Whatever some say, there’s no Japanese-language ‘code’ to be deciphered

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

Ever since Japan opened to the outside world in the middle of the 19th century after some 250 years of isolation imposed and enforced by its ruling shoguns, the Japanese language has been widely regarded as a kind of code.

Foreigners, it is generally conceded, may be able to learn to “decipher” this code, but the deeper meanings of the words — which give voice to the hearts and minds of the Japanese people — are still considered by most Japanese people to be beyond their grasp, just as beautiful stones in the depths of a clear pond cannot be reached by those destined to remain on the edges. Foreigners could stick their toes into the water, perhaps even enter the pond, but they could not reach the depths.

Some Japanese people, I fear, still believe this, but many now see that foreigners can be deep divers too; that barriers to understanding can be breached.

In the first decades of the 45 years that I have used the Japanese language — reading hundreds of books and even writing a few in Japanese — I was often asked if I “really understood” what was being said to me. When I assured Japanese people that I did, some cocked their head to one side, sucked in air through their teeth and likely thought, “Wakaru ka na?” (“I doubt if he really does.”)

The notion that the Japanese language is a kind of code of implicit communication and “ethnic telepathy” among native speakers has served them well on their islands somewhat distant from centers of civilizations on the Asian continent, and much farther away from others elsewhere.

It allowed the Japanese to create a unique aesthetic vocabulary to express the intricate and exquisite facets in the kaleidoscope that comprises their culture. It led them to believe that, even if foreigners understand separate words in the language, the ways Japanese people put them together make them difficult, if not impossible to “decipher.”

More than single words or phrases, however, are the Japanese modes of expression — or, rather, “modes of non-expression” — where people normally keep their feelings to themselves or express them in seemingly vague terms. The modes of communication used by the Japanese — the way they look (or don’t look) at each other, move their bodies, gesture and use their language — are naturally not the same, in many cases, as they are among some other nationalities.

This has led Japanese people to believe that their language is ambiguous. This self-perceived ambiguity — combined with the many behavioral habits that create a portrait of the Japanese national character — has given rise to the notion that the Japanese language is one of the world’s most difficult for foreigners to learn.

But let me pose three questions: Is the Japanese language a special code whose rules and secrets can be grasped only by the Japanese? Is it ambiguous? And is it difficult for foreigners to learn?

My answer to all three is a definite “No.”

There is nothing secret, inscrutable or codelike about Japanese words. The language is certainly not ambiguous. And, in fact, spoken Japanese is really quite easy to learn. In contrast, my native English is fiendishly difficult to learn, with pronunciation, spelling and stress being highly irregular, and an everyday vocabulary that is dauntingly vast.

The fact is that all languages, Japanese included, are entirely neutral. The claims made for a language being ambiguous or “expressive,” or even beautiful-sounding, are made on subjective grounds. Humans are all capable of feeling emotions and expressing ideas to the same levels of depth and breadth no matter what country we are born in. All languages are equally expressive, though some have developed a special vocabulary for particular subjects due to their geography or history.

But this merely means that it requires a cultural background to appreciate the nuances of some words, the associations of some colors or the beauty of some sounds. Words exist in a historical, behavioral or cultural context. Outside that context they are neutral. This applies to Japanese just as it does to all languages. What’s difficult to learn for us non-Japanese are the intricacies of culture and the many conventions of behavior that have evolved over the centuries.

The main obstacle hindering Japanese people’s understanding of the outside world is not an inability to speak foreign languages, though being able to do so would be desirable and beneficial — it is a misunderstanding of the very nature of their own language.

It is hard for any people to see and judge the nature of their language. Is Japanese a difficult language? A beautiful language? A special language? Would an American or Canadian or Australian be able to answer these questions for English? Would a Yemeni or a Vietnamese person know whether Arabic of Vietnamese was difficult, beautiful or special? They would probably say, “Yes, my language is difficult, beautiful and special.” Can anyone view their own language from an outsider’s perspective? Is it possible to be objective about your own language?

If you were asked to describe the Japanese language, what would you say?

You might point out features of the way it is used, specifying perhaps how it can be subtlely sensitive to the occasion. When formal or polite expressions are called for, as when speaking to a superior or someone older, you may cite how honorifics, known as keigo, are used. When a confrontation between speakers seems to be evident, you would perhaps point out how ambiguous forms of speech may come into play to avoid unpleasantness. And you may even add that Japanese is full of pauses and silences, since it is a language that avoids self-assertion. It also often omits the subject in a sentence, as the language favors indirect speech.

