Japanese Sign Language - Wikipedia

Japanese Sign Language

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Japanese Sign Language (日本手話, Nihon Shuwa), also known by the acronym JSL, is the dominant sign language in Japan and is a natural language, like the spoken Japanese language.

Japanese Sign Language
日本手話 Nihon Shuwa
Native toJapan
Native speakers
320,000 (1986)[1]
Japanese Sign Language family
  • Japanese Sign Language
Official status
Regulated byJapanese Federation of the Deaf
Language codes
ISO 639-3jsl


There are 304,000 Deaf and Hard of Hearing people who are above age 18 in Japan (2008). However, there is no specific source about the number of JSL users because of the difficulty in distinguishing who are JSL users and who use other kinds of sign, like Taiou Shuwa and Chuukan Shuwa. According to the Japanese Association for Sign Language Studies,[2] the estimated number of JSL users is around 60,000 in Japan.


Little is known about sign language and the deaf community before the Edo period. In 1862, the Tokugawa shogunate dispatched envoys to various European schools for the deaf but the first school for the deaf was not established until 1878 in Kyōto.

Until 1948, deaf children were not required to attend school or to receive a formal education.[3]

In the second half of the 20th century, a subtle cultural change in views about the Deaf in Japan evolved. The long-standing concept that "deaf" only means "people who can't hear" emphasized a physical impairment as part of a biomedical disease model; however, this was gradually replaced by a slightly different paradigm. "Deaf people" were more often identified as "people who use Japanese sign language". In other words, the biomedical disability model began slowly to be displaced by a social-cultural or JSL paradigm.[4]

The Japanese Federation of the Deaf has worked with slow success in efforts to enhance communication opportunities for Japanese whose primary language is JSL.[5]

The changing status of JSL and the Deaf in Japan is a slow process; but there are highlights. For example, JSL has an advocate among the Imperial family. Kiko, Princess Akishino has studied JSL and is a trained sign language interpreter.[6] She attends the Sign Language Speech Contest for High School Students held every August, and Praising Mothers Raising Children with Hearing Impairments every December. In October 2008, she participated in the 38th National Deaf Women's Conference.[7] She also signs in informal Deaf gatherings.[8]

The Deaf community supported passage of the proposed Sign Language Law.[9] The "Basic Act for Persons with Disabilities" was enacted in 2011. This law recognized sign language as a language.[10]


The slow integration of JSL within the context of Japanese culture has been accompanied by an expansion of the numbers of sign language interpreters:

  • 1991: Japanese Association of Sign Language Interpreters (JASLI) established[11]
  • 1997: Ethics code of the Sign Language Interpreters established by JASLI[11]
  • 2002: Japanese Federation of the Deaf and the National Research Association for Sign Language Interpretation established the National Training Institution of Sign Language[11]

In 2006, the Japanese government amended the Supporting Independence of People with Disabilities Act. The new language in the law encourages local governments to increase the number and use of JSL interpreters.[12]

Other sign terms in JapanEdit

Japanese Sign Language is often confused with other Manually coded language for communicating that are used in Japan. Japanese Sign Language is a naturally evolved language, and like any other language has its own linguistic structures. Manual systems for expressing a spoken language often lead to ungrammatical structures and incomplete sentences in both the spoken and signed language. In Japan, there are three kinds of sign terms[13][1]:

A sign language among the sign terms is only JSL. However, those three kinds of sign terms are called “Shuwa (sign)” widely in Japan.

