left-handed and was worried that mixing things up (for example, signs for throwing something with my right hand and signs for writing with my left hand) would cause confusion or look odd, but I was assured it is no problem at all.

Some municipalities here have recently adopted iPads/tablets at various public offices so they can do a video with an interpreter located elsewhere, rather than having to make arrangements for one to be present or to communicate by passing notes when deaf people come in. They have been astonished to find that the deaf people here don't like them and won't use them. My city adopted them and it they have gone totally unused.

By the way, is the guy in that video you linked introducing JSL in ASL? There's just way the hell too much of that that I can't recognize or make match the narration for me to believe that's all JSL.
 
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OoTmaster

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Another thing that surprised me was the assumption that since I was attending a deaf event or sign language event in Japan and I'm an American then naturally I must know ASL. I don't have the first clue about ASL. The people who have learned a little ASL are happy to have the chance to try it out on the gaijin, though. You know how it is when someone says something to you in Japanese and you don't understand it? You don't know if it is a word you haven't learned yet, a regionalism, bad pronunciation, or what....you just know you didn't understand it. Same thing with me watching them sign something I might understand if it was JSL, but I can't tell the difference between ASL I've never learned and JSL I haven't learned yet. They always seem so disappointed when I tell them I don't know any ASL.
I think it would be interesting to find out if the two have any words that are the same. The only gestures I know from English that I know the same gesture that Japanese use are different such as pointing to yourself in Japanese (face) and English (chest) and gesturing someone over to you.

Also congratulations. Learning a new language is difficult and rewarding. I think a lot of people wouldn't consider it a language in it's own right but I come across the same assumptions with computer languages I've learned.
 

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As a non-written, totally visual language, and as a minority language spread mainly from person to person, JSL shows a very high degree of regional differences. It is largely immune to the blending and homogenization seen with spoken languages and caused by the proliferation of print, radio, television, etc. While there is some degree of uniformity on some things, it is very far from there being a single universally agreed-upon standard recognized nationwide.

I saw a very extreme example of this when four deaf people...all from Gunma but from different cities.... were discussing Obon and no two of them agreed on what the correct sign was for "Obon", nor did any of them even recognize what the other used for "Obon" as anything they had ever seen before.

Adding to the trouble for hearing learners is the fact that different dictionaries by different publishers will also list completely different signs for the exact same word.

One of the fascinating things about it is the 3D nature of it and the way native speakers make use of the space around them. Whether a sign is done high or low, high to low, front or back, front to back, left or right, left to right, or the opposite of all those has significance. Similarly, left-handed people do it all in mirror-image of the way right-handed people do it. I do some activities right-handed and some things left-handed and was worried that mixing things up (for example, signs for throwing something with my right hand and signs for writing with my left hand) would cause confusion or look odd, but I was assured it is no problem at all.

Some municipalities here have recently adopted iPads/tablets at various public offices so they can do a video with an interpreter located elsewhere, rather than having to make arrangements for one to be present or to communicate by passing notes when deaf people come in. They have been astonished to find that the deaf people here don't like them and won't use them. My city adopted them and it they have gone totally unused.

By the way, is the guy in that video you linked introducing JSL in ASL? There's just way the hell too much of that that I can't recognize or make match the narration for me to believe that's all JSL.
That's really interesting about the ipads, were there any reasons cited for why they aren't liked? I'm guessing that while it's ok for a phone call (where you're already at a distance with the other person), it's unnecessarily distancing to have that same experience for an interaction with someone that is physically in front of you?

My sis says yes, he's showing the JSL phrases and explaining them in ASL, I guess that expectation you ran into at the deaf events is pretty prevalent; a foreigner that has only learned JSL and doesn't know ASL must be quite a rarity. Maybe you'll want to pick up a 4th language? :D
 

Mike Cash

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Maybe you'll want to pick up a 4th language?
The jury is still out on whether I've picked up a second one or not.

I had a day yesterday such as I never before could have even imagined before. I was invited to come along on a mikan picking excursion to Yorii-machi (Saitama) by a man who is active in the local JSL circle and his wife, both of whom are deaf. We were to meet up with some of their friends in Saitama and spend the day together. I expected there would be some hearing members among the people we met up with, but as it turned out among the ten adults and two children who gathered, only myself and the two elementary school girls could hear. That left me as the only adult present who capable of handling spoken Japanese.

It was definitely a MAJOR twist on the common complaint gaijins often have about being ignored by strangers despite speaking Japanese and having everything go through a Japanese friend or family member. This time, any interactions that had to be handled verbally had to go through the gaijin.

The whole day was a series of lessons on the hassles of not being able to understand what is being said to you or any announcements being made around you.

Something as simple as going to a self-service gas station turned into a PITA situation when the modern high-tech upselling fuel pumps turned out to be more designed for people who can hear and understand the endless string of announcements they make than for people who have to stand there and read pretty much everything on the display to try to figure out at what point they are in the confusing process. Although part of the reason for choosing a self-service station was probably to avoid having the trouble of interacting with the staff at a full-service place, due to some trouble with the change machine the staff was there talking to him anyway. I got called out of the car to translate our way through that.

My friend wanted to order some mikans sent to his home and as there was no signage at the place to indicate whether that was even possible, again translation was needed to work out the details about price, shipping, and whatnot.

We had lunch at a nice restaurant where we has reservations. I'd never given much thought to the importance of the little things coming from the waitresses before, but as a waitress finished up handing out glasses of water from her tray by asking if anyone wanted water I stuck my hand up and got the last two glasses at my table (we were at four tables). After the waitress had gone away it slowly dawned on me that nobody else even knew that no more glasses were coming because they hadn't asked for any. I asked around and then buzzed the call bell to have more water brought.

Just as we were all finishing up eating, one of the women found some bits of chopped up plastic wrapping that had gotten mixed into her dish of tsukemono and that had to be straightened out with the staff.

We all then visited the Saitama Museum of Rivers, where the staff were very welcoming and accommodating, with many of them giving greetings in JSL. One young lady on the staff was learning JSL and was able to conduct some portions of the guidance through the museum in JSL. Still, some of the exhibits only had recorded verbal guidance and no accompanying signage.

At the museum cafeteria I learned that ordering can be complicated, even with a printed menu to point at. By the time we arrived at the museum I had learned it was best to be proactive rather than hanging back, so I moved from my place at the back of the line up to the front to help with the ordering process. The cafeteria knew all those people were deaf and still they just called out their numbers over the loudspeaker when their orders were ready.

Among the group were two women who also have vision problems. One of them has weak eyesight and very pronounced tunnel vision while the other is practically totally blind. When I was a child growing up in my extremely monolingual hick hometown, I never could have imagined that I would ever in my life communicate with anyone in another language, much less that I would ever successfully directly communicate with someone who was not only from a different country but who also could neither hear anything I'm saying nor see anything I'm doing.

All in all, a lot of the lessons learned were really just reviews of material long forgotten. There are a lot of parallels between being a foreigner with inadequate Japanese skills and being deaf, at least to some degree.
 

nice gaijin

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wow, what a truly interesting experience! The parallels you illustrated are really fascinating, and shed a whole new color light on what seemed like an already illuminated perspective. Thank you for sharing this, Mike.
 
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