But are these features belonging to the Japanese language, or are they traits of a Japanese personality? Does a language have intrinsic features such as subtlety, sensitivity, ambiguity and self-assertion — or are these features of usage by a certain people at a certain time in their history?

Japanese is among the world’s most spoken languages, and there is no reason it couldn’t have become an international language like English, Spanish and French. If Japan’s policy in Asia and the Asia-Pacific region had been benign and kind throughout the 20th century, and had the European powers given up power there (which they were not about to do of their own volition), then the Japanese language might have spread permanently outside the borders of this country.

If so, people who were not native-born Japanese would now likely be using Japanese as their national language. If Japan had been successful in transplanting its language overseas, over time there would be no standard Japanese, just as there is no standard English. Consider the possibility that Japan had conquered and occupied Hawaii after 1941 (as the United States did decades earlier), and had then stopped its aggression. By now, Hawaiians would probably be speaking Japanese instead of English.

I imagine a film in Yoji Yamada’s long-running “Tora-san” series in which Tora-san, the hapless hero, meets his Hawaiian madonna in Waikiki. She might even speak a more refined version of Japanese than him! He would appear back in Shibamata, his working-class home district of Tokyo, wearing a Hawaiian shirt instead of a haramaki (fabric waist band) with a lei, not an omamori good-luck charm around his neck. And when he walked into his sister’s dumpling shop there, the first thing he’d say would not be “Tadaima!” (“I’m back!”), but “Aloha!”

And could you expect the Hawaiians, with their laid-back lifestyle and easygoing ways, to act “like Japanese”? The prewar Japanese believed that once the peoples of Asia and the South Pacific spoke Japanese, they would turn into Japanese in thought and action. During the war, children in Micronesia under Japanese rule were forced to bow to the north, in the direction of the Imperial palace, during morning assembly.

Did the oppressors believe that making people bow like that would really change a culture and lifestyle in existence for many centuries? Did they think the gregarious and fun-loving people of the Solomon Islands would sit on their knees on tatami mats, sip bitter powdered green tea and recite 17-syllable poems about the aesthetic symbolism of cherry blossom petals?

And would Koreans, who are not generally prone to a diffident ambiguity of expression, use Japanese in the same way as many Japanese people do, mumbling and hesitating if they are unsure of themselves or choose to appear so?

Why should people have to “act like Japanese” just because they use the language?

It is high time the Japanese realized that the qualities they ascribe to their language are features of usage that can be and are being modified by myriad circumstances in the passage of time. The more foreigners who speak Japanese, the greater benefit it will be for the Japanese to understand what is linguistically intrinsic in their language and what is simply custom.

The use of the Japanese language by Japanese is both elegantly concise and impressively flexible. A language itself, of course, cannot be either “verbose” or “inarticulate,” since these are social, not linguistic, phenomena. Hence I have met hundreds of verbose Japanese people, because the language is just as good a medium for allowing people to talk the hind legs off a donkey as any other.

A language is a medium. It is a vehicle that we drive, sometimes slow, sometimes fast; sometimes clumsily, sometimes adeptly. It all depends on the driver. The number of words in a language in no way limits a people’s expressiveness. It is how they are subtlely variegated and combined that produces the expressiveness.

The Japanese language today has become a vehicle driven by different nationalities, thanks to the many non-Japanese living, working and active in public life here. This is giving Japanese people a more objective view of their own language not as an exclusive ethnic code but as a normal vehicle of communication. The days when a Japanese listens to a foreigner speaking Japanese with skeptical disbelief are over.

Foreigners who do not know the Japanese language and the Japanese people are often puzzled by the latter’s intentions. When asked by a non-Japanese if they want to go hiking, a Japanese might answer, “I leave it to you.” Do they want to go or not? Similarly, do they want a cup of coffee or not, if they nod once and say when asked, “Sekkaku desu ga …” (“It’s very kind of you to ask …”)? To any Japanese, these responses are not ambiguous. In the first instance, the person is deferring to their host; they do not want to appear selfish. In the second, the answer is, “Thanks all the same …”

Are these people’s expressions really ambiguous, or are they just expressing verbal conventions or, perhaps, simply not wishing to express themselves in what may appear to be a self-assertive manner?

The term monogoto o hakkiri iu means not only “speaking distinctly, clearly and precisely,” but also “speaking bluntly, perhaps saying something that another person might not want to hear.” This may not be a desirable thing to do in a society where self-effacement is a classic virtue.

