Friday, April 20, 2012

AJJ Presentation: The Face(s) of the Japanese Deaf 2012 - and - some comments on the McCartney/Portman/Depp sign language collaboration...

The Anthropology of Japan in Japan (AJJ) group is holding their spring workshop this weekend at Osaka Gakuin University. The meeting schedule can be viewed at their blog:


Of special interest might be this paper:

Bicultural and Bilingual in Japan: The Face(s) of the Japanese Deaf 2012

Abstract: There is much variation within the so-called deaf community in terms of identity and language use because of diverse educational, family, work, social and regional backgrounds. Japanese Deaf researchers explain this situation as a process of pluralization created by multiple groups and individuals rather than falling under the hegemony of major organizations or heuristic models. This paper has two goals: providing 1) a general overview of contemporary deaf people in Japan including their own ideas of biculturalism (Deaf and Japanese) and bilingualism (Japanese Sign Language and a signed version of Japanese), and 2) a visual anthropology of sign language use through photographic portraits of individuals focusing on facial expression. The data for this paper comes from long-term ethnographic fieldwork with a local Deaf organization in Osaka, Japan - in particular, its classes, clinics, workshops, projects and lectures conducted in Japanese Sign Language (with no interpretation) to share perspectives and explore the place(s) of deaf people in Japanese society. 

By coincidence as I was putting this presentation together, the new video for the Paul McCartney song "My Valentine" came out along with comments and criticism of the sign language use by his featured collaborators, Natalie Portman  and Johnny Depp.

Link to "My Valentine" video on YouTube:

Here is an example of the criticism from

Depp, Portman screw up sign language in McCartney vid

Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman probably jumped at the opportunity to appear in the video for Paul McCartney's song "My Valentine," but they probably wish they hadn't used sign language for some of the lyrics: Some deaf fans are claiming Depp and Portman's signing is rife with gaffes. When Depp attempts to sign the word "valentine," several YouTube commenters note that in British sign language, he's actually saying "enemy." Not really the sentiment Macca was going for. Portman fares just as badly, if not worse. Her naughty-looking sign at the 56-second mark for the word "appear" is actually the word for "tampon." What's the sign for "whoops"?


You can find a lot of commentary to support or critique the sign language in the video but my thoughts as related to my upcoming AJJ presentation are as follows. Despite some flaws in the signing (and the comment that a certain sign in American Sign Language has a different meaning in British Sign Language should not be a criticism. Rather it illustrates that ASL and BSL are two different languages. The extended middle finger that has an obscene meaning as a gesture in America means "brother" in Japanese Sign Language and "mountain" in Korean Sign Language. Spoken languages are rife with examples of similar sounding words with very different meanings...) I see the main problem in the video to be a lack of facial expression. Portman is beautiful but her facial expression rarely changes - and it should to express the meaning of the song lyrics she is signing. Depp certainly looks cool but his facial expression remains constant as well. The song is about love and romance but these emotions/feelings are missing from the sign language. It is akin to someone singing the song in monotone. There seems to be a focus on hands (and rings with Depp) at times with no view of the face. Sign languages use the entire body and so the focus on just the hands is only presenting a part of the communication process. And there are scenes where there is singing but no signing. This is akin to there being gaps in the lyrics. Who is this video really for? Is it a video for deaf people to enjoy or another case where sign language is being (incorrectly) used for artistic effect?

Am I being too critical as an academic? Perhaps I should enjoy the video and be happy that there is sign language? Maybe this will encourage others to study sign language? I imagine my Japanese deaf friends might applaud the video on the surface but critique the flaws among themselves (however I cannot speak for Japanese deaf people...). Many of my foreign friends make fun of the mistakes Japanese artists make in their songs with their English usage. The difference here is the lack of politics - English is not a not a minority language used by a group of people historically discriminated against. American Sign Language is (and so is JSL). Greater understanding of the nature of sign language along with its role in identity is needed.

Anyway, if you are in Osaka over the weekend, please check out the AJJ Spring Workshop. Yoroshiku!

No comments: