About Japanese Sign Language

by Karen Nakamura
[N/A] accesses since Deceber 17, 1995. This page was last updated on Feb 18, 2007.

A short note about referencing this work:

Please note that if you are using this page as a reference in your school term paper or report, that you should follow standard citation methods in order to prevent any accusations of plagiarism. One way to cite this would be: Nakamura, Karen (2002) "About Japanese Sign Language." Web site. <http://www.deaflibrary.org/jsl.html>.

Japanese Sign Language (JSL) is a family of complex visual-spatial languages used by Deaf communities in Japan. There is no single standard JSL, although the Tokyo form does have some hegemonic force since many of the TV broadcasts and meetings are sponsored by Tokyo Deaf groups. The national sign languages in Taiwan and Korea apparently have incorporated some JSL signs and forms from the colonial occupation of these countries by Japan prior to World War II.

Japanese Sign Language is distinct from spoken/written Japanese in both grammar and lexicon, although many Deaf signers will use Manually Coded Japanese / Pidgin Signed Japanese when signing to hearing or non-native JSL signers. The grammatical system shares many similarities with other national sign languages in its use of the complex visual space available, classifiers, and other complex forms.

Interestingly, JSL, ASL, and spoken Japanese all use a topic-comment grammatical system. This makes JSL and spoken Japanese more compatible than ASL and spoken English. This is one explanation for widespread use of MCJ / voiced JSL / Pidgin JSL forms present in Japan.

JSL appears to be a much "younger" language form than many other national sign languages. The first school for the deaf was established in Kyoto in 1878 and we have very little evidence for sign language communities before that time (although they no doubt existed in small pockets). The current form of fingerspelling was introduced in the early 20th century and is based on the fingerspellling used in Spain, France, and the United States. However, many older deaf do not know the fingerspelling forms or numerals and most Deaf born before the end of World War II (1948) did not attend school since it was only after the war that compulsory education for the Deaf was instituted.

JSL doesn't appear nearly as standardized as ASL (although ASL also has geographic and cultural/ethnic variation). Signs from the northern island (Hokkaido) are different from Tokyo signs; which are different from some southern signs. Nevertheless, if you are more or less fluent, it's easy to learn the variations although it does cause more problems when signing in front of a crowd of people from different areas.

Like the U.S., there is a signed form of Japanese -- Pidgin Signed Japanese (PSJ) or Manually Signed Japanese (MSJ). Most schools are orally based, but by the middle/high school level, some integrate some sign forms (usually MSJ; rarely JSL) into the classroom. Unfortunately, schools that allow manual forms in the classroom are still in the minority. Recent policy shifts from the Ministry of Education seem to encourage more sign language use in the future.

American Sign Languge (ASL) makes extensive use of fingerspelling and the morphology of some signs is related to an English word that distinguishes it from its general class (for example: FAMILY, GROUP, CLASS; all use the same basic morpheme (the hands moving in a circle inwards outwords; then use an additional morpheme derived from English 'F', 'G', or 'C' to distinguish between them). This shows the close relationship ASL has had with English; much like English has many load words from French (restaurant; clique) that help make word/meaning distinctions that English originally didn't make.

JSL seems to make more use of mouthing in order to distinguish between signs. Whereas ASL would use the inital letter of the English word to distinguish, JSL uses the word mouthing. People in the U.S. have told me American Deaf also do this to a small amount as well; but it seems also in prevalent use in Europe. For example, the sign for "INTERPRETER (TSUUYAKU)" is the thumb of the closed fist of the dominant hand moving left-right in front of the mouth. This is also the sign to "INTRODUCE (SHOUKAI)". The two sign-meanings are differentiated by context and by mouthing.

JSL has fingerspelling, but many people don't use it widely. I saw a lot of what I would call "air writing" -- especially of numbers and English letters -- instead of fingerspelling at the national Deaf meeting. Fingerspelling is not used much in normal conversation, certainly not as much as ASL. For personal names and place names, there is a standardized set of "Kanji" signs that allow you to spell out your name using the Chinese characters in sign form. Mouthing is also used when spelling out names.

As with ASL in the US, JSL is becoming more popular in Japan among hearing people. There is now a weekly television show on the public TV station NHK that teaches JSL and some news broadcasts and other shows are open captioned with a JSL signer. Close captioning is not widespread, but is increasing. Something new two summers ago (1996) was a satellite TV station dedicated totally to the deaf and hearing impaired (including elderly late-deafened). Unfortunately it apparently went bankrupt due to mismanagement. The Japanese Federation of the Deaf is planning their own TV broadcasts using a new Communications Satellite (CS) system.

There are almost no resources in English about JSL. My book, Deaf in Japan: Signing and the Politics of Identity (Cornell Univ Press 2006) has a little bit about JSL politics, but doesn't teach you how to sign in JSL itself. ITEC in Japan has started an introductory online JSL course that might be useful: http://www.kyoto-be.ne.jp/ed-center/gakko/jsl/index.html

The best way to learn some Japanese signs is to order the English Dictionary of Basic Japanese Signs from the Japanese Federation of the Deaf. Send them an e-mail asking them for pricing and shipping information.

If you have any suggestions on how I can improve this page, please let me know. My e-mail address is listed on the main page. Click here to go back up to Karen's Deaf resource library.