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The Deaf and The Japanese | by timtak
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The Deaf and The Japanese

If there is any truth in the assertion that there is something visual rather than verbal, about the way that the Japanese sign, i.e. that Japanese culture leans toward the right hand side of the diagram of Dual Coding Theory, then one might expect them to share some similarities with those deaf that use visual sign systems (ASL and JSL). To investigate this hypothesis I read Oliver Sacks’ “Seeing Voices” an excellent, and even moving, introduction to the world of the deaf, and particularly their ability to communicate using sign language, from the perspective of a neurologist.

 

First of all, Sacks points out that deaf signers are better at interpreting Chinese characters signed in the air, and it is clear that Japanese people are far better at signing and reading characters in the air (p78) but that maybe the single case in point. Deaf people use Sign (ASL, JSL) which, though visual, has meaning. Japanese use Chinese characters which, though visual, have meaning.

 

Oliver Sacks points out that there are those that deny even this similarity, since there are those (including Roland Barthes) who deny that the visual can have meaning at all. But even accepting the premise of Sacks’ book, that language can be seen, perhaps the similarity between the deaf and the Japanese starts and ends with a trivial resemblance between Sign and Kanji.

 

Cutting to the chase, Sacks' book being a book about deaf, rather than a book about the deaf and the Japanese, does little to demonstrate similarities between deaf and Japanese culture. "Seeing Voices" does however, point to some possibilities and perhaps the most tantilising of these lies in Sacks observation that Sign language is not only a language for communicating with others, but also for thinking and for communicating with oneself. He provides clear evidence that the deaf Sign to themselves, and sign in their dreams. I have also noted that Japanese have a tendency to sign to themselves, such as Ichiro's famous baseball bat point, or more particularly the safety oriented pointing checks performed by those working on the Japanese railway system, for example. Sack's goes on assert, as a footnote (26) to page 59, given on page 161 of my version of the book, the use of sign as thought, not only to others but to and about oneself, by application of the Sapir-Whorph hyphotesis, may result in a "hypervisual cognitive style". I believe that this phrase may be appropriate to use about the Japanese as well.

 

Sacks claims that users of Sign, adept as they are at reading, and making (or is that speaking) visual meaning, often become “visual experts,” adept not just at “a visual language but [having] a special visual sensibility and intelligence as well.” (p84) Alas Sacks does not go into concrete cultural details of deaf visual expertise. Sacks does not mention that the deaf are good at anime, manga, computer games, architecture, manufacturing, visually stunning food preparation, becoming highly attractive idols, or many of the other things at which the Japanese may be argued to excel.

Sacks points out that deaf understanding of facial expressions may be better than that of the hearing. Alas research about Japanese interpretation of gesture is mixed. David Matsumoto points out Japanese inability to read “universal” emotions. Keiko Ishii demonstrates that Japanese can be more sensitive to the degree to which people smile (or at least when smiles disappear).

 

Most surprisingly, the neurological evidence that Sacks presents seems almost to directly contradict any assertion of similarities between the Japanese and the deaf. Sacks points out that deaf process Sign with their left brain, the same hemisphere that the hearing use to understand speec. He shows that deaf signers pull some seemingly non-linguistic (among hearers) processing, such as the processing of facial expressions, into their left/linguistic brain. Sacks further suggests that the left brain is well adapted to language and argues that there are deficiencies in right brain language. Research on neurological differences between Japanese and Westerners, is still fairly new or controversial, but, it is claimed that Japanese visual signs (Kanji) are processed at least in part by the right brain (E.g. Nakagawa 1993) and that Japanese pull the procession of phonic information (such as the sound of insect noises and music) into their linguistic left brain. If this is the case then, it would suggest that Kanji, processed as they are by the side of the brain not well suited to language, would have a deleterious affect upon Japanese language processing. And even that the Japanese are hyper-phonic, as oppose to hyper visual (like the deaf), since it is sounds that the Japanese process with the ‘linguistically superior,’ left hand side of the brain.

