I was reading The Tale of Genji the other day. No, let me correct that: I was reading about the Tale of Genji. Apparently the story was originally written in kana, real homegrown script, with hardly a trace of the imported Chinese characters known as kanji, and it provoked me into thinking about three languages reasonably familiar to me.
Unlike America, where precocious teenagers struggle with words like diarrhea and sphygmomanometer, Spain has no spelling bees. Standard Spanish is a dumb linguist’s dream: a pushover to pronounce, even to the point where any deviation from intonation rules bears an accent mark. You can go through life without making a spelling mistake or a mispronunciation in Spanish.
Contrast that with the bizarre inconsistency of English. Playwright and linguistic reformer George Bernard Shaw famously said that “ghoti” would be pronounced “fish” if you use the gh sound from rough, the i from women, and ti from national. He had a point: where’s the logic in a language in which cough rhymes with off and not rough or bough?
Still, with only 26 letters to learn, literacy in English comes swiftly. European languages – related by root, and most using the roman alphabet – enjoy great phonetic flexibility. English can absorb foreign words like siesta, rendezvous and tsunami, and come very close in pronunciation to the language of origin. Strangely, Japanese is the nearest language to Spanish in pronunciation consistency.
By the age of six, a native English speaker can expect to be literate in basic terms. But a native Japanese speaker, who has to deal with 1,945 kanji in the queue, arrives 10 years later.
I flirted with the written language of my adopted country for over thirty years, but it was the 脱サラ (dassara) moment – escaping from salaried life – a decade ago to write that convinced me to pursue reading fluency. And I was heading for kanji number 1,945, the last on the official list of commonly used jouyou Chinese characters, able to claim 90 percent fluency in trashy weekly magazine literacy.
Then the eminent scholars on the Council for Cultural Affairs went and raised the bar again. They’re greeting the second decade of the 21st century with another 196 of the multistroke monsters. While they’ve kindly removed 5, the total is now 2,136, and for me that’s 限界, genkai, my limit.
And let’s not forget the mass of kanji that fall outside the common usage category. True masochists will take extreme tests in which kanji for various types of fish requiring 20 or more strokes of the pen test both skill and sanity.
Kanji are the digital clocks of written communication, and the letters of our roman alphabet represent the analog. A digital clock face at 2:30 tells the time: you don’t have to read it, just recognize the numbers in sequence. An analog clock at “two thirty,” however, requires you to translate the position into a time. You can’t understand a kanji character unless you’ve learned it, and the sheer volume and complexity often make them impossible to recall with fluency.
Remember former Prime Minister Aso’s excruciatingly embarrassing kanji meltdown? He was reading a speech on the importance of education to children at Japan’s most prestigious private school when he attempted to pronounce mizou (未曽有), a not-uncommon word meaning “unprecedented.” He had forgotten the last character in this construction was pronounced u, rather than the usual yuu, a delicious trap for the forgetful and unwary. Written as hiragana, みぞう, his blushes would have been spared, but his nightmare didn’t end there: he misread the national language three more times in 10 minutes. It was a grand moment for pedants.
You can’t blame the Chinese, either – they were just the nearest locals with a written language. What causes havoc in communication (ask former PM Aso) is putting two or more kanji together and imbuing them with Chinese-inspired on pronunciation. Since Japanese is poorly equipped in terms of phonetic variation, a different kanji for the same syllable is used. My electronic dictionary lists 333 different kanji for the hugely ubiquitous long kou sound, 270 for shou, and 190 for kyou.
While risking the wrath of purists, and perhaps a visit from a right-winger’s sound truck, I would cull kanji drastically, Korean style, and use many more hiragana and katakana. Baka (馬鹿) – meaning foolish and written in hiragana as ばか – may lose its aesthetic appeal, but it’s easily understood in context and is simple to write. I would miss seeing perplexed people writing characters in the air with a finger, though.
While I’m at it, I’d add two letters to katakana and hiragana (pure homemade stuff, don’t forget), one pronounced to mimic the English sound ir as in bird, earth or curve, and the other th. This would bring hundreds of common imported words into reasonable proximity to the original. I still cringe when I hear newsreaders pronounce earth (as in rare earth) as aarsu, making it uncannily similar to British slang for a private part of the lower body.
By increasing the number of kanji, the government is also unconsciously promoting creeping functional illiteracy. The aging population – which includes the country’s educated prime ministers and me – struggle to remember kanji readings, and need a dictionary alongside when we write them. The young, with their electronic gadgetry, can’t be bothered. Filling in multiple-choice exam answers and job applications will become the only outlets for their handwriting skills. The rest is texting.
In any case, back to kanji number 1,946 – if I could only remember what it was. ❶
Guy Stanley has published six novels set in Japan, including A Death in Tokyo and Nagasaki Six, and divides the year between Tokyo and London.