Campus News

"Deaf Identity, Deaf Culture, and Social Protest in the U.S. and Japan"

Story posted November 06, 2000

Karen Nakamura, visiting instructor in Asian Studies and Sociology/Anthropology, spent her childhood in Indonesia, Australia, the United States and Japan. "Through all these shifts, I never quite had a sense of who I was," she said. This led to a research interest in identity, especially among minority groups, and by extension, the power of minority groups to create social change. She discussed her research at a recent faculty seminar.

Nakamura has studied deaf populations in both the United States and Japan and the ways in which their sense of their identities differ.

In the United States there are two contextural frames to deaf identity, that of the biomedical model and that of the cultural or ethnic minority model. While deafness was generally identified as an impairment in the past, a culture has been created and a community formed among the deaf, and many deaf people now identify with the cultural model.

Two examples Nakamura gave of this galvanization into a community were the portrayal of the deaf in the play/movie Children of a Lesser God and the deaf protests at Gallaudet University in 1988. Gallaudet is a liberal arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing, and in 1988, the student body came together to demonstrate in favor of the appointment of a deaf president. The Gallaudet students built their movement upon the framework of other minority protests, such as those surrounding the civil rights movement. Other minority groups lent their support to the Gallaudet cause, and a banner used during demonstrations urging creation of a Martin Luther King Jr. day was loaned to the students.

Nakamura credits the polarity of the biomedical and cultural minority models for making issues such as cochlear implants so divisive in America. Implants pit the two different models against each other. Some say the devices are correcting a disability, others say they serve as an instrument of genocide, destroying the deaf culture.

Nakamura then spoke about deaf identity in Japanese culture. Japan is a very different place from America, she said, a mingling of tradition and modernity, an apparently homogenous nation. Japan, she said, likes to imagine itself a "tiny island stuck in a hostile sea." In Japan, there is not the same sense of minority identity or of social protest in Japan that there is in the United States.

Because of this, the deaf in Japan did not have an extensive model of social protest, the way the deaf in America had. Social protest in Japan had tended to be small and localized, but in the 1970s the deaf began emerging as an important minority group. In 1991, a huge conference in Tokyo, focused on the situation of the deaf in Japan, but, Nakamura said it also highlighted a major difference between deaf identity in Japan and in the U.S. The title of the conference referred to "hearing impaired" people, demonstrating that the deaf in Japan were largely identifying with the biomedical model of identity.

In trying to determine what institutional forces had helped create deaf identity in Japan, Nakamura divided the history of the deaf in Japan into three eras, pre-1920, postwar boomers, and post-mainstreaming.

She spent the most time on the boom generation because they were the first group of deaf students to undergo formal education, and they became a politically active group with a great deal of cohesion.

According to Nakamura, there wasn’t an experience of another minority group for the deaf Japanese to leverage, so they used the international focus on the disabled and the desire of the Japanese to be a "modern" society. Around the world, nations were focusing on the needs of people with disabilities, and the deaf in Japan were able to stress how important addressing their needs was for Japan to be counted among the modernized countries. In addition, Nakamura said, the deaf became a sort of "model minority." The Japanese were able to feel that they were becoming a more open and multicultural society without giving up the sense of being a nation apart. What happened was a "reframing of disability discourse," and as a result, the disability discourse of the past, has become a model of minority discourse in Japan. Now ethnic minorities look at how the deaf in Japan gained inclusion, and choose their efforts accordingly.

Faculty Seminars are open to students, faculty and staff. They occur on Wednesdays from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. in Main Lounge of Moulton Union.

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