I came to Japan as a missionary two years ago. While studying Japanese language and culture in Sapporo, I stepped into a world I’d always been curious about, but never had a chance to explore—sign language. The local sign language community group was very surprised when I turned up to the weekly meeting. But I was warmly accepted and there I learned the basics.
Later I went to serve in Mikasa, a country town of only 8,000, but home to a very active sign group with an impressive 40-year history. I signed up immediately. As with all language learning, communication is hard when you don’t have enough vocabulary, but learning was fun and I improved quickly.
The group, mostly older women, was close knit. I met my closest Japanese friends in beginner’s class and even joined in the club’s Christmas party skit and annual hot spring retreat. I shared many meals with my good friend Mrs S, club president, and we even conquered Hokkaido’s highest peak together. I love Mrs Y, coordinator of the region’s sign community. I remember her stories of attending a special school where they tried to teach the students to speak and make sounds using tissues. It was a frustrating time in Japan for the community—before sign language textbooks and dictionaries existed. Things have improved with more social awareness but there’s still much to do.
I learned specific ways that life is difficult without hearing. Accessing emergency news was hard during the 2018 earthquake as it was via radio. Navigating torrential rains with no traffic lights was made worse as they couldn’t hear the police’s instructions. Doorbells, kettles, crying babies—I have so much respect for how they adapt creatively to life without sound (and how direct they are).
Sharing my faith
Sharing the gospel is a challenge. I was shocked at how little the sign groups knew about Christianity. Once, I had to explain what a Bible was, and usually, when asked about my job, I have to explain “missionary” and “church”. I managed to put together a short testimony to share why I was in Japan, but it’s frustrating not knowing enough vocabulary. All this keeps me motivated to learn more Christian sign language, so I’ll be able to share about Jesus one day.
But, witnessing is never just through words. Being there, being interested, asking, listening, and trying; that has been the boldest and clearest display of love and God’s grace that I’ve been able to show so far. The people in the group can now say, “Yes, I met a Christian—she works with the church and we’re good friends.” That’s a start.
How can the church serve this community? Sign language translators are mostly unpaid with no legal backup and no professional job status. Could we help? Or even just connect with a local group and show love by doing life with them, listening to and learning about their normal? There are so many opportunities. All I had was a small curiosity. I went through an open door and now I’ve gone through many open doors and God keeps opening doors. Walking by faith is an exciting adventure and you never know where you could end up!
By Hailey, an OMF missionary
Will you pray for Japan?
- Pray that the Japanese church will look to how it can serve people with disabilities, like Deaf people.
- Pray for more missionaries to come who are willing to follow their curiosity and find ways to connect to the Japanese community.
- Pray that all Christians in Japan would show the love of Christ to those around them—in words as well as action.