Saturday, June 21, 2008

"Visual Experience of Puppetry" and More JSL in the News

(Image borrowed from Deaf Puppet Theater Hitomi web page.)

Here is an article from today's Daily Yomiuri (link) about a theater company called "Deaf Puppet Theater Hitomi." Throughout the course of my research here in Japan I have been able to see some of their performances. They are quite wonderful - it is amazing how deaf and hearing people work together to incorporate sign language and puppetry into a theater production. If you have a chance to see them, please do.

Article text reads as follows:

Deaf Puppet Theater Hitomi, a theater company that includes members who are hearing impaired, will perform a voiceless puppet show on June 28 and 29 that uses various-sized boxes to represent more than 100 items.

Director Tsubame Kusunoki is said to follow the credo, "a puppet show is a visual performance," something he once heard that eventually inspired him to choreograph puppet shows.

Hako Boxes: Jiichan no Orugoru (Boxes: My grampa's music box) is visually oriented and makes use of puppet movements, including pantomime. The accompanying music is performed live during the show, and for audiences made up of the hearing impaired, the musicians add to the visual enjoyment by incorporating unusually shaped instruments.

The story features the relationship between family and society, and deals with a variety of electrical appliances, from washing machines and black-and-white TVs to cell-phones and computer games.

Beginning before World War II, a little boy named Senkichi becomes infatuated with a girl named Sumi. He one day gives her a music box. Years later, Senkichi comes back from the front and marries Sumi, and later have a daughter they name Yukie. By the time Yukie becomes a mother herself, everything, from their lifestyle to their familial relationships, has changed. Old Sumi begins remembering the past when she brings out the music box.

The Deaf Puppet Theater, which was established in 1980, is the only puppet company of its kind in the world, and has been invited to perform Boxes at an arts festival for the disabled in Cambodia.

"Hako Boxes: Jiichan no Orugoru" will be performed on June 28 from 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. and June 29 from 2 p.m. at Setagaya Theater Tram in Tokyo. Admission: 3,500 yen for adults and 2,500 yen for children. For more information, contact Foundation Modern Puppet Center at (044) 777-2228 or visit

Link to Deaf Puppet Theater Hitomi web page (in Japanese):

Actually, I have been pleasantly surprised by the recent coverage of Japanese Sign Language in the Daily Yomiuri lately. Here is an article from June 12 (link) about the difference between JSL and Signed Japanese:

Japan's evolving sign languages a challenge for users and interpreters

By Yoji Yamahata / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

When it comes to sign language, you have probably noticed that some television news programs feature it, or you may have seen interpreters signing during lectures to convey what is being discussed. Often, the kind of sign language seen in such settings is Manually Coded Japanese--also called Signed Japanese. It is a system in which word-level signs are simply applied in accordance with the word order of standard Japanese. It can easily be learned by the hearing as well as those who become deaf later in life.

In contrast, Japanese sign language (JSL) is something that has developed spontaneously among hearing-impaired Japanese. For those using JSL, it is difficult to understand Manually Coded Japanese. Therefore, some JSL signers who also teach the language released a set of DVDs earlier this year, aimed at sign language interpreters and hearing people.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, there were about 276,000 recognized deaf people in the nation as of 2006, of whom about 64,000 communicated by sign language.

It is believed that modern JSL has its origins in signs that were used at a school for the deaf that was established in Kyoto in 1878. In JSL, which features a different grammatical system from that of Japanese, movements of not only hands, fingers and arms, but also facial features--with the mouth moving as if to pronounce "pa" and "po"--can supply grammatical elements. According to one unofficial estimate, there are about 57,000 people who communicate using JSL today.

On the other hand, Manually Coded Japanese is based on a system used at a sign language organization established in Kyoto in 1963. This type of sign language is often taught at clubs by hearing people.

According to the Education, Science and Technology Ministry, the nation's official education system for the deaf until the 1990s focused on training children to read lips and produce sounds. In recent years, more and more schools for the hearing-impaired have begun teaching Manually Coded Japanese as they believe that it can benefit such children.

