Our Movement for Promoting the Establishment of a Sign Language Law in Japan

Our Movement for Promoting the Establishment
of a Sign Language Law in Japan

The Circumstances Around Deaf People in Japan

For over 70 years, the Japanese Federation of the Deaf has, has fought to realize an environment where sign language communication and information access are guaranteed. After the establishment of the country’s first school for the deaf in Kyoto in 1878 (Meiji 11), the number of schools increased to over a hundred across the course of the Taisho (1912 – 1926) and Showa periods (1926 – 1989). The alumni associations of these schools became the foundation for the establishment of groups and national organizations for the deaf, which would become the driving force for bringing the issue of social recognition of sign language to the government.

However, that’s not to say it’s been a smooth road from the time when deaf persons would be scorned with derogatory terms like oshi and tsumbo to now, when the establishment of a law surrounding sign language is now being considered. To begin with, after 1920 (Taisho 9), it became a common misunderstanding in deaf schools that sign language would impede Japanese language acquisition, so many of these schools purposely eradicated sign language from practice. Even so, the children, students, and graduates and deaf schools continued to use sign language for communication. The fact that sign language continued to be used and develop even throughout a period of intense suppression shows the innate human need for language acquisition. In spite of this, over a long period of time, sign language acquisition continued to be put off by deaf education, and deaf people felt a sense of inferiority for using it.

Furthermore, the beginning movement of the Japanese Federation of the Deaf was also significantly influenced by Japanese society’s eugenic views of disabled people and policies surrounding disabled welfare. Even compared to other countries, discrimination and prejudices against disabled people were clearly visible in Japan, which also connected to an extremely disproportionate emphasis on oralism and a disdain for sign language and deaf people. Against this backdrop, the Federation at the time strived to advance a movement that would create a society where deaf people can overcome these barriers of discrimination and engage in social participation. In addition, because the Japanese welfare policy that began in the postwar period gave favorable treatment to wounded soldiers, there was no aim to preserve respect for persons with physical and psychological disabilities or their basic human rights. As a result, the idea of “communication via sign language” was understood only as a component of welfare policy for the disabled, and so the lack of understanding the need to guarantee it as a basic human right continued for a long time.

In addition, the lack of understanding in our country of the diversity of languages and cultures associated with a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic society became a significant factor in the delay of understanding sign language as a proper language. Sign language was handled not in policy surrounding languages, but rather in the realm of disability welfare policy.

Against this background, the Japanese Federation of the Deaf has poured its resources into the enrichment of disability welfare policy. As a result, citizens’ engagement with learning sign language has reached a degree unprecedented in other countries, encompassing the development of full and part-time sign interpreter training and dispatching organizations all over the country. These organizations brought forth regional establishments of sign language study and lecture groups, whose graduates started sign language clubs with an ever-expanding reach. Additionally, the Federation’s movements against discrimination encompass reforming laws which enabled discriminatory hiring practices against disabled people, which expanded employment options for deaf people. Deaf people also became able to obtain driver’s licenses and manage their own assets.

As the above describes, the Japanese Federation of the Deaf has developed and expanded a disability movement within the field of welfare. However, in order to guarantee free access to information and communication in sign language across all domains such as the judicial, legislative, administrative, medical, and educational fields, it has been necessary to strongly argue that sign language is a language. The inability to hear means that communication through oral languages, which hearing people tend to use as a default, is extremely difficult. In order to fulfill functions like connecting with people, learning at school, and building relationships with people at home, work, and elsewhere, it is necessary to guarantee not a fragmentary communication system but a language. In the case of deaf people, the language they are 100% able to understand is sign language, which relies on visual functions, and in order to guarantee the fundamental human rights of deaf people, we seek the establishment of a legal guarantee of an environment where one can freely use sign language.

Launching the Organization to Advance the Establishment of a Sign Language Law

The Japanese Federation of the Deaf, in order to seize the opportunity to create a long-desired legal basis for the notion that “sign language is language,” partnered with related organizations, researchers, educators, and others in October 2010 to aim toward the establishment of a sign language law. Using funds from the Nippon Foundation, the Federation launched the Organization to Advance the Establishment of a Sign Language Law.

Here, we established research groups and working meetings to conduct domestic and international surveys and determine the legal situation of sign language in Japan, studying jurisprudence, articles and ideas written within laws, public hearings, and public comments, with the aim of presenting a Sign Language Bill to the National Diet. We have deliberated over how to build a domestic sign language legal system, using studies of existing language laws, domestic and international fact-finding investigations in Japan, New Zealand, Europe, and elsewhere. We released our first project report in in July 2013, and the entire text can be perused where it is hosted on the Japanese Federation of the Deaf homepage:

Development of the Japanese Federation of the Deaf’s Movement for Promoting the Establishment of a Sign Language Law

Occurring before and laying the groundwork for the movement for promoting the establishment of a sign language law was the pursuit of enacting of an information-communication law. At the time, the movement towards promoting the passage of an information-communication law developed when the Central Office for Developing Strategies for the Law Supporting the Independent Living of Persons with Hearing Impairments (choukaku shougaisha jiritsu shienhou taisaku chuuou honbu), which had been handling the oft-criticized Law for Supporting the Independent Living of Persons with Disabilities, had been renamed to the Central Office for Systems for Reforming Persons with Hearing Impairments (choukaku shougaisha seido kaikaku chuuou honbu). This Central Office for Promoting Systems for Reforming Persons with Hearing Impairments was composed of six different organizations – the Japanese Federation of the Deaf, the All Japan Association of Hard of Hearing and Late-Deafened People, the Japan Deafblind Association, the National Research Association for Sign Language Interpretation, the Japanese Association of Sign Language Interpreters, and the National Research Group for Topics on Note-Taking – to advocate for passing laws supporting the rights of hearing impaired persons to communication and information access. At a kick-off rally in August 2010, they, along with headquarters in all of Japan’s prefectures, distributed 300,000 “We Love Communication” pamphlets. Additionally, they decided to run a campaign to collect 1,200,000 signatures calling for the realization of a legal system that guarantees the right to information access and communication. Having determined this resolution, they dispatched instructors to various prefectural headquarters to proactively advance signature collecting and handing out pamphlets on the street.