Japanese people do not generally wish to appear dogmatic or overly convinced of something. When people give their opinions on television, they invariably use the phrase, shite moraitai. This means “I would like (them) to do (something).” If we translate this literally into a foreign language, it might appear the people voicing it are weak or unsure of their convictions. They are, after all, “asking” someone to do something. In many other countries, people are more forceful. “The government must do something about this!” “The principal should change school policy right now!”

If a Japanese person said those things in public in their home country in such a “foreign” way, many people might be repelled by their opinions, even if they tended to agree with them. That is why foreigners often appear overly assertive in Japanese eyes. Nonetheless, it is important for Japanese people to say their opinions clearly and sincerely when speaking a foreign language. By simply “translating” Japanese words, they may come out sounding insincere.

The issue of emphasis illustrates a complexity of usage that reveals a telling point.

The most common method of producing emphasis is to raise the intonation of the voice — except in Japanese, though of course people do raise the volume of their voice when they are emotional. Listen to the way most foreigners speak Japanese and you will hear much more rising and falling intonation than you hear when Japanese people speak the language, particularly when the speaker is excited or angry. They are using the intonation of emphasis in their own language when they speak Japanese. This is a perfectly natural thing to do, but it again can give the impression foreigners are more assertive and convinced of what they say than Japanese people.

On the other hand, Japanese people speak in a more monotone fashion because the Japanese language provides them with auxiliary means of emphasis. They don’t need to underline individual words. They just need to use forms of emphatic speech that the language provides, such as da, yo and ne at the end of a sentence.

Aditionally, they don’t want to appear to be 100 percent convinced of the correctness of their opinions. They want to be inclusive of you. I would say that this attribute — of being inclusive of others when expressing yourself — is one of the most striking qualities of the Japanese people.

But why should non-Japanese speaking Japanese be obliged to be self-effacingly “Japanese” just because they speak the language?

The Japanese will have to recognize this fact. And in fact it is quite possible that, some decades from now, Japanese people will not be expressing themselves at all in the way they do today.

Moreover, if foreigners understand and speak Japanese, then Japanese people will understand the people of other countries and more readily learn to speak their languages. If Japanese people believe their language is a secret code foreigners cannot fathom, they will be fated to remain on the edge of the foreign ponds where the beauties and depths of foreign words reside. If you are closed to others, others will be closed to you.

The internationalization of the Japanese language is vital if Japan is to take further the opening up of the heart of the nation that began more than a century and a half ago.

  • kyushuphil

    I think Roger Pulvers loses his otherwise erstwhile argument.

    The key place where he slips is when he says, “merely . . . requires a cultural background.” Yes, indeed: some “merely.” Followed by lots of phrases beginning with “if.”

    Japanese culture trumps us outsiders in the ritualized webs of obligations they have among each other, and we don’t. Roger Pulvers obviously knows lots about this, but when he says “merely . . . cultural background,” he shows the all-too-easy freedom bias he’s been carrying all these years with him.

    The trouble with this simple-mindedness is that Japanese, like :Pulvers, also fail to see the massive falsity the West has been here selling in the modern culture of nuke power, concrete sprawl, fast food, AC, robotic happy pop, and neon and TV advertising. This consumerism all promises easy, instant identity gifts simply by joining in and paying more money — giving more power — to that which Dewey in “School of Rock” called “The Man.”

    The Japanese don’t see just how serious this is, with all its happy lies, as most Americans and Brits similarly fail to see. We all fail to see into cultures, our own and others’, whenever we loft such terms as “merely.”.

  • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

    ” The internationalization of the Japanese language is vital ..”

    Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_total_number_of_speakers) list’s the number of L2 speakers of Japanese at 1 million, the number of L2 speakers of English at 430 million. Numerically, Japanese has a long way to go to break through the Lingua Franca threshold.
    Furthermore, to tackle the writing system it is necessary to know a large number of Kanji; it can be done by an adult but it requires dedication.
    But Japanese is difficult even for Chinese because of the grammar. The only nationality who really find Japanese easy is Koreans, as they are closely related linguistically.

    I expect L2 usage of Japanese to not change dramatically in the near future: people coming from neighboring countries for education and work (these are the majority), and Japanophiles from distant lands (the minority) will increase, but not exponentially in the next 20 years.

    For practical reasons, Japan will continue it’s international outreach MOSTLY using English for the foreseeable future, although a small number of Japanese young people are learning to communicate with other Asian languages, mostly Chinese language.

    • Christopher-trier

      They’re actually not closely related. They were both heavily influenced by Chinese and are agglomerative languages but no definite link has ever been proven. The Altaic theory is largely considered tendentious by most linguists.

