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Back to the Basics of Japanese Writing

January 18, 2000

For many years people have mourned the diminishing role of books and other printed material in the lives of the Japanese, especially youths. The average time that people spend reading has been in steady decline for the past several decades. The diffusion of personal computers, moreover, has led to a tendency to be able to read but not write many kanji--the Chinese characters that make up the bulk of the complex Japanese writing system. Despite the advent of machines that remember difficult characters for you, however, a "kanji boom" is now underway as more Japanese become fascinated by them.

Lots to Learn
The Japanese master kanji gradually over the course of their schooling, learning a specified set of the characters each year. Learning to read and write over 2,000 kanji by the end of high school is no easy task. But some people become fascinated in their early years by the expressiveness of kanji, most of which have hieroglyphic origins--though today they have become highly stylized--and which are usually made up of two or more parts, each with a meaning. For example, the character for camellia, a plant that flowers in early spring, is composed of the symbol for tree on the left side and the component for spring on the right.

Japanese contains numerous sets of homonyms written with different kanji, and selecting the wrong characters can cause embarrassment and, at times, even trouble. But on the flip side, this intricacy can be just what stirs people's intellectual interest in kanji. This interest is attracting notice in the world of publishing. One book, Susumu Ono's Nihongo Renshu-cho (Japanese Language Workbook), has sold some 1.6 million copies since it was first published in January 1999 by Iwanami Shoten.

Converting Is Hard to Do
Contrary to the impression that word-processing software is atrophying people's kanji proficiency, it is actually contributing to the kanji boom. One can easily understand why by seeing a TV commercial for one such software package. A young woman sitting at a cafe types into her computer, using another company's software, "honjitsu kaiten no kafe de," intending to write "at a cafe that opened today." Unluckily for her, kaiten--here meaning "to open store"--is a homonym of another word meaning "to spin." Her computer converts kaiten into the kanji for "spin," and the next moment her chair begins revolving around her table at high speed. The implied message is that this company's software would have made the correct conversion.

The spread of e-mail has also made kanji a more integral part of many people's lives. The past few years have seen the rapid popularization of mobile equipment that can easily send and receive e-mail. Few young Japanese write letters these days, but many of them do exchange e-mail. While people may tend to dash off electronic messages without much thought, many do understand that on the Internet they can be judged based solely in terms of their words--of the content of what they write to others. This seems to be encouraging young people to be more careful in their use of kanji.

Testing Kanji Power
One sign of this growing interest is the popularity of the kanji tests administered by the Japan Kanji Proficiency Examination Association. Between April 1998 and March 1999 a record-high 1.17 million people took the test, which is offered three times a year. The association has been ramping up its publicity efforts with the aim of making the subject of kanji more accessible to the general public. In December 1998 it launched La Kan, a bimonthly magazine that specializes in kanji; it also maintains a Website featuring online kanji games and mock tests for the proficiency exams.

The test itself is offered in a range of levels, from the beginning level seven--covering kanji learned by young elementary school students--to level one, the highest, which requires knowledge of some 6,000 characters. In October 1999 a new level was added between levels two and three of the exam. This fills the wide gap that had existed between level three, which requires test takers to understand all of the kanji taught in elementary school plus some 600 daily-use characters (1,608 in all), and level two, which demands thorough knowledge of all kanji taught up through high school as well as the ability to read those used in people's names (2,230 characters). The new level, sub-two, will require high school entry-level knowledge (1,945 characters).

The growing number of takers of this exam is no doubt welcome news for educators and others who have been lamenting Japanese people's distancing from reading and writing. Some suggest, however, that it is but another facet of the Japanese love for licenses and qualifying exams. True, most of those who have received an average education will find the exam easy to pass up to a certain level. And since there are no requisites for taking the test, anyone can potentially obtain a qualification with a somewhat intellectual-sounding name.

But even if people are only in it for the bragging rights, or just because they would rather not make embarrassing mistakes when writing e-mail, their efforts to gain a better grasp of their native language are surely worth a pat on the back.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.