 

In order to achieve the sort of revolution that Sacks describes, being achieved by the deaf: that they, their visual culture, their Sign is not just a pantomime, but equally meaningful, one would have to go further even that Sacks avows. Sacks demonstrates that the visual and the deaf can be just as good as the oral/hearing, just that they do what they do in a different way. How much more difficult would it be to argue that the right brain is just as good at processing the world, but in a different way? This is not a path that Sacks, a Western neurologist, attempts to follow in this book at least (but see his "The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat").

 

Sacks’ description of the revolution underway in the world of the deaf, of how they are achieving a hard-won cultural autonomy, a reappraisal such that they are now different, rather than diseased was particularly moving. Perhaps I am romanticising Japanese culture too much, but it was in the description of the revolution, or the potential for one, that I found the greatest potential similarity between the deaf and the Japanese. It seems to me that being Japanese is not yet “depathologized” (p120), with commentators and educators in Japan still tending to present the West as being advanced, a model that Japan should still (after all these years) be aiming towards.

 

Sacks argues that deaf were initially non-receptive to the idea that Sign could be a language, or that it could be analysed, and were self-deprecating with regard to their visual culture (p114-115). I find that mystifying, empty-centred, self-deprecating theories of Japanese culture are still fairly mainstream, at least in academe. Will there one day be a Japanese cultural revolution, such as being experienced by the deaf or will Japan Westernise itself out of existence first? Or is this endeavour itself bogus, the product of another white male mind (my own), since the right brain, or where ever Japanese cultural excellence is situated may have no need of affirmative analysis.

 

Finally, Sacks makes the point that the deaf are not dumb, both in the sense that they are not stupid and in the sense that they can speak. In other words Sacks saves the deaf from perjorative appraisal, by pointing out that the deaf can in fact speak, in their own language, so they are not dumb -- in any sense but-- but rather different. Sacks writes "..for it is only through language that we enter fully into our human estate and culture, communicate freely with our fellows, aquire and share information. If we cannot do this....we may be so little able to realise our intellectual capabilities as to appear mentally defective. It was for this reason that the congenitally deaf, or "deaf and dumb" were considered "dumb" (stupid) for thousands of years...p8" This all sounds very brave and stirring, and it is, because Sacks succeeds in releasing the deaf from this derogatory appelation. But what of the "dumb"? People who can not speak, who are aphaisic, who do not have language remain in Sacks' view, unable to realise their intellectual capabilities. According to Sacks the dumb remain dumb; the dumb are intellectually impaired because they are speechless.

 

This is I believe, very unfair. in Sack's earlier book "The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat" in the essay "The Presidents' Speech" Sacks describes how even aphaisics, who do not have the ability to understand language, where nevertheless able to understand most of what is going on around them, even a presidential speech, perhaps even more than those that can hear and understand the words. What happened to the possibility that the ability to use language is just another one of many human abilities? Is the mastery of language essential to enter "our human estate" (whatever that may be) and culture? Is the use of a media of interpersonal communication for thought ("self-communication" as if it were not-an oxymoron) an essential prerequisite for thinking? Even assuming that that symbols are necessecessary for thought, is it a given that symbols that are good to think with, are also those that are good to communicate with. If the deaf can manage to think and communicate among themselves using sign and to communicate with the hearing using speech, then perhaps it is possible that the Japanese may be thinking in symbols that the are not using for speaking.

 

It seems that in the West at least, linguistic ability is considered to be a prerequisite, thinking is regarded as being self-communication using the same linguistic symbols that we use to speak to others, and thus those that can not speak are, even by Oliver Sacks, considered to be unable to think effectively. When reappraising a group that hithertoo been considered inferior, advocates posit the existance of another language (this work), a different voice (Gilligan, 1972 on women), their own words (Meltzer, 1987, on American Blacks) which, when we the outgroup understand it, will allow us to understand their excellence. But perhaps the Japanese do not have another language. Perhaps Japanese excellence is not to be found in any language. All the same the Japanese may be affirmative enough as they are. They just don't talk about it. The may not talk the talk, but they do walk the walk and always have.

 

The above image contains a cropped version of the cover design of Oliver Sacks' book "Seeing Voices" by Chipp Kidd

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Taken on March 31, 2011