Hold your two index fingers up, facing each other about 20 centimeters apart, then curl them toward each other as if they were bowing.
“Hello” to you too, reader.
This is a story about sign language. Or, more specifically, it’s a story about Japanese Sign Language, because trying to say “hello” by curling your index fingers in other countries would likely get you nothing but blank looks.
“Sign languages are completely different depending on the country,” Mayumi Shirasawa, a spokesperson for the Japanese Association of Sign Language Interpreters (JASLI), says. “It’s not like Japanese Sign Language and American Sign Language don’t share any similar signs at all. But, for example, in Japanese, for the word ‘me,’ you would point to your nose. In American, you would point to your chest. One wouldn’t be understood by the other — that’s how far apart they are. In the United States, people would wonder what was wrong with your nose.”
Japanese Sign Language is the dominant sign language in Japan, where it developed centuries ago as a natural means of communication. The establishment of the first school for deaf people in Japan in Kyoto in 1878 played a major role in turning it into a systemized language, before the formation of the Japanese Federation of the Deaf in 1947 helped to spread it around the country.
According to the most recent survey conducted by the health ministry in 2006, there are around 358,800 deaf and partially deaf people in Japan. Of them, 14 percent — or around 50,000 people — use sign language, although many hearing people use it, too.
Late last month, Starbucks Coffee Japan Ltd. opened its first store offering sign language services for deaf customers. The store, in western Tokyo’s Kunitachi district, has 19 deaf or partially deaf employees among its 25 staff members, and is the coffee chain’s fifth “signing store” around the world.
Ryotaro Sato, a shift supervisor at the Kunitachi store, has been using sign language his whole life. He attended a school for deaf people as a child in Hokkaido, and has taken part in several events encouraging hearing people to find out more about sign language. When he worked at a Starbucks cafe in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, he would often teach simple signs to his workmates and regular customers.
Now that he is using it every day in his work environment, Sato says his enthusiasm for sign language has grown even stronger.
“I think the store can provide a comfortable space for people for whom sign language is their first language, people who’ve been surrounded by spoken languages all their lives,” Sato says. “It also gives people who have an interest in sign language an opportunity to actually try it. They can see it being used and learn from it.
“It’s also a good chance for people who know nothing about sign language to broaden their horizons by seeing that it’s just another language. I’d love for customers to go home having learned how to sign the word ‘thank you.’”
More than one meaning
Not all the employees at the Starbucks’ store are deaf or partially deaf. Assistant Store Manager Yuki Kaneta started learning sign language in third grade at elementary school when she joined a club that combined it with dance choreography. It was more of a fun hobby than serious study for her at the time, and she let it lapse until the chance to work at Starbucks’ signing store arose.
Now, Kaneta is working to build upon the foundation she learned as a child, and she says the immersive environment of her workplace helps her get through any tough spots.
“To be honest, it’s really difficult,” she says. “The sign for one word can have more than one meaning, and different people can express the same word in different ways. I find it more difficult to understand what someone is trying to say to me than I do trying to express what I want to say to them. Every day, I feel I have to do more to improve.”
“There isn’t a day that I don’t use it,” she continues. “There are difficult times, but my colleagues really help me, signing at a level and a speed I can understand. If I make a mistake, they’ll tell me and then teach me the right sign. I’m never in any real trouble.”
According to JASLI spokesperson Shirasawa, a casual interest in learning is a common starting point for sign language interpreters. Many begin by taking lessons at their local community center when they find themselves with more time on their hands in middle age. Then, when they experience the satisfaction of being able to communicate through sign language, they feel encouraged to study more seriously.
JASLI is the nationwide association for Japan’s certified sign language interpreters and has more than 2,300 members. A certified interpreter, known as a tsūyakushi, must pass a test to gain a qualification authorized by the health ministry. Currently, around 3,800 people hold this qualification.
Those who don’t can still work as interpreters, but they are known as tsūyakusha and must be registered with a prefectural authority. Most tsūyakushi start off as tsūyakusha before obtaining their certified qualification.
