By Ronnie Augusto Triminio and Steven Jankowski
You may be familiar with the spoken languages of Japan (Japanese, Ainu, Ryukyuan) but are you familiar with its unspoken one? Japan, like many countries, has its own national sign language. Nihon Shuwa, or Japanese Sign Language (JSL) is estimated to be used by over 125,000 people. At first it may seem like an auxiliary to Japanese, but it’s important to understand that JSL is considered a natural language, with its own grammatical structure, history, and culture. It even has its own local dialects!
The gestures used in Shuwa may at times seem recognizable to users of other sign language families like American/Canadian (ASL) or British/Australian/New Zealand (BANZSL). In some cases, gestures in one sign language may carry an unfortunate meaning in another — for instance, the sign for “brothers” (兄弟, kyōdai) would be offensive to many English speakers. Just as often, however, signs are borrowed from another sign language and may even carry the same meaning: one such borrowed sign between ASL and JSL is “I love you” (愛している, ai shiteiru).
A notable characteristic of Shuwa is that a number of signs are based around the Japanese kanji! For example, the gesture for “river” (川, kawa) is done by sticking your index, middle and ring fingers out and bringing them down, as if you were drawing the kanji with your hand. Whether you are interested in learning Japanese or just kanji, learning Shuwa can be very rewarding!
When my friend invited me to attend a session of our local Shuwa circle at the Saza community center, I was a bit sheepish. I wouldn’t call myself fluent in Japanese, so attempting to learn JSL seemed like quite a challenge. Luckily, the community was so kind and eager to teach. By the end of our session, I was able to sign my name and had built a connection with them, despite my initial fears.
Unfortunately, as of the posting of this issue, Shuwa classes are limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are interested in studying JSL, you can check your local library or bookstore near the Health and Welfare (健康福祉, kenkō fukushi) section for Shuwa dictionaries and textbooks, or order one from Amazon Japan. Many of these books come with helpful DVDs to see the signs. There are also a number of YouTubers that put out easy-to-follow content, and Japan’s NHK also releases daily news and educational content in JSL on its website. If you really want to challenge yourself, you can even try out for the Shuwa Kentei to earn a certification!
Shuwa is an interesting and fun language to learn while in Japan. Please give it a shot!