Through these movements, it became more widely known what kinds of barriers affect deaf persons, hearing-impaired persons, late-deafened persons, deafblind persons, and how blind persons, persons with intellectual disabilities, and many others require information support, and how the guarantee of accessible information and communication constitutes a human right. Understanding spread of the need for a broad recognition of the difference between the oral language of Japanese and sign language through the systemization of access methods for Japanese aural and written information, as well as the need for access to signed information more generally. The fact that the Central Office for Promoting Systems for Reforming Persons with Hearing Impairments pursued the information-communication law first was a tremendous benefit to combating misguided notions that a sign language law would only benefit Deaf people who use sign language, or that such a law would not be inclusive towards persons with other disabilities.

As people’s understanding of the necessity of the right to information access and communication deepened, widespread understanding of what the rights to choose particular kinds of communication as well as the acquisition and use of sign language are – in other words, differentiations between different guarantees of linguistic rights – dramatically increased. The movement demanding the passage of a sign language communication law came to grow stronger, and movements advocating engagement with sign language sprouted up across the country. In addition, citizens learned from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which saw many deaf casualties, that sign language represents deaf people’s right to live, and is indeed life itself. These learnings were a major reason behind the movement for promoting the sign language communication law.

The Japanese Federation of the Deaf made a pamphlet called “Let’s GO with Sign Language!” in 2013, and regional deaf organizations under the Federation banded together with regional sign language circles and local offices of the National Research Association for Sign Language Interpretation in forming an alliance to vigorously distribute the pamphlets in government locations and meetings. As a result, adoptions of written motions towards the government seeking the legal systematization of sign language communication, as well as motions towards establishing local sign language regulations, began to appear. Currently, adoptions of written opinions have occurred in municipalities in all administrative divisions of Japan – a first for Japan’s parliamentary history. Additionally, Tottori Prefecture became the first to adopt a local sign language regulation, and with Ishikari City becoming the first city-level government to adopt a local regulation, various adoptions have spread throughout the entire country. (The current number of municipal adoptions as of March 28th, 2019 is at 26 prefectures, 5 wards, 190 cities, and 38 towns, which makes 260 independent bodies to have adopted some form of regulation: https://www.jfd.or.jp/sgh/joreimap)

The Current Status of the Movement for Promoting the Establishment of a Sign Language Law

In the midst of the increasing momentum for the pursuit of establishing a sign language law, the Federation hosted the 66th
National Congress of the Japanese Federation of the Deaf on June 10th, 2018 in Osaka, where a special resolution was adopted. The contents of the special resolution are as follows:

“On December 19th, 2017, at the 72nd Session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, a resolution was adopted that declared September 23rd as the “International Day of Sign Language.” Having determined September 23rd as a celebratory day of sign language, it was codified that all countries belonging to the UN would be urged to make appropriate plans in their own government assemblies.

In 2010, the movement seeking the legal establishment of a sign language law was begun, and while eight years have passed, despite the phrase “languages (including sign)” being included in the Fundamental Law for Persons with Disabilities (Shougaisha kihon hou), sign language is still stuck being considered just a method of communication – not a language. This is clearly visible through the current status of policy measures across the various government ministries.

Beginning with written motions seeking the legal establishment of a sign language law occurring in 1,788 municipal bodies by March 3rd, 2016, the Governors’ Association for Spreading Sign was joined by governors from all 47 prefectures, and 392 mayors became members and 9 mayors became associate members of the National Sign Language Mayoral Association. As of February 20th, 2018, 168 municipal governments (16 prefectures, 100 cities, and 12 towns) have adopted sign language regulations, and on December 18th, 2017, the Governors’ Association for Spreading Sign sent a written demand on “the establish of a sign language law” to the central government.

In addition, at the 21st International Congress on the Education of the Deaf in Vancouver in July 2010 (Heisei 22), members annulled a prior adoption made 130 years ago in the Milano meeting of the same organization on “excluding sign from deaf education.” It was officially acknowledged that when deaf persons receive education, sign is a language that plays an important role in furthering human relationships and knowledge.

For a long time, we have endured unreasonable discrimination, had our lives, human rights, and properties stolen, and been excluded from society solely on the basis of not being able to hear or speak oral languages. Within such a state of circumstances, it has been sign language that has supported us. It was truly the case that sign language is life. Sign language became, for us as Deaf people, “the power to live.”

Now is the time to make a “sign language law.” It is necessary to realize our full inclusion and equality in society and to construct a society of co-existence. Without further delay, we strongly seek the establishment of a “sign language law.”

This, we adopt.

June 10th, 2018 – 66th National Congress of the Japanese Federation of the Deaf”

The Japanese Federation of the Deaf is currently working hard to push the country towards the establishment of the law based on the above special resolution.

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