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Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Deaf Battle Prejudice in Japan

Karen Nakamura, the author of Deaf in Japan, is a hearing anthropologist who studies minorities in Japan.  She was born in Indonesia, but was brought up in Australia, Japan and the U.S. She speaks English and Japanese as well as signing in both American Sign Language (ASL) and Japanese Sign Language ( JSL).  She currently teaches at Yale.  I found her book while researching an article on JSL in Diversity in Japanese Language and Culture which I reviewed here in July.   Here is what I have to say about Deaf in Japan.

 The cover is difficult to reproduce well.  I sharpened it so that readers could see what the figures were signing.  The best image of the cover was on Nakamura's blog at the Yale University website.

Nakamura brings forward a significant issue in deaf politics by introducing  Ohtsuki Yoshiko, a prominent activist in the Japanese Federation of the Deaf (JFD), who signs and speaks simultaneously so that both deaf and hearing people can understand her.  This type of communication is criticized by the Japanese deaf organization D-Pro.  They consider Ohtsuki Yoshiko as not truly deaf because she communicates orally.  Ohtsuki Yoshiko calls that "sign fascism".  D-Pro also promotes a specific form of JSL that they consider pure and uninfluenced by spoken Japanese.  I find this interesting because it seems to me that cultural purity is a very Japanese preoccupation. Based on my reading, mainstream Japanese society seems to be deeply  concerned with defining what is truly Japanese.  Similarly, D-Pro is concerned with defining what is truly deaf.

 Nakamura points out that the D-Pro focus on purity ignores the fact that all sign languages have dialects and "idiolects". According to Wikipedia  "idiolect" is a term from linguistics that deals with individual language variations.  For more on this topic see Wikipedia on Idiolects . In this context, it means that the way a particular signer communicates is identifiable as the style of signing for that individual.  Nakamura interviewed five Japanese deaf women for this book.  She observed that each of them signed JSL differently.

 There is a generational difference between JFD and D-Pro.  JFD's membership is older while D-Pro has a younger membership. D-Pro has contacts and alliances with deaf organizations outside of Japan.  They consider themselves part of the international deaf movement while JFD members are Japanese identified.

 Those in the JFD remember being considered minors under Japanese law.  They were unable to marry, drive, sign contracts or have legally recognized wills.  This changed in the 1970's.  JFD had a great deal to do with getting the government to recognize the deaf as adults. Another important change is that the government recognized that the deaf could be educated.  Unfortunately, they mandated compulsory mainstreaming.  The few schools for the deaf that existed were shut down.  The Japanese authorities wanted the deaf to be fully integrated into Japanese society.

Deaf activists changed the Japanese government's attitude toward signing in the 1980's. They then put pressure on NHK, the TV network, to broadcast a show that taught signing.  It was called "Signing For Everyone".  I mentioned it in "An Amelioration of Audism in Japan".  It's important to note that a D-Pro member was placed in charge of how signing was taught on "Signing For Everyone". Since D-Pro members have chosen signing as their exclusive means of communication, JSL instruction is of particular importance to them.

Nakamura discusses sign languages other than JSL in Deaf in Japan to show how sign languages have developed internationally.  I learned from this book that ASL and BSL (British Sign Language) are very different, and that neither one is based on English.  Dialects in sign language can arise as a result of  differences between the schools of the deaf where signing is taught. Schools that were segregated by race in the American South have brought about the development of separate dialects of ASL for deaf Southern Caucasians and deaf Southern African-Americans.  I conclude that  if  "Signing For Everyone" has successfully promulgated a single model of JSL in Japan, communication among JSL signers may be improved, but diversity of expression will diminish.

The history of JSL is rather murky.  No one knows when it originated or who pioneered it.  It has no relationship to other sign languages.  My speculation is that Japan's policy of isolation until the Meiji Era has a great deal to do with JSL's uniqueness.   Yamao Yozo, an important figure in Meiji Japan, went to Scotland to study their shipbuilding industry in 1863.  He observed that deaf and hearing employees worked together in the Glasgow shipyards and then wrote a white paper in favor of deaf education in Japan.   The first school for the deaf was founded by Furukawa Toshiro in 1878 in Kyoto. The story goes that Furukawa had been arrested for forging documents to help dispossessed peasants. He saw deaf children signing to each other from the window in his jail cell and was captivated by the possibility of educating them.  In farming communities the deaf were perfectly capable of helping their families in agricultural activities, but in an urban environment such as Kyoto, deaf children were cast off by their families, and could only aspire to become beggars. Furukawa sought to change that.  Unfortunately, an 1880 international conference of deaf educators in Milan backed by oralists, who were completely opposed to signing, influenced deaf schools throughout the world to teach lip reading and ban signing. Since I am aware that the Meiji government was intent on westernizing Japan, they must have decided to imitate the western trend in deaf education as well.  In 1880 Furukawa's school became oralist and JSL went underground until it re-emerged toward the end of the 20th century.

I was shocked to discover the extreme prejudice against the deaf in contemporary Japan.  Nakamura discusses what are called "joint suicides" of mothers and their deaf offspring.  I think it would be more accurate to term these murder-suicides. Japanese mothers have killed their deaf children and then committed suicide.  This happened to a 26 year old deaf activist who was a close friend of one of Nakamura's interviewees.  This young deaf woman moved away from her parents out of fear that she too would be murdered. 

This homicidal prejudice arises from the  belief that the deaf are disabled, and a burden on their families.  The interviewee in the above paragraph who fled from her family is now living independently  There is also mention of the man who became Japan's first deaf lawyer in Deaf in Japan.  I have met deaf professionals myself, so I know that calling the deaf disabled is a lie.  It bothers me that Nakamura buys into this lie especially considering its terrible consequences in Japan.  She categorizes deaf people as disabled throughout the book.  I don't use the phrase "differently abled" just to prove that I am politically correct.  I believe that it is a more truthful description of  the deaf community. 

Deaf in Japan is a well written anthropological study. The life stories of Karen Nakamura's  informants are contextualized through descriptions of the experience of that generation of the deaf.  I think that she doesn't question the disability paradigm in an effort to be a neutral observer. Neutrality  is expected of anthropologists.  I can say that this is a serious flaw because I am not a scholar, and I am not expected to be neutral.  I seek to be a decent human being who does the right thing.  It is the right thing to speak out against prejudice.  Read this book for the information it contains, but consider how different life could be if Japan were a more just society that treated all its citizens as equals. 








  1. I agree with you. In fact, I would go further than that. I would say that buying into the disability paradigm in order to be neutral is counterproductive. The disability paradigm kills neutrality just as much as buying into the Deaf paradigm. Neutrality is the lie, and believing you have attained it is delusional.
    Of course, I'm not saying that Nakamura is delusional, or that he (yes, Karen is not a woman's name here in Japan) even thinks that he has become neutral. I think he has disclaimers for that throughout his book.

  2. The idea that the deaf are disabled has such broad cultural acceptance that it isn't viewed as an ideology. The biases involved in historical assumptions about race and gender are now considered part of academic discourse. The way the deaf are viewed should also be included in the conversation about bias.

    Thank you for the information about the name Karen in Japan. I searched for photographic evidence that Karen Nakamura is indeed female and found it on her blog. It is at