Examining Deaf Education with Japanese Sign Language as a Medium of Instruction

published: 2015-03-01Japanese

Brochure “Sign Language Act We Make”

I come from South Korea and I am conducting research on deaf education. Recently, ardent campaigns have been conducted to enact the “sign language act” both in South Korea and Japan. Especially in Japan, a code related to sign language has been passed by 10 local governments since October 2013, when the sign language code was passed by Tottori Prefecture for the first time in Japan. The sign language act mainly suggests the guarantee of five rights—acquiring sign language, learning with sign language, learning sign language, using sign language and protecting sign language.

I am especially interested in the right of “learning with sign language”. Deaf education in Japan has emphasized on the study of Japanese sounds via oral method. Oral method is a language teaching methodology by which a person acquires spoken language by utilizing the shape of his/her mouth and a hearing aid etc. Recently, the necessity of using sign language has been recognized and many deaf schools provide education with sign language. However, since many teachers who work for deaf school are hearing people, how much they can communicate via sign language varies considerably from person to person. And many kinds of sign language used at deaf school are also called Signed Japanese. Signed Japanese is a manually coded form of Japanese that uses the signs of Japanese Sign Language. Japanese Sign Language is another type of language for deaf people. It is the sign language deaf people use in their daily life and it is said to have its original grammar and system which are different from Japanese.

Tatsunoko Gakuen, a free school (informal school), was established by deaf and hearing persons who had doubts about existing deaf education in 1999. Its medium of instruction was Japanese Sign Language. What this means that all educational activities were conducted with sign language. Tatsunoko Gakuen developed with the support of parents with deaf children and it got approval as school cooperation in 2007 and consequently Meisei Gakuen, a private school, was established in April 2008. Meisei Gakuen is located in Shinagawa-ward, Tokyo and it has divisions from kindergarten to junior high school (http://www.meiseigakuen.ed.jp/english/index.html). All teachers at Meisei Gakuen acquire sign language and about half of them has deaf. The unique characteristic of Meisei Gakuen is that Meisei Gakuen practices bilingual deaf education in which it uses sign language, which is the first language of deaf children, as the medium of instruction and it uses Japanese reading and writing skills as a second language. Meisei Gakuen is the only school for deaf persons which uses Japanese Sign Language in all educational courses. Since no school provides bilingual deaf education in South Korea, my home country, I become interested in the movement of deaf education through Japanese Sign Language.

Newsletters of Meisei Gakuen

I have been examining the history and social condition of deaf education through Japanese Sign Language while critically viewing Japanese supremacy and assimilationism which have emphasized only Japanese, the mainstream language, just for social integration of deaf people. My research methodologies are interview surveys to officials of Tatsunoko Gakuen and Meisei Gakuen as well as literature research related to deaf education and sign language. Some interviewees are deaf persons and others are hearing persons. Since I cannot use Japanese Sign Language at this point, I ask a sign language interpreter to interpret what deaf people say when I interview them.

If the sign language act is enacted, it is estimated that deaf school will use Japanese Sign Language as the medium of instruction more and more. However, there are some deaf persons who oppose the sign language act. The reason they oppose the act is that they worry that the right of deaf people who use Japanese Sign Language is trivialized since the sign language code and sign language bill do not distinguish Japanese Sign Language from Signed Japanese clearly. On the other hand, there are other people in the deaf community who do not agree with the distinction between Japanese Sign Language and Signed Japanese and worry about its distinction. According to them, since sign language as well as other minority languages has been strongly influenced by spoken language, it is not easy to distinguish one sign language to another one. Moreover, there are some people who criticize the insistence of emphasizing only Japanese Sign Language because the insistence can lead to such an essentialist insistence as “real/pure” Japanese Sign Language.

I would like to keep conducting my research concerning how deaf education with Japanese Sign Language as the medium of instruction has been established with my eyes set on these various positions and controversies. I would like to learn Japanese Sign Language actively in order to listen to various opinions of deaf people concerning various kinds of sign language within the deaf community.

Kwak Jeongran, 2014/03, “Opening the Deaf Free School `Tatsunoko Gakuen`”, Core Ethics, Vol.10, pp.61-72 (in Japanese)

KWAK Jeongran

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