Given this shifting history, it is often difficult for many middle-aged deaf people--who only know JSL--to understand people who use Manually Coded Japanese.

"In the case of Manually Coded Japanese, I can understand just about 20 percent of what is being signed," said Kayoko Sakata, 46, a lecturer at Kansai Shuwa College in Osaka, a school that teaches JSL to the hearing and sign language interpreters.

One of Sakata's colleagues, Kazuki Yano, 58, said, "I can feel at ease if we can enjoy service in JSL at hospitals [for example]."

Sakata and Yano are among the producers of a set of two DVDs titled Odoroki no Shuwa "Pa" "Po" Honyaku (surprising sign language: translations with "pa" and "po") released in March this year by Osaka-based publisher Seikosha. The discs, which run to 4-1/2 hours and are accompanied by a 192-page book, feature a list of vocabulary, give advice on how to express feelings and explain how expressions can be different between men and women or between generations.

"If sign language interpreters also have knowledge of JSL, they can give translations that allow the deaf to understand better what is being talked about," said Fumikazu Teraguchi, 42, a hearing employee of Kansai Shuwa College.

Prof. Akihiko Yonekawa of Baika Women's University in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture, pointed out that there is often miscommunication among the deaf, saying: "Middle-aged people signing JSL find themselves not understood by the younger generations who are fluent in Manually Coded Japanese.

"It is desirable that [interpreters] can switch between suitable kinds of sign language depending on the audience they are working for and choose expressions that they can understand."

Of course this article over simplifies many things and I have problems with some of the claims and statistics cited, but still I am happy that such issues are being reported in a daily newspaper.

Here's another article from the Daily Yomiuri on June 12 about Meisei Gakuen school (link):

Kids connect at school in sign language

Tomonori Iwanami / Yomiuri Shimbun Photographer

With smiling faces all around, there was lively conversation among students in a classroom at Meisei Gakuen school in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo. Yet the classroom remained silent.

Opened in April this year, the private school is the nation's first school for hearing-impaired children offering classes based on Japanese sign language (JSL), which can be acquired naturally as a mother tongue by such children and features a different grammatical system from that of Japanese.

Traditionally, sign language has been discouraged in the nation's education of deaf people, which instead has mainly encouraged children to lip-read and make sounds. This approach was based on the theory that hearing-impaired children have to fit in with the life of the nondisabled, and sign language was thought to be a major obstacle for deaf children when learning Japanese.

However, such training has also resulted in a great burden on hearing-impaired children, said Principal Michio Saito, when The Yomiuri Shimbun visited the school in mid-May.

"They can live a happy life even if they use only sign language," he said. "Creating a school that allows children to study in sign language has been our hope for more than two decades."

Meisei Gakuen currently has 41 students studying in its preschool and primary school. Some of them live in Tokyo's neighboring prefectures, including two who come from as far as Shizuoka Prefecture.

The primary school offers almost the same curriculum as regular primary schools, but one exception is that sign language classes take the place of music lessons, giving students the chance to learn the rewards of expressing themselves in JSL.

Meisei Gakuen is set to open a middle school in a few years.

"It's really fun here," said fifth grader Nanami Miyasaka. "I want to become a kendo teacher in the future."

"What kind of school is suitable for children using JSL? Take a look and you can see for yourself," Saito said.

Many of the students appeared relaxed in class and confidently made presentations in front of other students--scenes that reinforced the principal's comments.

I had a post about this school in April that included a story from the Asahi Shimbun (link).

(Images borrowed from Meisei Gakuen web page.)

Here are two links for more information about the growing movement of accepting sign language as a real bona fide language and allowing deaf children to use JSL as their first language at school:

Link to Meisei Gakuen web page (in Japanese):

Link to Bilingual Bicultural Education center for Deaf Children web page (in Japanese):

Let's hope these positive trends continue.

1 comment:

papermoon puppet theatre said...

thank you so much for this article..
really inspiring!!
we will do a puppet play that will be dedicated for deaf people, too.. then i found your article!!
(sadly their website is in japanese language)..