Saturday, December 13, 2014

Inscrutable Kanji

Guest post by Baloo:

Okay, I'm the language guy, so I'll field this one. First off, I think Colin Liddell lives, or has lived, in Japan, which puts him way ahead of me, but since this is a fun post instead of a hard-core political one, I won't let that stop me from sticking an oar in. I'll add my own comments throughout this in brackets. This is from Colin Liddell's blog HERE.

My Year Zero Proposal

'Year Zero' is a radical political notion. It involves overturning the existing status quo and entirely replacing it with a new order – revolution instead of evolution, because evolution is too slow for the modern world. It is an act of such great upheaval that it usually only happens if the existing system has been completely discredited or destroyed, as in the cases of the bankrupt feudal monarchy overthrown by the French Revolution or the Nazi tyranny crushed by the Allies.

As Year Zero also means wiping the slate clean and starting afresh, it also involves great dangers. The last Year Zero was implemented by the communist government of Cambodia in the Seventies with disastrous results. Japan, too, has had its Year Zero in 1868, when the Edo Shogunate was swept away by the modernizing and centralizing state that created modern Japan.

I believe that the time is now ripe for Japan to have a new Year Zero, one that would sweep away the main curse that afflicts Japan and the Japanese: their cumbersome and impossible-to-learn language. I’m not just talking about my experience – Japanese people also never seem to completely succeed in learning their own language!

Compared to certain 'awkward' European languages, Japanese does have some good points: it lacks the absurd gendered nouns and clunky accusative and nominative declensions of French and German. It is also easy to pronounce; in fact too easy, as this is the reason why, in contrast to most other languages, it is remembered visually through a myriad of archaic-looking kanji.

Without kanji Japanese people would be unable to distinguish half the words in their language from the other half. As proof, consider ‘choh.’ In one of the smaller English-Japanese dictionaries in my possession, sixteen different meanings are listed for this one sound on its own: ‘leaf of paper,’ ‘office,’ ‘agency,’ ‘trillion,’ ‘omen,’ ‘street,’ ‘town,’ ‘an area of 2.45 acres,’ ‘a carbuncle,’ ‘chief,’ ‘dynasty,’ ‘period,’ ‘intestines,’ ‘musical key,’ ‘butterfly,’ and ‘ultra.’ This number expands exponentially when ‘choh’ is used in combination with other sounds.

[I'm sure this is all true, but it's a tad misleading, because English is loaded with homophones like 'can,' and 'set,' that, though spelled and pronounced the same way, have several different meanings that are almost always easily distinguished from context. I imagine that if Japanese switched over to phonemic spelling exclusively, the confusion would be minimal.]

The narrow range of sounds in the language makes it essential that all Japanese, from an early age until they die, must embark on the Sisyphean Labor of learning, memorizing, and re-learning countless kanji and their various permutations, a task that is not helped by the fact that each kanji has several pronunciations and many of them bear a remarkable resemblance to a squashed spider.

[Again, this is all true, except that I'm not sure at all that the limited number of sounds is what leads to the necessity for all the kanji. Some languages, like Hawaiian, have an even more limited number of sounds, and do well enough without kanji or anything like them. BTW, the sounds are more limited than seems to be the case at first glance, because while they have the sounds 't' and the five basic values, the combinations 'tu' and 'ti' are impossible in Japanese. This is true for many other combinations.]
Some naïve Western observers see this as proof of a higher and more sophisticated culture, and even talk about the rich nuances of these obtuse ink blotches. But one flick of the TV switch will soon show you what’s really going on. Although Japanese people, as a rule, are clearly bright and studious, Japan itself has one of the most dumbed-down popular cultures I have ever encountered.

News programs avoid the complexities of covering the international stage, while almost every other program is about the simplicities of food and onsens. Another popular staple are ‘tarento’ shows, where C-list celebrities are corralled to chat about inanities, often with the frequent use of kanji subtitles to underscore key phrases.

The reason for this narrow focus is because most people’s kanji comfort zones don’t allow programs to employ the vocabulary necessary to deal with more complex topics. In other words, the dumbing down of Japanese culture is the effect of having a cumbersome and awkward language.

