American students play a game to learn colors in the Japanese Sign Language from Kiyoshi Kawaguchi. Image: Juliane Doscher, Japan-America Society of Washington DC

Cultural Outreach One Hand at a Time: Japanese “Shuwa” Sign Language in Washington DC


We often take auditory conversations for granted, but for an estimated 4 million people in the United States and an estimated 300 thousand people in Japan with hearing disabilities, communication through other means is vital. Fortunately, the movement to connect and communicate across both hearing and national barriers is gaining traction through awareness and outreach in Washington, DC.

Kiyoshi Kawaguchi, a native Japanese signer with over 10 years of experience as a Japanese Sign Language (JSL), or shuwa, instructor, recently brought his expertise to an American class at an event hosted by the Japan-America Society of Washington, DC. The class learned the signs for counting, common greetings and expressions, and even a variety of colors during a series of lessons and games. Kawaguchi-san’s work is especially suited to Washington, with the District’s large deaf population and Kawaguchi-san’s alma mater, Gallaudet University, the world-leading academic institution for deaf or hard of hearing students.

Kawaguchi-san teaches his class how to greet others in both Japanese and JSL. Image: Juliane Doscher, Japan-America Society of Washington DC

“There are different languages according to the country, like Spanish, French, Chinese, and more; Sign Language has been created differently in each country,” Kawaguchi-san explained. “American English came from British English and similarly, American Sign Language derived from French Sign Language.” According to Kawaguchi-san, JSL has many similarities with its American counterpart: the lack of particles, the usage of meaningful gestures to create sentences, and the importance of imagery in the various signs.

“However, Japanese Sign Language became a language with no visible relation to any other language in the world, including Japanese!”

Students practice the JSL signs for expressing “similarity.” Image: Juliane Doscher, Japan-America Society of Washington DC

JSL’s uniqueness stems from the mixture of Sign Language grammar with Japanese words to form its unique idioms. For example, while the Japanese phrase for “having a critical eye” directly translates to “Eye Expensive” in JSL, the opposite meaning does not exist in spoken Japanese, but can still be communicated in JSL with “Eye Cheap.” Japanese kanji characters may seem too complex to put into gestures, but they can also be communicated with one’s hands. For example, Kawaguchi-san’s name is signed with three fingers in a downward stroke in front of the body for kawa (川) and an OK sign near the mouth for guchi (口).

Not only is sign language able to bridge communication within and between the deaf and hearing communities, it also retains the potential to extend communication internationally as another way to share and exchagne our unique perspectives.

For more information on Japanese Sign Language and future lessons, please contact Kawaguchi-san at For more information on the Japan-America Society of Washington DC and their events, please visit

Justin Chock is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington, a graduate student at Oxford University, and a US Navy officer. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the US Government.