The sign languages of Korea and Taiwan share some signs with JSL, perhaps due to cultural transfer during the period of Japanese occupation. JSL has about a 60% lexical similarity with Taiwanese Sign Language.[14]

Deaf EducationEdit

The confliction about the definition of JSL and Taiou Shuwa continues, and it affects Deaf education[15][2]. In the 1990s, the long term of oral education was converted to the total communication method. Previously, Deaf children were forced to speak and banned from using sign language in all schools for the Deaf. With the total communication method, teachers use every communication tool, including spoken language, written language, and simultaneous communication, to fit each Deaf child. Also, sign spread in Japan at that time, but the sign was used along with speaking, called Taiou Shuwa.
In 2003, the Japan Deaf Children and Parents Association published a civil rights remedy statement called “Rights of Deaf children to education equality were infringed”. They requested teachers who can teach JSL in all schools, and they demanded the JSL cambism class for the all universities give a license for teachers of the Deaf. However, the Japanese Federation of the Deaf said “human rights may be infringed by distinguishing the two communication methods for users of JSL and Taiou Shuwa,” with some agreement from the Japan Deaf Children and Parents Association. Finally, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations prepared “Opinion to require enriched sign education,” and they used the word “sign” instead of JSL. The statement did not have the power of adding the mention that teachers can teach in JSL in all schools for the Deaf.
Currently, JSL is used in only one private school in Tokyo, Meisei Gakuen, and the other schools for the Deaf use other communication methods.

Bilingual Education for Deaf in JapanEdit

Bilingual Education for Deaf aims to acquire JSL and written language. Some parents select other modality of language as well with sign language, like spoken language, to communicate with their children. Some parents also select to use other tools, cochlear implants and hearing aids, for their Deaf children with sign language. In regards to the Deaf education, using sign was cited in studies as it prevents from acquiring written language for a long time.
However, recent articles[16] reported that the children who have fluent first language have the ability to acquire second language, like other foreign language learners, even though the modalities are different. Therefore, the most important thing is to acquire fluency in the first language. The future task is to think about how to make the bridge between Japanese sign language and written language in bilingual education.
In Japan, the bilingual education has been in free school (Tatsunoko Gakuen) since 1999 and school (Meisei Gakuen) since 2009.


In 2011, the first sign law was established on “language” as an act for persons with disabilities on July 29th, and it was announced on Aug 5th[3]. After this, sign was enacted and acknowledged as a form of language by law in Japan.
In 2013, the first sign language law[4] was established in Tottori Prefecture. “Sign is language”, the law was written. From then on, sign law was spread all over Japan in the scale of prefecture.
Currently, there are aims to establish sign language law at the national level.
However, there are two conflictive positions[17][5] about the sign law. Those sign laws were not written as JSL. One position claimed that it is dangerous to mislead that sign language includes not only JSL, but also Taiou Shuwa (Mannually coded Japanese or simultaneous communication), Chuukan Shuwa (Contact Sign). The other claimed that by establishing JSL language law makes it easy to discriminate many various sign users.

Diffusion among the hearingEdit

Interest in sign language among the hearing population of Japan has been increasing, with numerous books now published targeting the hearing population, a weekly TV program teaching JSL, and the increasing availability of night school classes for the hearing to learn JSL. There have been several TV dramas, including Hoshi no Kinka (1995), in which signing has been a significant part of the plot, and sign language dramas are now a minor genre on Japanese TV.

The highly acclaimed 2006 film Babel, which was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and nominated for multiple Academy Awards, also featured JSL as a significant element of the plot. Hearing actress Rinko Kikuchi received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her signing role in this film.

In Japan, about 40,000 signatures including both the hearing and deaf people were collected to subtitle the scene in Babel spoken in Japanese for the deaf audience.[18]

The anime school drama film "A Silent Voice" (Japanese: 聲の形 Hepburn: Koe no Katachi, lit. The Shape of Voice), released in 2016, features a prominent deaf JSL-speaking character, Shōko Nishimiya. It was produced by Kyoto Animation, directed by Naoko Yamada, written by Reiko Yoshida, and featured character designs by Futoshi Nishiya. It is based on the manga of the same name written and illustrated by Yoshitoki Ōima. The film premiered in Japan on September 17, 2016.


