Jōyō list to level up

The final list of candidate characters for the great 2009 jōyō kanji update has been announced. Mutantfrog have a typically interesting and well-commented post covering the basics. Here are some additional observations I've been saving for this occasion.

I. 俺 (ore, "I")

It might seem unbelievable that the kanji used to write the most common first-person pronoun used in informal male speech was even up for debate. In fact though the 俺 debate is symbolic of much deeper issues in educational policy.

This article summarizes the position of the committee members who argued against 俺 as follows: The jōyō kanji list is about official/public standards, not informal/private ones. Putting 俺 on the same footing with 私 (watashi, the polite first-person pronoun) would send the wrong message to schoolchildren about appropriate language in formal settings.

The counter-argument is that 俺 is an irreplacable part of the Japanese language as a medium for communication. Even if most men know enough not to refer to themselves as 俺 while meeting a client, they identify "in their hearts" as an 俺 (男性が心の中で自分を主語にして考えるときはほとんどが「俺」). It is therefore cruel and unusual to leave 俺 off the list when 私 and 僕 (boku, another casual first-person male pronoun) are on it.

Ultimately it comes down to what role the government should play in promoting literacy: Should focus strictly on getting all future voters to a baseline level where they can participate in public debate, ignoring all other possible applications of reading/writing, or should it spread its resources more broadly and try to sow the seeds of "private literacy" as well?

It should be obvious where my personal sympathies lie, although I always just write it 己 anyway. Good enough for Akutagawa is good enough for me.

II. 誰 (dare, "who?")

I still remember my first clash with this goddamn character. It was when I had just started reading books without furigana (kanji readings), meaning that I was looking a lot of characters up. I must have spent fifteen minutes unsuccessfully trying to find 誰 in my kanji dictionary — it looked so familiar, I was sure it had to be in there, maybe under a different radical or something. Later at home I looked it up at WWWJDIC or somewhere and found it easily. I also learned that it wasn't a jōyō kanji, and oh yeah those were the only ones my dictionary contained. But hey, why would you need a non-jōyō kanji? It's not like people ever ASK FUCKING WH- QUESTIONS OR ANYTHING.

So yeah, good decision.

(That was also the incident that prompted me to buy a real kanji dictionary.)

III. The losers

Five kanji are to be dropped from the list, and word on the street says that they are:

  1. 銑, zuku. Pig iron.
  2. 錘, tsumu. Spindle.
  3. 勺, shaku. Obsolete unit of measurement.
  4. 匁, monme. Obsolete unit of measurement.
  5. 脹, hareru etc. To swell.

The first four are no-brainers. I don't even know what "pig iron" means in English. And classicist though I am, even I see no need to burden 21st-century kids with monme. It's an even bigger waste of time than learning the imperial system, which at least is still used in backwaters like Burma and the United States of America.

脹 is not being dropped so much as replaced. Most dictionaries give two possible spellings of hareru meaning "to swell": 脹れる and 腫れる. Despite the fact that the latter is far more commonly used, only the former is currently on the jōyō list. So 腫 has been scheduled for addition, and 脹 is to be shown the door. A triumph for descriptivism.

IV. Food

Two of the new characters are 串 (kushi, "(food on a) skewer") and 丼 (don, "bowl (of rice with something else on top)"). I wonder if this reflects some social phenomenon: changes in restaurant industry, weakening food snobbery...?

I also wonder if it's really worth adding 串. Just look at it. There are probably people out who don't even realize it's actually a character and not a picture.

Popularity factor: 11


Cool, I can finally use the three character idiom 串中⼁. (meaning to eat kushi)


It's ironic that you should post this on the day that the MEXT does a site inspection of the 日本漢字能力検定協会 subsidiary offices.

In Hodo Station's (Asahi) piece on it, they mentioned the recent 'kanji boom' as the tailwind for much of the earnings that the group was raking in.

I have a hard time with Japan calling a 'boom' something that is seemingly very remedial. Back when there weren't any lists, Japanese may have known more kanji than they do now...

It seems a bit confusing to have 常用漢字 (jōyō kanji) for education, 新聞漢字 (shimbun kanji) for media and 人名用漢字 (jinmei-yō kanji) for family registers, and have them all be different lists.

I think that in a country where the comic book loving prime minister is all too frequently gaffing his kanji (both reading and writing), the signs are evident that the problem is not deciding which kanji should be acquired, but rather how to acquire them as part of our everyday language.

(p.s.: 患者⇒ People eating 'hatsu')


誰 wasn't on the list? Really? I have only the most rudimentary knowledge of Japanese, and that kanji, along with 勺 and 丼 (and, on my good days, 俺) are some of the few I recognize immediately.

It's this kind of thing that, as a native English speaker, makes me wonder whether it's a good or bad thing that we have no académie anglaise.


Back when there weren't any lists, Japanese may have known more kanji than they do now...

You might think that. But that's until you get a headache trying to interpret what Fujiwara Michinaga's kanji mistakes were actually supposed to be.

Jus' saying.

(It seems that overall literacy went up after the Occupation-era reforms. How much of that can be laid at the foot at simplification, I do not know, for there was also 仮名遣い reform, and educational gains over time. But, anyway, there are some articles on literacy and the reform floating around Google Scholar am sure.

People also seem to have been stricter about using only Joyo in newspapers, etc. Or is my impression.

Or, in other words, I don't know that this one scholar I have to read would have been able to get away with using koten grammar for christ's-sake in his journal articles. Also, jus' saying.)

Leonardo Boiko:

As a tea ceremony fan, I demand 勹 to be included.


I have been looking at Wiki and http://www.bunka.go.jp/ lists, and I still see 勺 there, and 匁.
So Japanese culture is safe for now.


Yeah, the proposal still needs to be rubber-stamped before the joyo list officially changes. Japanese culture is safe for a few months yet. Weigh your pig-iron spindles while there's still time!


Also on the subject of personal pronouns, I was surprised that 'watashi' wasn't already an approved reading for 私...


Do they actually test the readings in schools? I know I never paid much attention to them (I learned kanji along with words isntead).


串 is ubiquitous in northern China. regionalization?


Pig iron, or lack thereof, is *arguably* what Japan entered World War II over. It was used in casting the hulls of ships. It being dropped is definitely a sign of the times.

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