Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Japanese Sign Language Education Gets Official Nod"

(article from The Asahi Shimbun, 4/11/08, by Mika Omura)

You can click on the link above to get to the official Asahi Shimbun story, but I am providing the whole article below because it is an incredibly important step for deaf people, deaf students and the recognition of JSL as a real bona fide language in Japan. (Also, I'm not sure how long the link will work...) The declining birthrate in Japan of course means that there are fewer deaf children as well. So many deaf schools are scheduled to close. There are plans to merge schools for deaf, blind and other so-called handicapped children. This can be seen as a terrible blow for deaf culture, as deaf schools are a major place for children to pick up sign language and deaf culture. How are children who cannot hear and children who cannot see study and learn together? But for now let's celebrate this good news...

A school that will use sign language to teach deaf children, the first of its kind in Japan, opened Wednesday in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward.

The school is the brainchild of the Tokyo-based Bilingual Bicultural Education Center for Deaf Children (BBED), a nonprofit organization whose members are deaf people and parents of deaf children. The group gathered donations from around the nation to fund the project.

The group recognizes sign language, especially Japanese sign language, which has long been unofficially used by deaf people in Japan to communicate, as the "mother tongue" of people with hearing disabilities.

The group previously provided bilingual and bicultural deaf education in a free school called Tatsunoko Gakuen, which it operated until March out of a rented classroom at Asamadai Elementary School in Shinagawa Ward. It is now closed.

For many years, the conventional approach to teaching children with hearing loss focused on "oral" deaf education. The goal was to use auditory technology, including hearing aids, to boost hearing, develop listening skills and teach children to speak Japanese. The aim was to enable communication with hearing people.

Students who studied at Tatsunoko Gakuen using the sign language were ineligible to receive a graduation diploma, as education based on sign language was not accepted by the education ministry.

The BBED's battle to offer education in sign language predates a March 2007 move by the government designating Tokyo as a special district for structural reform for deaf education.

Last December, BBED finally received permission to open an officially recognized school offering a bilingual-bicultural option through Japanese sign language.

The new school is called Meisei Gakuen. It uses facilities at the former Yashiokita Elementary School in Shinagawa Ward. Yashiokita was closed after the consolidation of public schools in the area.

The NPO estimated that it needed 45 million yen to start up the school. The group solicited contributions on the streets, at special events and through the Internet.

It gathered donations from about 550 individuals nationwide, raising a total of 76 million yen. Several companies also supported the cause in their corporate social responsibility activities.

The NPO received many letters of encouragement. One donor wrote: "I want to be of some help to the children." Another wrote: "I am sending a bit from my pension. I am sorry it is not much."

Tomoko Hasebe was in charge of the BBED school project.

"Of course we're grateful for the money. But more than that, we were helped by the warm encouragement. It gave us confidence that people understood our cause," Hasebe said.

Meisei Gakuen has both a preschool and elementary school. About 40 children from Tokyo and nearby prefectures such as Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa and Shizuoka are enrolled. The opening ceremony was held Wednesday.

Yasutaka Itagaki, 8, son of Keiko Itagaki, 39, entered third grade.

"It took us a long time, but we finally managed to achieve our dream of opening our own school. This is only the beginning. We will work hard to become a successful model for bilingual-bicultural education using sign language," Keiko Itagaki said.

The story, unfortunately, seems to be very under-reported in both Japanese and English news sources. The Asahi Shimbun carried it in their Kids News (???) web site.

Link to story in Japanese at Asahi Shimbun News for Kids

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