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Opening up to a hidden community

“Wow!” my Deaf* friend said, clearly amazed after a disability workshop. “I never realized that people with disabilities were also discriminated against. I thought it was just us Deaf.”

This is her world. “People with disabilities” and “us Deaf” are completely different concepts. Not hearing is a minor detail. Being Deaf defines her life.

Entering a new world

It turns out there is a whole world of Deafhood, some 300,000 strong here in Japan, that most hearing people know next to nothing about.1 It is scattered throughout Japan, though Deaf people tend to cluster in larger cities, particularly cities with deaf schools. Each prefecture has at least one deaf school, and regional varieties of Japanese Sign Language (JSL) grow up around these schools. Recently a “standard JSL” is emerging, though local varieties cannot be ignored. Like the rest of Japan, this community is largely unreached by the gospel. Unlike the rest of Japan, it is not for lack of interest, but rather lack of engagement.

Deafhood is not about disability and it’s more than an interest group. Deaf people use a different language from the hearing community around them, and their cultural values differ too. These divides rip right through families, with parents and children often living in different worlds. Deaf people get more of their primary values and culture from peers and senpai (senior/superior) who share their language, than from parents and teachers who often don’t. When one is in the Deaf community, it all seems normal, and it’s the rest of the world that seems off.

From my friend’s perspective, what holds her back in life is the lack of willingness of the larger hearing community to understand her, accept her, learn her language, or even interact with her. When they do interact most just want to make her more like them—conform her to their own image. Oppression and discrimination, much of it well-intentioned, are the result. She has lived her whole life as a Deaf person in this hearing-run world, so when it’s “just us Deaf,” there is a palpable sense of relief.

I am hearing. Most people reading this are also. To Deaf people we represent all those, like teachers and bosses, who do not understand them but still try to fix them or run their lives. If we want to be in this community, recognizing who we are is step one. We also need to debunk some common myths and learn from history.

Debunk common myths

Myth #1
Signing is a sub-human system of communication (temane, or gestures) that, if used at all, should be kept well-hidden.

This is not overstated. You still hear it today even in a land like Japan where Deaf people appear on TV with their own shows in JSL. One friend remembers sitting at her father’s funeral with her Deaf siblings, steaming with anger and humiliation at her point of deepest grief. Despite all their pleading, relatives refused to allow sign language interpretation. Fear of public embarrassment overrode the needs of the deceased’s Deaf children. So, they sat through the funeral totally in the dark. Linguists, however, have shown that Japanese Sign Language is a complex and robust language system capable of communicating the full range of human experience and thought. Deaf people use JSL to talk about anything from last night’s supper to the complex theological nuances of the Bible or Plato’s philosophy.

Myth #2
apanese Sign Language is just a set of hand signs that display the Japanese language visually.

Although JSL is a legitimate language on par with Japanese, it is completely different from Japanese, or any spoken language. Spoken Japanese uses mouth, vocal chords, and ears, but JSL uses face, space, hands, and eyes, and it has a whole new kind of grammar. Some people (often hearing or hard-of-hearing) do use signed Japanese, a system where each Japanese word takes a sign, but this is different from JSL.

Myth #3
Deaf people can see, so of course they can read Japanese. They can be reached with the Bible and other literature

First, Japanese is not their heart language. For most Deaf people, JSL is the first language they learned and the language of their heart. Japanese is a second language for many Deaf people.

Second, many Deaf people struggle with reading. One reason is that letters correspond to sounds, sounds that many Deaf people have never heard. Reading, to them, can seem more like looking at a list of phone numbers than words—not something that speaks to your heart.

The Deaf education system has suppressed JSL to promote the learning of Japanese. But in most cases this strategy hasn’t worked. Not all students do well at second languages, and learning a second language that they’ve never heard is even more difficult.

Some Deaf people are gifted at languages and read Japanese well, but this is certainly not true of most. Even for those who read well, their first language, JSL, is where life is lived—how they express themselves and develop relationships. As with any people group, this is the arena for engagement.

Learn from history

The first big expansion for Christianity in the Deaf community in Japan was in the 1950s, but there are records of local churches and people involved in reaching Deaf people on a small scale long before that. Some of the early Deaf schools had Christian teachers and/or were started by Christians. Between 1–2 percent of the Deaf population is Christian.2 Roughly half of these are in Deaf-led churches and half in Deaf departments of hearing churches. Some live full lives with growing faith, particularly now as more and more of the Bible is available in JSL. Still, many are tied down with a heavy burden of legalism (rules are the simplest concepts to grasp from a poorly understood second language) and a strict tie to the Japanese Bible even though it is poorly understood.

Another major barrier to faith in Christ is that church is seen as something for hearing people. Only Deaf people who are willing to engage with the hearing community will come to most churches. Even churches that are led by Deaf people “do church” just like the hearing. Some use only the Japanese written Bible and pray in signed Japanese as if God didn’t know JSL.

Getting the Bible translated into JSL has been key. Worldwide, leaders are realizing that “no other group in the world of similar size lives under such ‘Scripture Poverty’.”3 Beginning in 1993, Deaf Christians have been working to get the Bible into their own language. In the early days, with VHS technology and limited funding, translation was slow. Today, 26 percent of the Bible is available in JSL on DVD, YouTube, and a smartphone app.

Next steps: Where do we go from here?

Of course, Deaf people are the key to reaching the Deaf community. But there is a place for us outsiders too.

Information is a key commodity in the Deaf community. Aside from portions of the Bible, little exists of reference material in JSL. Churches are looking for people with Biblical knowledge, or even easy access to Biblical knowledge, who are willing to learn JSL and pass their knowledge on to the Deaf community.

Cross-cultural workers can also help. People who know (or will learn) JSL will sit down with Deaf friends and watch the JSL Bible with them, talking it through, leading them to faith, and then leading them deeper into that faith.

* “Deaf” is capitalized whenever it refers to the cultural and linguistic community of Deaf people, and “deaf” when it refers to people who don’t hear well but are not part of the signing community.

1. Gallaudet University Library. “Deaf populations overseas.” Accessed Feb 10, 2017, http://libguides.gallaudet.edu/content.php?pid=119476&sid=1061104

2. Exact statistics are hard to find. Joshua Project says 1 percent but are not specific about their source or whether or not their figure includes Catholics.  https://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/19007/JA

3. Rick Wood, “To see all believers equipped to disciple others, including the Deaf,” Mission Frontiers, a Magazine of the US Center for World Missions, Jan/Feb 2014, 4.

For more information about the Japanese project visit

https://www.facebook.com/japandeafevangelmission/ or j−dem.net

For English information about the Japanese project visit https://www.facebook.com/jslbible/ or jslbible.org

Mark Penner is a WorldVenture missionary based in Tokyo. As a SIL Sign Language Bible translation consultant, he works with the JSL and Thai SL Bible translation projects.

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