Creating and Contesting Signs in Contemporary Japan: Language Ideologies, Identity, and Community in Flux

By Nakamura, Karen | Sign Language Studies, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Creating and Contesting Signs in Contemporary Japan: Language Ideologies, Identity, and Community in Flux


Nakamura, Karen, Sign Language Studies


ETHNOGRAPHERS OF DEAF COMMUNITIES occasionally throw around terms such as American Sign Language (ASL), Irish Sign Language (ISL), or Japanese Sign Language (JSL) as if there were common agreement on what constitutes these languages.1 Various powerful language ideologies (Woolard and Schieffelin 1994) motivate us to ascribe more coherence to national sign languages than may actually be the case, especially when accounting for generational, geographic, religious, or other factors. Although we may understand that language coherence is a political construct, we do not often take time to analyze the ways in which these processes work in the construction of local language ideologies.

Arguing against this trend to reify national sign languages, Barbara Le Master (2003) has written about the gender and age bifurcation found in Irish Sign Language as a result of having deaf boys and girls attend separate schools, while Anthony Aramburo (1995) has described elements of African American variations of American Sign Language. In both examples, external forces in the form of segregated educational institutions led to the creation of separate dialects of the national sign language. The communities themselves have had little say in the maintenance of language coherence.

In this article I illustrate the way in which the dominant organization of deaf people in Japan, the Japanese Federation of the Deaf (JFD), has tried to maintain active control over Japanese sign language through management of the lexicon and interpreter-training programs. The JFD is reacting against externalities such as the sign language news service of the national public television system, which competes in the creation of new terms. In addition, younger and more radical members of the Deaf community have begun to challenge the JFD's definition of Japanese signing, arguing for a "pure Japanese Sign Language."

Background: Maintaining Control over Japanese Sign Language

In December 1997 the JFD held its year-end meeting of the Research Group for Defining and Promulgating Japanese Sign Language in a hotel located in the hot spring resort area of Atami, just south of Tokyo. The conference room was moderately large by Japanese standards. Four long tables were arranged in a square in the middle of the room. Sowa-san, the senior JFD staff member in charge of the meeting and deaf himself since an early age, started setting up the AV equipment-an S-VHS video camera and a television.2

Funded by a government contract from the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, the JFD's Research Group for Defining and Promulgating Japanese Sign Language was charged with creating, describing, defining, and publicizing innovative signs, usually by publishing them in a series of books called New Signs but also by teaching them at JFD-led teacher-training seminars across the nation.

During the year, each regional unit of the JFD was directed to originate new signs. For example, the Hokkaido unit from the northern island of Japan was responsible for new "newspaper" words. The members of that group scanned the daily newspapers looking for vocabulary items that were not currently in the JFD's Japanese Sign Language dictionaries, wrote them down, and brainstormed new signs. The central committee's job was to look at these suggestions and decide whether to adopt them. Rarely were the signs adopted without much discussion and modification. It was a lexicographer's dream. We had lugged several boxes of reference books from the JFD's Tokyo office, several rather thick Japanese language dictionaries, JSL dictionaries, and even a copy of an ASL dictionary.

Since 1980 the JFD has been receiving contracts from the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare to fund this research group. One of the major goals of the project was to produce new words, and one requirement was apparently to create at least one hundred new words for the ministry each year. These were presented in a series of reports to the ministry and were published annually in the aforementioned New Signs books. …

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