[I think this is tongue-in-cheek, because while I believe he's right about the dumbed-down popular culture, I doubt if it's a result of the language. Actually, it sort of reminds me of the goofy stuff we see on Univision and Telemundo, and the Spanish language is outrageously easy to learn to read and write. And I think the Japanese popular culture is a bit more creative than the Latino. But that's just my impression.]

If the Japanese language was a computer operating system it would require a massive amount of memory or else the deletion of all but the most basic files. English, by contrast, is an OS that allows high performance with comparatively low demands on memory space. The effect of this is that, by persisting in using their native language instead of a superior foreign one, the Japanese actually handicap themselves, their culture, and their society. Indeed, the real reason Japanese people are so bad at learning foreign languages is because learning their own language uses up all the available educational oxygen.

[Partly, and partly because of an odd Japanese notion I've heard about that only Japanese can learn to speak Japanese, and so, conversely, they can't learn to speak non-Japanese languages. And also because of that limited phonetic inventory they've got. Any major language they try to learn has several sounds that just don't exist in Japanese. English more than most.]
This problem of a whole society and civilization running on a flawed OS can only be solved by a Year Zero solution, as Japanese attempts to have their cake and eat it have clearly failed. A Year Zero solution would mean a provisional government seizing and holding power during a transitional stage, and implementing draconian measures backed by military force. This would probably last for at least twenty years. It would be important to start from day one and maintain constant pressure for change. This is how I envisage the early stages of this Revolution:

Day One:
The Ministry of English is set up with dictatorial powers to supervise education and arrest people for ‘language crimes.’

Day Two: All bookshops and libraries are closed, and only allowed to reopen once they have replaced their entire stock with English books. All Japanese books (French and German, too) are pulped to make English flashcards for educational purposes. 

Day Three: All kanji signs are painted over or removed. 

Day Four: Government troops commandeer all pachinko parlors and set about transforming them into ad hoc eikaiwas for the mass of the population who have, so far, evaded the efforts of NOVA and GEOS sales staff. Vast numbers of native English teachers are recruited by doubling all eikaiwa, JET, and AET salaries, giving bonuses, and by sending special ‘ninja teams’ by submarine to areas with particularly good English pronunciation, like the South of England and Northern California, to kidnap well-spoken people. 

Day Five: All Japanese school teachers are forced to sit a rigorous English exam. Those failing are sent on extended homestays overseas; those passing are required to teach only in English. 

Day Six: All the sound trucks of Far Right political groups and yakimo vans are commandeered and thereafter used to drive around broadcasting English lessons. 

Day Seven: A jackbooted force of ‘English Commissars’ is set up to enforce English. Their duties include forcing people to read what’s written on their T-shirts and conducting random ‘L’ and ‘R’ tests at the point of a sub–machinegun.

7th September, 2007


Baloo here again. Though a lot of this is just kidding, Liddell is basically right about the language, especially the written language. It has to take a tremendous number of man hours for the average Japanese to learn to read and write the language, and just imagine what they could be learning if they weren't doing that? This is a tribute to the Japanese spirit or intelligence or something, because, in spite of all that, they have an almost 100% literacy rate. Contrast that to China, which has, actually, a somewhat easier-learned language, as far as reading and writing is concerned, and is way behind in literacy.

And I suppose he's right about English, but I'd like to put a word in for my own language project, Ceqli. It'd be easier for Japanese to learn, and, who knows, could spread from there. You can read about it here:


  1. Japanese has three ways of writing: kanji, which are Chinese characters, katakana, which are phonetic symbols rather like letters, often used for foreign words, and hiragana, which are even more like letters, which Japanese use to spell out a word if they don't know the kanji for it. Four if you count Roman letters used for some borrowed foreign words. They use Arabic numerals. I can tell printed or screen Japanese from Chinese because of the mix of symbols: Xes and squiggles of the hiragana mixed in with the kanji symbols identical to Chinese.

    Korean and Vietnamese used to be written in Chinese characters too; educated Koreans still know them. Korean now uses hangul, which looks like characters only with round and elliptical shapes; it's actually an alphabet. The French switched Vietnamese to Roman letters with diacritics.

    Chinese is a tone language (actually several spoken languages sharing a set of characters) as is Vietnamese; Japanese isn't.

  2. I'd like to have read the article but can't get past "Nazi tyranny". Liddell = POS.