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- Promoting International Sign, the communication tool used by deaf people around the world -
In Close Up this month we introduce the Japan International Sign Language Interpreters & Guides Association (JIIGA). Sign languages are an important communication tool for deaf people. However, because the sign language used in various regions and countries differ, International Sign was created as a universal language to facilitate communication among deaf people around the world. In Japan, host of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo, International Sign is gaining attention as a way to communicate with deaf foreign visitors. Consequently the number of people learning the language, or aspiring to be International Sign interpreters, is steadily increasing. On this occasion we spoke with Mr. Takeshi Sunada, president of JIIGA which provides the services of International Sign interpreter/guides and offers International Sign training courses. We also interview students currently learning International Sign.
Please tell us what led to the establishment of JIIGA.
It was during the World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf, organized every four years, and which Canada hosted in 1999. In addition to many sign languages from around the world, I first became aware of International Sign upon noting an International Sign interpreter on stage. I subsequently mastered International Sign and used it when travelling abroad, however International Sign was still little known in Japan, even at the beginning of the 2000s. It was because of this that several deaf people and myself with a common goal, created the “International Sign Club” in 2008 in order to promote the diffusion of International Sign. Five months later we founded the “Japan International Sign Language Interpreters & Guides Association (JIIGA)”, and in 2014 we changed our organization to a corporation in order to benefit from the subsidies provided for International Sign courses by the Tokyo metropolitan government. As half the cost of the course is covered by the government subsidy, after it came into effect we saw a dramatic increase in the number of students enrolling in our course. There are now about 100 students per year studying International Sign with us. In addition to offering International Sign courses, JIIGA also provides interpretation services at international conferences and sporting events, as well as tourist guides, fluent in International Sign.
Can you explain what exactly is International Sign?
Normally a person who is deaf uses the sign language from her/his own country, such as Japanese Sign Language or American Sign Language. International Sign is used to communicate with people from around the world. There are two types of International Sign: one is unofficial, spontaneously created as deaf people from different countries communicate together; and the other is official which was established after discussions at the World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf. We teach official International Sign at JIIGA, and interpreters use this official version to render their services. Official International Sign is still in development. When a new word emerges, so too is a new International Sign gesture, and gestures may undergo modifications when too difficult to understand or when users are not comfortable using it. It is thought it may take about 100 more years for International Sign to be a complete language.
Do you think official International Sign will prevail in the future?
Official International Sign reaches only about 1% of the world. Japan barely has 500 people who can communicate in both Japanese Sign Language and International Sign. Frankly, though one may know International Sign, there are not many opportunities to practice one’s skills, especially in Japan. However, the United Nations now organizes conferences which include International Sign interpreters, and I believe it highly likely that it will be used more widely in the future. Children traveling to any country in the world would be able to effortlessly communicate with each other using International Sign. I hope the world will be like this in 100 years. Of course there are many people who are not deaf that learn International Sign. It is interesting to consider that International Sign can offer an individual a way to communicate with a person from a foreign country without resorting to English.
Please tell us about any activities planned for the future.
First, we hope our students can volunteer as interpreters in the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. The next goal for those learning International Sign will be the 2025 Deaflympics, a sports event for the deaf and which Japan will likely host. The raison d'être of JIIGA is to train professional sign language interpreters. We believe there should be a distinction between volunteer interpreters and professional interpreters and aspire to train interpreters with a clear understanding of professionalism.
We also spoke with the students who were attending the Upper Intermediate Course the same day of our visit: Ms. Chiba, who is deaf and fluent in Japanese Sign Language; and Ms. Takano, Ms. Yamaguchi and Ms. Yoshitake who are not deaf.
What motivated you to learn International Sign?
I was interested in the differences between Japanese Sign Language and other sign languages, so I enrolled to learn International Sign. What attracted me was the frequent use of facial expressions in International Sign, which is also common in Japanese Sign Language.
Seeing immigrants who lived in the neighborhood chatting in sign language motivated me to learn how to communicate with them without having to learn English.
When at a café in Vietnam, I saw deaf employees animatedly working while using sign language. I can't forget them and it inspired me to learn International Sign.
I developed hearing difficulties which made it hard for me to continue with the foreign language studies I deeply enjoyed. I began to learn Japanese Sign Language, but was also interested in International Sign in order to communicate with anyone from anywhere in the world, therefore I started to learn that too.
What makes International Sign interesting and difficult?
When talking with another person using International Sign, which I still have limited skills, it gives me great satisfaction to know that we are communicating heart to heart. It is difficult because one has to remember the exact gesture, otherwise it leads to confusion. If I don't perform the appropriate gesture the other person will have difficulty understanding me.
It is fascinating to transmit an image and movement with gestures; I feel it is a language, but at the same time not like a language. It is difficult to express a thought in International Sign without thinking in Japanese. I still go through the step of first thinking in Japanese and then changing it to International Sign.
I really enjoy putting my brain in high gear to think and express myself in International Sign. It is difficult to memorize all gestures in class. Class aids are not used in the classroom because Mr. Sunada does not want us to learn using Japanese language interventions.
I too have a hard time remembering the gestures. But when I used International Sign at the World Congress held last year in France, I was able to communicate much better than I expected with a person who used French Sign Language. I think what is most important is the desire to communicate.
How would you like to benefit from your abilities in International Sign in the future?
I would like to help foreign visitors in Japan, as a guide for example. Another goal is to participate in the 2023 World Congress to be held on Jeju Island, South Korea.
I would also like to be a friend to deaf foreigners visiting Japan. It would please me to help them fully enjoy their time here.
I would like to use International Sign as a tool to communicate with a variety of people, irrespective of where they come from and even if they are deaf or not.
My goal is also to attend the World Congress in 2023. I would like to thoroughly master International Sign before then.
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