I always thought sign language had a certain elegance and grace to it, and I always wanted to learn it. But like many other things in life such as fashion design and ice sculpting there was never a pressing need master it, especially with my busy schedule of eating wasps.

Luckily, short programs often shown on TV and many videos online teach a few useful words in sign language and allow me to pick it up bit by bit. Now, I’d like to share a few of these so that we can all learn and better ourselves just a little bit.

Like verbal language, sign language is unique to different regions. However, unlike spoken Japanese with its tricky double vowel sounds and homonyms galore, and unlike written Japanese with its intricate kanji, Japanese sign language has a lot of common-sense gestures that are pretty easy for anyone to understand right away. Here are a few examples.

Kasa (Umbrella)

Kaze (the common cold)

Karai/Nigai (spicy or bitter)

Tani (valley)

Actually knowing some signs might help learning other parts of the Japanese language as well. For example, the kanji for the area in Tokyo known as Shibuya (渋谷) might look a little difficult at first. But then if you look at the sign for Shibuya, you see that it’s just a combination of bitter (shibui) and valley (tani).

Considering how many of the signs like those above are pretty universally understandable you might wonder why there are so many variations of signing. For starters, the languages are somewhat based off of the grammatical structures of the original language as well as the common interpretations of certain words with multiple meanings. But more important is the way different cultures can interpret different hand gestures.

For example, here is the Japanese sign for “ani” or “older brother.”

The one for “otōto” or “younger brother” is similar but has a variation in the movement.

And for the more generic kyōdai” meaning of “brother” you’ll want to bring out both guns.

This video has slightly different movements, so I’m not sure which one is more accurate.

Depending on what country you come from, those last few signs might come across a little shocking and probably don’t translate as well. Then again, some of you with brothers of your own might find these to be all too appropriate.

Either way, that should just about do it for this mini lesson in Japanese sign language. If you’ll excuse me, I have to write several letters of apology to deaf people I mistakenly accosted in the past.

By the way, you might notice many of these videos featuring the same people. They go by the name Heartful Power and in addition to their vast library of instructional videos they perform music and comedy shows using sign language. If you’re considering trying your hand at Japanese sign language, it would be a great resource to work with.

Heartful Power
Website (Japanese)
YouTube Channel

Other Videos: YouTube – michelle cheung, Fuji+