Many foreign nationals in Japan have struggled with the intricacies of the Japanese language, but imagine mastering Japanese sign language (JSL) on top of that. This is exactly what Danny Gong, the Osaka-based founder of DeafJapan, has done. Gong has become a bilingual ambassador, providing opportunities for hearing-impaired people in Japan to enjoy activities in English while also linking them up with the global community.
The son of deaf parents, the New York native first qualified as a nationally licensed sign language interpreter in American sign language (ASL). Incidentally, Gong also knows Hong Kong sign language as his parents originally hail from the former British colony. He initially came to Japan 10 years ago “for the challenge” and ended up staying.
After meeting people in the deaf community in Japan, Gong set himself the goal of mastering JSL. He points out that learning to sign in Japanese is actually easier than trying to learn Japanese the conventional way.
“This may be due to the visual aspects of the sign language, because using your hands to communicate is a lot easier to understand compared to sounds,” says Gong.
When his new friends in Japan expressed eagerness to learn English and ASL, he set up DeafJapan and began running classes. In the ensuing nine years, Gong has branched out to offer a wide range of volunteer activities to facilitate communication among hearing-impaired people.
In addition to social events such as barbecues and movie nights, DeafJapan has literally gone the extra mile by arranging a tour to New York and bringing over deaf interns from other countries to teach at DeafJapan.
While the Tohoku disaster in 2011 devastated thousands of lives in northern Japan, those with some kind of disability were left particularly vulnerable. Recognizing this, DeafJapan organized a volunteer trip for 10 deaf participants to help out in Tohoku and to meet the deaf community in Sendai.
Just as with any form of cross-cultural communication, Gong notes that there have been challenges along the way for him as he learned JSL.
“Japanese and American adults have different conversation styles. Many Japanese people are comfortable with long pauses of silence, while thinking of a response. However, many Americans like to keep the conversation moving with very few pauses,” he says. “My students were not used to me jumping around different topics, and I wasn’t used to long pauses during our interactions.”
Gong has had the opportunity to observe how deaf people are treated in the wider community and sees a number of differences between the United States and Japan.
“One positive thing in the U.S. is the Americans with Disabilities Act. This law provides all Americans with disabilities with equal access to public institutions, government work and information, and means deaf Americans have access to professional sign language interpreters. However, in Japan there are still many deaf people who cannot communicate with their teachers, doctors, bosses, police or in court due to not having access to professional sign language interpreters.”
On the other hand, Gong says that the unemployment rate for deaf Japanese is lower than the equivalent in the U.S.
“However, the work they do tends to be limited,” he says. “I haven’t yet met a deaf Japanese company president, doctor or lawyer. ”
He adds that irrespective of where they live, many deaf people around the world still experience discrimination and suffer from a lack of access to resources for obtaining information.
In addition to the classes and social events, Gong draws on his love of theater and uses DeafJapan as a platform for educational and comedic presentations in JSL all over Japan.
“It makes me feel very happy to make my audience laugh during my Japanese sign language presentations,” he says.
He finds it particularly rewarding working with deaf youngsters and teaching them about other sign languages around the world. “I think this helps them feel that they are not alone and have access to the world deaf community.”
According to Gong, the Internet has played an important role in spreading awareness of sign language around the world. He also credits the recent popularity of baby sign language (signing for very young children before they can talk) as another positive influence.
The media-savvy Gong makes full use of technology in his mission to reach out to the global community. In addition to running his own YouTube channel, DeafJapan TV, he has created an iBook and apps for students of ASL and JSL. (The latter were developed in cooperation with his friend Eric Morasch, and both the book and the apps are available at the iTunes store or through the DeafJapan website.)
Gong’s goal going forward is both simple and far-reaching: “I’d like to see deaf Japanese people continuing to interact with other deaf communities around the world and make strong bonds by using sign language.”
• DeafJapan website (Japanese and some English): www.deafjapan.com
• Find out about places to learn Japanese sign language in Japan by Googling 手話サークル (Shuwa Sākuru)
• Deaf Professional Happy Hour (DPHH) provides opportunities to use JSL over a friendly drink in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya: dphh.blogspot.jp
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