Both classifications of interpreter are permitted to do the same jobs, with the exception of interpreting for party political broadcasts, which is only open to tsūyakushi. In practice, high-stakes work such as interpretation for a judge or a serious medical operation is more likely to go to tsūyakushi certificate holders.
An interpreter might be employed by a particular organization, such as a city hall or a hospital, or may instead be registered with a prefecture and sent out to work when a request comes in. Some, like Shirasawa, who first started learning sign language at university because she wanted to help a friend participate in class, are involved in other activities such as teaching.
Intensive training for sign language interpreters is limited to only a handful of institutions, however, and university courses are few and far between.
“Even if there were courses, there aren’t many workplaces that make use of interpreters’ skills,” says Japanese Federation of the Deaf Director Naoki Kurano. “It’s difficult to make a living working only as a sign language interpreter in Japan today. The pay is low and the working conditions aren’t good. If no young people want to become interpreters, there won’t be any demand for educational training. That’s one reason why there aren’t more university programs.”
The Japanese Federation of the Deaf’s three main principles are to improve health care and welfare for and protect the rights of deaf and partially deaf people and protect the usage of sign language. The organization has around 20,000 members.
The Japanese Federation of the Deaf is also involved in running the Japan National Center of Sign Language Education, which must decide what sign to give new words that come into circulation. Recent examples include “Reiwa” and “coronavirus,” the latter of which is represented by an open hand with splayed fingers emerging from behind a hand held in the shape of the letter “C.”
A similar sign for coronavirus is used in several countries, but there are many differences between sign languages around the world. Despite sharing a spoken language, British Sign Language and American Sign Language bear few similarities, and even use different alphabets. American Sign Language and French Sign Language, on the other hand, are closely related because education for deaf people in the U.S. was originally imported from France.
The same historical connection exists between Japanese and Korean Sign Languages.
“Schools for deaf people in Korea were established by Japanese people, so the sign language they used at first was imported from Japan,” says Shirasawa. “Then, lots of original Korean words began cropping up and it developed in a different direction, but the sign language that elderly people in Korea use is very similar to Japanese. I’ve met elderly Koreans who use sign language, and if we mixed in some gestures, we were able to communicate.”
Shirasawa says there is usually a relationship between the sign language and the spoken language of a country, but that it is better to think of a sign language as an independent entity. Many people are proficient in more than one sign language, and it is even possible to learn Japanese Sign Language without being able to understand spoken or written Japanese.
Room for improvement
Awareness of sign language in Japanese society has not always been at the level it is today, however, and Shirasawa cites a 1965 incident at a Tokyo sushi restaurant as a major turning point. Two deaf customers were conversing in sign language when three hearing customers came over and started making fun of them. A fight broke out and, in the melee, one of the deaf customers slammed the restaurant owner against the concrete floor. He died the next day.
In court, the defendant complained several times that the sign language interpreter he had been assigned was not representing him correctly, and suspicions of prejudice against the defendant based on his hearing impairment sparked a movement that began fighting for sign language to be given greater prominence.
Kurano believes much progress has been made since then, but he also sees plenty of room for improvement.
“If you look at the floods this month in Kyushu, there were hardly any emergency news broadcasts that featured a sign language interpreter,” Kurano says. “We want to get information in sign language in real time, but it’s not happening.”
“Nowadays, there will be a sign language interpreter when the prime minister gives a press conference, but most TV stations won’t show it in their broadcasts,” he says. “If you watch the same thing on TV in other countries, you’ll always see the interpreter. I’m very envious of that environment. You’d have to say sign language still occupies a pretty lowly place in Japan.”
For all the hardships and challenges that sign language still faces in Japan, however, Shirasawa believes the difference she can make in her job makes it all worthwhile.
“You’re able to help people who want to participate in things that they weren’t previously able to,” she says. “It also helps to change people who have no impairments themselves.
“I went to an event where I was interpreting and the people paid me no mind at all. Then, the next time I went, they thanked me and said that they would have to speak slowly and clearly because there was an interpreter there. Little by little, the awareness increases. That makes you realize you’re doing an important job.”