Here at True Colors Festival, we’re one big family of artists, creators and planners. This week, we introduce Eri Nasu, a sign language entertainer. She tells us more about the appeal of sign language and how it helps her fulfill her desire to communicate as a Deaf person.
By True Colors Festival Team
Name: Eri Nasu
Accolades: Eri is a Visual Vernacular (VV) performer, a sign language expression artist, and a sign language entertainer. Born in 1995, in Tokyo, to a Deaf family, she graduated from Nihon University, College of Law, Department of Journalism. She then enrolled in Frontrunners in Denmark between 2019 and 2020 to study the leadership and organizational activities of Deaf people. Since returning to Japan, she appears regularly on NHK’s TV program “Minna no Shuwa” (Sign Language for Everyone), promotes sign language, works as a sign language interpreter, serves as a staff member of Shuwa-emon, an organization for deaf children, manages the Rocho-Kai (Deaf+Ear Meeting), an exchange program for Deaf and non-Deaf people, and serves as a board member of the Youth Division of the Tokyo Federation of the Deaf. In February 2021, she represented Asia at the VV live event organized by the World Federation of the Deaf Youth Section. Eri was featured as one of five artists in our International Day of Sign Languages 2021 video series which explored the diversity of sign languages.
Image description: The True Colors Festival Special Live sign language interpretation team including Eri. All six of them are smiling and holding ten fingers up to pose for the photo.
Q: Could you tell us how you learned Japanese sign language?
I was born into a Deaf family and all of my family members are Deaf, so Japanese sign language was my first language. I’m told that I began communicating in Japanese sign language at the age of 1. So just as one would hear, speak and grow up with Japanese language, I saw, spoke, and learned Japanese sign language as my native tongue. When I was younger, the public opinion was that oralism* is better than sign language. I’m thankful that my parents weren’t influenced by this thinking and raised me with Japanese sign language.
*Oralism is the system of teaching profoundly deaf people to communicate by the use of speech and lip-reading rather than sign language.
Q: You studied abroad in Denmark and picked up international sign. Could you explain to us what international sign is?
International sign is a pidgin sign made and used for international communication, such as at international festivals, the World Congress of the Deaf, and at the World Federation of the Deaf meetings. Using international sign allows us to communicate regardless of our backgrounds, however, international sign is not a “language”. Japanese sign language is a language, but the term “international sign” is not followed by “language” for a reason. International sign borrows from sign languages from other countries. Its grammar and words are fluid, and the rules are quite flexible to facilitate better international communication. When you participate in international events, it’s not uncommon to come across a completely new international sign that wasn’t present before, or a sign that was popular the year before stops being used. International sign is constantly updated, so you must update your knowledge as well. Every day is a new day of learning.
Q: You spent a number of years in Denmark, where you had to communicate with international sign. What was that experience like?
I was studying in Denmark at Frontrunners, a leadership development institute for the Deaf. Deaf people from around the world in their 20s and 30s gathered there, and there were 13 students in my class, myself included. Interestingly, we all came to the same conclusion: it’s much easier expressing ourselves in our native sign language than in international sign. Because international sign is so fluid, it doesn’t offer a wide vocabulary. For example, the word “Obon” (a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors) exists in Japanese sign language, but not in international sign. So we need to explain the word at length using international sign by saying, “It is a Japanese tradition. We pray for our ancestors, our grandparents, and other family members who have passed. We clean our family grave and offer flowers. It happens during a period in August. It’s a Japanese custom called Obon.” And still, there are words that we cannot fully explain.
Q: It must’ve been so difficult explaining a local custom such as “Obon” to a person of a different background…
My French schoolmate used to always say, “International sign is too lengthy! In French sign language, it’s just this! (Signs) That’s all! This is French sign language!” So what we’d do was to decide amongst ourselves that for certain words, we’d apply the sign in French sign language. This flexibility is the uniqueness of international sign. This process takes place all over the world through international communication, which updates the international sign. That’s why there are many signs in international sign that are borrowed from various sign languages. When using international sign, you begin to wonder how another sign language would express a certain word. A common question between us is, “How do you say that in your sign language?” So international sign also is a platform for us to learn other sign languages. International sign is convenient, but the experience of living with it has made me realize that I love and need my native sign language, it is after all my mother tongue. Many of my schoolmates at Frontrunners feel the same way too.
Q: Sign language must be preserved at all costs!