As in other sign languages, JSL (usually called simply 手話 shuwa, "hand talk") consists of words, or signs, and the grammar with which they are put together. JSL signs may be nouns, verbs, adjectives, or any other part of a sentence, including suffixes indicating tense, negation, and grammatical particles. Signs consist not just of a manual gesture, but also mouthing (口話, kōwa, "mouth talk") (pronouncing a standard Japanese word with or without making a sound). The same sign may assume one of two different but semantically related meanings, as for example in "home" and "house", according to its mouthing. Another indispensable part of many signs is facial expression.

The yubimoji "tsu" imitates the shape of the katakana character "tsu" ().

In addition to signs and their grammar, JSL is augmented by yubimoji (指文字, "finger letters"), a form of fingerspelling, which was introduced from the United States in the early part of the twentieth century, but is used less often than in American Sign Language. Each yubimoji corresponds to a kana, as illustrated by the JSL syllabary. Fingerspelling is used mostly for foreign words, last names, and unusual words. Pantomime (身振り, miburi, "gestures") is used to cover situations where existing signs are not sufficient.

Because JSL is strongly influenced by the complex Japanese writing system, it dedicates particular attention to the written language and includes elements specifically designed to express kanji in signs. For either conciseness or disambiguation, particular signs are associated with certain commonly used kanji, place names, and sometimes surnames. Finger writing (空書, kūsho, "air writing") (tracing kanji in the air) is also sometimes used for last names or place names, just as it is in spoken Japanese.

Examples of signsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Japanese Sign Language at Ethnologue (22nd ed., 2019)
  2. ^ Itida, Y. Japanese Association for Sign Language Studies. The Estimated Population of Japanese Sign Language Users. Retrieved June, 2001.
  3. ^ Monaghan, Leila Frances. (2003). Many Ways to be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf Communities, p. 211 at Google Books
  4. ^ Nakamura, Karen. (2006). Deaf in Japan: Signing and the Politics of Identity, p. 9, citing Kimura, Harumi and Yasuhiro Ichida. 1995. "Roubunka Sengen" (An Explanation of Deaf Culture), Gendai Shisou, Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 354–399.
  5. ^ Nakamura, Karen. "Resistance and Co‐optation: the Japanese Federation of the Deaf and its Relations with State Power". Social Science Japan Journal (SSJJ) (2002) Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 17–35.
  6. ^ Valpy, Michael. "The emperor and the tennis pro". Globe and Mail (Canada). June 27, 2009.
  7. ^ Imperial Household Agency. Their Imperial Highnesses Prince and Princess Akishino
  8. ^ "Princess Kiko chats with Deaf soccer players in sign language after film show" Archived 2011-07-08 at the Wayback Machine. Deaf Japan News. September 7, 2010.
  9. ^ "Deaf community requests enactment of the sign language law" Archived 2011-07-08 at the Wayback Machine. Deaf Japan News. November 15, 2010.
  10. ^ "Sign Language Stated in Law!" at jfd.or.jp; excerpt, "Every person with disabilities, wherever possible, shall be ensured opportunities to choose his or her language (including sign language) and/or other means of communication, and the expansion of opportunities to choose his or her means of acquiring or utilizing information shall be promoted."
  11. ^ a b c Japanese Association of Sign Language Interpreters, Introduction Archived 2010-11-07 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Saruhashi, Junko and Yuko Takeshita. "Ten Linguistic Issues in Japan: The Impact of Globalization". Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development
  13. ^ Kimura, H. (2011). 日本手話と日本語対応手話(手指日本語)―間にある「深い谷」.
  14. ^ Fischer, Susan (2010). Variation in East Asian Sign Language Structures. p. 501. ISBN 9781139487399.
  15. ^ Kwak, J. (2017). 日本手話とろう教育. Seikatsushoin.
  16. ^ Mayberry, I. R. (n.d.). First-language acqui- sition after childhood differs from second- language acquisition. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 36, 1258-1270. Retrieved December, 1993.
  17. ^ Mori, S., & Sasaki, N. (2016). 手話を言語と言うのなら. Hitsuji-syobou.
  18. ^ "yonmannin shomei haikyu ugokasu". asahi (in Japanese). asahi. Retrieved 13 February 2017.


External linksEdit