Y kant Tarō rite

Grab a notepad and start scrawling 薔薇s and 鬱s quick, because kanji are about to disappear!

So many Japanese are forgetting how to write kanji characters that cultural experts believe the country may eventually scrap the use of Chinese pictograms in favour of the 46 simplified hiragana characters.

Software maker Kanken DS has released a title that enables people to test their knowledge of characters - but was surprised to find that 90 per cent of the 400 people aged between 35 and 40 who took part in a study were unable to recall all the correct number and positioning of strokes for the 1,945 characters that are taught in public schools.

Language Log's coverage is typically excellent, but I will note the following:

  • The software maker is actually Rocket Company. Kanken DS is the name of the software, and I note without (explicit) comment that it is officially endorsed by the Nihon Kanji Nōryoku Kentei Kyōkai, i.e. the very same Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation that is quoted at the end of the story in the SCMP.
  • What seems to be Rocket Company's press release about the survey does not mention any actual testing. The questions are more along the lines of "Do you think your kanji skills have weakened in the past few years?" and "Do you have less occasion to write kanji than you used to?" and "Do you think that the kids today, they don't learn kanji properly, the way you did when you were their age? If yes, do you also find that they should get off your lawn and/or put a sock in that damn rocks-and-rolls 'music', if you can even call it that?" (I may have embellished that last one.)
  • There are also questions the results of which suggest strongly if oddly that Japan's population consider Tamori and KIKUKAWA Rei the King and Queen of kanji, and would like to be apprenticed to them in some bizarre nationwide educational compact.

So, let's not give this survey more credence than it deserves, which is, "As much as any other opinion poll conducted on behalf of organizations with directly related products and services to sell."

Of course, it makes perfect sense that as the need to actually write kanji diminishes, people's ability to write them will go down too. But down to zero the idea that kanji could go the way of hanja in Korea? An astonishingly intensified attrition, within five years to a decade? Kanji dying out "very soon"? (See comments) That's either doom-saying, wishful thinking, or straight-up non-sense. Sure, they'll probably continue to get gradually rarer in written documents (you know -- priceless cultural artifacts like shopping lists and post-it notes on computer screens saying "12:30 Tanaka-san called")... but why would people stop using them in electronic documents when the UI itself is a willing scribe?

If you combine handwriting and electronic entry, people's ability to produce kanji one way or another is probably going through the roof -- and isn't that exactly the kind of thing humans invented computers for in the first place?

Popularity factor: 9

Paul Davidson:

I can't see this becoming a problem any time soon, not in Japan's highly literate culture. Every time I ride a subway, half the commuters, youth and adults alike, have manga or a novel in their hands. I go to Starbucks to study, and I'm surrounded by people doing homework by hand, writing letters by hand, or filling out their journals by hand. The manual for the Kanji Kentei game (which I have) has a chart boasting the increasing numbers of people taking the kanji test each year.

I'm sure it's true that people can't necessarily write from memory every character they know, but surely the situation is much better than it was 50 years ago, and kanji didn't disappear then either.


Thankfully, semi-obscure musical references are in no danger of dying off in the next decade.

Mark S.:

Matt, it's not like you to set up straw men, so I'm a little puzzled where you're getting the reference to an assertion of people's ability to write kanji going "down to zero ... within five years to a decade." The only quote I see in the Language Log post that sounds anything like that is from Mair, who states: "The rapidity of character attrition is going to intensify within the next 5-10 years, so swiftly that people -- depending on their outlook -- will be astonished, dismayed, or overjoyed." That, however, is very different than asserting that people in Japan are going to completely lose the ability to write in kanji within a decade. Or is there something I've overlooked, perhaps in one of the Japanese articles?


Noting that many adults are reading comic books might not really be the best evidence of Japan having a "highly literate culture."

I mean no disparagement of manga.

As Unger notes, "How many Americans would willingly count comic books -- even the sort aimed at adult readers -- in an assessment of literacy in the United States?"

Mark S.:

(Oops. That was me again above. I didn't mean to post that anonymously.)


I was thinking more of Prof. Mair's "It's bound to happen, both with KANJI (Japanese) and with HANZI (Chinese), as it already essentially has with HANJA (Korean)." Although it isn't clear what "it" is, I assumed that the reference to Korean meant that "it" was "kanji more or less disappearing from newly produced texts, except in certain specialised contexts", and I interpreted the "5-10 years" remark afterward as an attempt to set a rough time frame for when this might happen. If this is not what he meant, then I offer my sincere apologies.


As for comic books... I personally started reading them when I was only semi-literate in Japanese, but doing so helped me improve, to the point where I was ready to read a novel (with a dictionary, of course). So they are a complex case. Certainly "able to read a comic book" is a dubious way to define "literate", but they do have their own special place in the librosystem, for want of a better word.

(Example: the presence of visual cues like facial expressions and posture mean that conversations between comic book characters are often written in a more oblique or cryptic way than they would be in, say, a novel. So while it may be easier and faster to decode the actual printed sentences in a comic book, it may also require a subtly different set of comprehension skills to figure out what the words mean in the context of the story. Whether you think those skills are a subset of, related to, or entirely irrelevant to "literacy" is a different matter... In any case it certainly has little to do with the really pressing issues, like "what proportion of adults suffer because they cannot read things necessary or useful in their day-to-day lives?")


The only reason I can read some academic books in Korean is the presence of hanja. So, to nil?


OK, OK, I edited the relevant section to more closely reflect the vagueness of the anti-kanji claims. I think my overall point stands.

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