Sign languages are necessary for us Deaf people. They help us speak our opinions, understand and laugh with each other in real time. It’s a tool that allows us to translate thoughts into art. Many of us are seriously concerned that sign languages are in danger of being phased out. The popularization of cochlear implants, the closing of Deaf schools, and many other factors have resulted in the disappearance of sign languages in several countries. Japan, like many of these countries, is also headed in this direction. As a result of this, I’ve seen an increase in people who are taking action to protect their sign language. More people are taking to social media to shed light on this situation using international sign.
Q: You’re also a Visual Vernacular (VV) performer. Could you explain what VV is?
Visual Vernacular is a visual art form that utilizes the visual expression of sign language. It incorporates elements of poetry and pantomime, and combines techniques of speed, rhythm, zooming, role shifts, and switching perspectives. It visually conveys a story, satire, or emotion that the artist wants to express. Watching VV is like watching a movie. The artist can morph into many characters and objects, building up the story with their movements.
Image Description: An embedded YouTube video of VV by Nasu, expressing Hiroshima on the day of the nuclear bombing. (Taken from “VV Women” organized by the World Federation of the Deaf Youth Section)
Q: With the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this year, it seems that more people have been exposed to sign language interpreters on TV and other media. What are your thoughts on this?
Yes, I agree that the Olympics and the Paralympics have opened new doors for the Deaf community. This was the first year in which Deaf interpreters (sign language interpretation by a Deaf person) were broadcasted. It feels that society understands now more than before that sign language is an important and necessary language for the Deaf. For example, more sign language interpretation videos by Deaf people are available at museums, galleries, exhibitions, and movie guides. For some Deaf people, their first language is sign language, and cannot understand Japanese, their second language, quite as well. I believe that Deaf people have the right to understand the content in sign language, just as Japanese people understand in Japanese.
Q: From your standpoint as an artist and as a Deaf person, does this give you hope that the interests of Deaf people will be better represented in the future?
I’m hoping in the future that the Japanese sign language would be recognized as one of Japan’s official languages. I want Japanese sign language to stand equal to the Japanese language so that the Deaf community can fully claim our rights. In addition to having sign language interpreters in every situation, I would also like to see more appearances of Deaf people in the arts. In Hollywood movies and Netflix, Deaf people are naturally included in dramas, using sign language for conversation and storytelling. So I hope that Deaf people make more appearances in Japan as well, on TV programs, films, and other artistic fields like dramas and variety shows on TV. You can find many Deaf actors in Netflix dramas, so I urge you to go find them.
Image description: Eri and other members of the sign language interpretation team discuss the appropriate sign translation for each scene in a production.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
I’ve always had two goals: to build a society where Deaf and the non-Deaf people can work together as equals, and to not let Japanese sign language disappear. In order to achieve these, I think it is important to take a two-pronged approach: one for the non-Deafs who do not know Japanese sign language, and the other for the Deaf people, Deaf children, and their parents or guardians.
In order for non-Deafs to see Japanese sign language and be more involved with the Deaf community, I appear on NHK’s TV program “Minna no Shuwa” (Sign Language for Everyone), create VV work, and organize events with Rocho-Kai (Deaf+Ear Meeting) that I manage. Learning Japanese sign language allows you to communicate with Deaf people and experience their world better, thus allowing you to have cross-cultural exchanges with Deaf people in Japan and abroad. I believe that sign language has the power to broaden people’s worlds, and that’s what I try to convey to the non-Deaf people.
On the other hand, I organize live event series called “Shuwa-emon Night” so Deaf children can have fun in Japanese sign language. I also take part in programs or events that call for sign language interpretation, so there are more opportunities for Deaf people. I also organize events for Deaf children with the aim of creating opportunities for Deafs and non-Deafs to interact. I believe that these would lead to building a society where Deafs and non-Deafs can work together as equals.
I also want to do more creative activities where I express using sign languages and VV. I’d love to appear or take part in a Netflix drama. Wouldn’t it be exciting for a Deaf person to appear in Netflix, using Japanese sign language? If I were a character in a drama, that’d be great exposure for Japanese sign language, and, it’d simply be fun! I was just thinking about writing to them.
Image description: A photo of Eri taken backstage at NHK’s “Minna no Shuwa” (Sign Language for Everyone), broadcasted every Sunday, 7:30pm to 7:55 pm JST. Eri is smiling for the camera while holding up a puppet.
Q: The message of True Colors Festival is “One World One Family”, what does this mean to you personally?
There are billions of people in this world, and each of us has our own ways of thinking, unique bodies, our own languages, making each of us different. And all of us, with our differences, come together to form a community and make up a complex world. I believe that being different is what drives the evolution of our humanity. Whether in the arts, sciences, or linguistics, humanity brings all these “differences” together to create a world where everyone needs everyone else.