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Why Johnny can’t read ‘kanji’

by Thomas Dillon

Here’s a quick communication survey of your typical long-term foreign resident of Japan, particularly one from the West.

First, can he (or she) speak Japanese?

Well — in most cases — of course! OK, maybe to native ears his accent sounds like Bela Lugosi yodeling. Maybe he trips through the same grammar pits so often his sentences limp like Boris Karloff, aka the Mummy. And maybe he shows the overall lexical variety of a werewolf. But — after years of trial and error — he can monster out what he wants to say quite fine, thank you, and generally communicates well.

Can he (or she) handle the culture?

Oh, but naturally! True, he remains a bull in a china shop, but bountiful experiences with overturned tables have taught him always to proceed on tippy-toes. He knows when to bow, he knows when to apologize and he knows when to sweep up behind himself. But even when he steps in it, he usually slips through safely.

Last, can he (or she) read Chinese characters, better known as “kanji?”

Ha! Are you kidding me? Sure he can read! At the erudite level of . . .

A 6-year-old.

Yes, you can find these folks all along the archipelago: foreigners who can speak and comprehend Japanese, who show comfort with Japanese culture and who have perhaps attained positions of responsibility in their schools, companies and communities — yet who cannot read a single lick of kanji.

All right, perhaps they can manage one teensy lick, but they don’t have the taste for much more. In a nation proud of its education, they hang as illiterate shadows in an otherwise well-lit room.

I know these lost-between-the-lines foreigners pretty well. For I am one myself.

Or rather I was one until about 15 years ago, when I suddenly realized my sons could read Japanese kiddie books better than I.

“Can you read it again, huh? Can you, can you? Pleeeeeze!”

“No, Dad, nine times is enough. Time now for bed!”

This led me to brush up my “kana” and then pick up a kanji primer. Slowly, I perspired my way on to Japanese literacy. How literate am I? Well, to start, I can read numbers fine. After that, I can usually plod my way through a newspaper. Of course, by the time I finish, the news is no longer news — it’s history. Still, I can do it.

There are also Westerners who can do it rather well. Some of these are kanji nerds with thick glasses, thicker heads and no life beyond their dictionaries. Yet many others are normal individuals who either through effort, talent, inclination or a transaction with the devil have somehow managed to become wise and masterful “ji” whizzes.

Japan changes once you can read. The landscape morphs before your eyes. It jumps at you like a surprise image from a Magic Eye stereogram. It’s amazing what you can see.

City streets are no longer quaint and crooked scenes of vertical neon signboards. They are opportunities, landmarks, invitations. Menus are no longer scribbles to forgo in place of a hesitant point at the food in the display case; they are descriptions designed to pique your appetite. Letters in the mailbox are no longer mysterious missives to be held and pondered over until you can ask a Japanese friend; they are — in all likelihood — bills. But at long last you can read them and weep all by yourself.

A Japan that can be read is no longer such a faraway and inscrutable foreign land. The islands drift pleasantly closer to being home.

So why don’t most Westerners work harder at literacy? One needn’t be able to read tea leaves to see the answers.

For Japan indulges Western guests. English ability is viewed as cultured and elegant; hence many businesses and companies produce English signboards, Web pages and annual reports even if they can count their English clientele only in their dreams. This lends an English-friendly flavor to the environment. But that’s just the start.

English train and bus announcements, English directions for this and that, and an examination-pummeled population that often sees visitors as walking/talking English lessons can all persuade Westerners to be lazy, languagewise.

Meanwhile, non-Western foreigners are not nearly as pampered. Chinese guests — of course — arrive with kanji preprogrammed into their gray matter, but other Asians are not cut much slack either. Typically they either learn or they return.

A Japanese language teacher I know well (in fact, I am married to her) says this:

“In general, Westerners don’t have the same classroom attitude. They do homework less, they skip class more and they have shorter-range plans for learning the language.”

“But,” I remind her with a wink, “some of us are cute.”

“More than cute, I prefer motivated. If I want cute, I’ll rent ‘Bambi.’ “

Bambi is, I note, also illiterate. Deer don’t take well to reading, and neither do Westerners to kanji.

“I call it the Great Wall,” says a friend of the volume of Chinese characters necessary to read Japanese. “It’s intimidating. The colossal difference between a mere alphabet and hundreds and hundreds of pictograms — all with multiple readings — stops many people from studying before they even start.”

Some also say a portion of Japanese are pleased with this: They take pride that they can peek into other people’s cultures while Westerners cannot catch a full glimpse of theirs. The language, and particularly kanji, are looked upon — again by some — as a protective barrier to the shared secret of being Japanese.

“What secret?” says that language teacher. “Japan hides nothing. But you have to read to understand.”

On the other hand, many Westerners are quite pleased being languageless Bambis, hopping and skipping merrily through the Japanese forest.

And — some will argue — why not? They say it beats being a yodeling Bela Lugosi any day.