      • Miles Bader

        Wait, so the enormous amount of grammatical similarity between them—especially compared to other nearby countries—in two adjacent countries with long and deep historical connections, is just considered a coincidence?!

        The mind boggles…

      • Christopher-trier

        Your mind might boggle, but not that of most linguists.

        Korean and Japanese have converged greatly over the centuries, but they do not share a common origin. Thus, they are not related. To a less extreme extent it is similar to English, despite being a Germanic language, Anglo-Frisian Branch to be more precise, has a largely Latin-based vocabulary and Danish as well as Latin influences on its grammar. Here are two links for you:

        http://www.ethnologue.com/language/kor

        http://www.ethnologue.com/language/jpn

        Korean is classified as a linguistic isolate, thus cannot be related to Japanese. Japanese is classed in the Japonic language family along with Okinawan. Not quite an isolate, but the family is classified as an isolate.

      • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

        > no definite link has ever been proven

        Linguistics is never based on “proofs”, because they are not available. The best that can be done is measuring correspondences statistically. Anyone who is fluent in Japanese and has then studied Chinese and studied Korean, will know that Korean is grammatically a sibling to Japanese, and Chinese is not. As you say, Chinese influenced both Japanese and Korean, but it’s influence on both is limited to loanwords, especially higher level concepts. The reason for the grammatical similarity between Korea and Japan is the shared racial roots. Horses, metal, and rice agriculture spread though Korea to Japan, along with the Korean language present in the south of Korea at the time.
        Anyway, if you are interested in the work of many linguists showing a connection between Korean and Japanese:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classification_of_Japonic

  • http://www.jlgatewood.com/ J.L. “J7″ Gatewood StarrWulfe

    I don’t dive so deeply into my usage of Japanese– It’s simply another form of communication, just as English, Spanish and even slang usage are to me.

    I suppose you can dissect a culture based on its use of a language, particularly if that language was “homegrown” by said culure and Japanese is no different. The underlying shared personalities of population are exactly the same in many cases as the language — layered, difficult to pin down, and distancing. But as my use of Japanese has gotten better throughout the years, along with my interactions here in the same time, I’ve found that I tend to understand the implied meaning by *actions* (and non-actions) better anyway.

  • Tony Chambers

    None other than Natsume Soseki, in “Botchan,” had the perfect response to the myth that the Japanese are taciturn: “Nihonjin wa mina kuchi kara saki e umareru,” or, in Joel Cohn’s translation, “Japanese people are born mouth first” (p. 115).

  • paul

    japanese is actually quite an easy spoken language to learn. the only thing which makes it difficult is the character system but even this can be overcome with effort. i hope however the day comes when the japanese see the light like their korean counterparts who have and scrap the whole system and allow the younger generation to access information which kids of a similar age are. it really inhibits learning and communication. in this modern age where information is so important one wonders whether Japanese will become an obsolete language because of the character system. English is so much easier to use.

    • Christopher-trier

      The character system is a bit messy but it reflects the historical development of the Japanese language. Actually, the entire system does. Improvisation, developing an indigenous writing system to work with a radically different grammar, and then the increased use of katakana to show the ever more distant origin of new Japanese words. The Japanese language would also, for better or worse, prove unworkable without Kanji and Kana. Will Japanese become obsolete? Highly unlikely, despite the pompous assertions of some to the contrary. By the way, Korean is a very different language than Japanese. Just because something is largely possible (Korean did not, as you falsely assert, do away with Chinese characters. They’re used less often than in Japanese but any attempt to scrap them completely winds up in failure because there is no way that higher Korean can be used without the characters for the sake of providing context) in one language doesn’t mean it’s possible in another.

      • paul

        has anyone actually tried? which came first the language or the characters. in this case it is clear- the characters. given this it would seem to be this case that discarding characters would result in a re-Japanisation of the language. however, given the complexities which have evolved over the past thousand or so years it wouldn’t be easy!

      • Christopher-trier

        Yes. After the Second World War the Americans tried to order the Japanese to Romanise the language. The Japanese refused stating that it would no longer truly be Japanese. The Americans then tried to pressure the Japanese to at least scrap Kanji. The Japanese again declined on the ground that the language would not be manageable without the characters, but they did agree to simplify 1/3rd of the most commonly used characters — hence the new and old character systems. A few times since then the proposal to abolish Kanji has been made but it never went very far.

      • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

        During the occupation some Americans advocated the abolition of Kanji, and even the use of Romaji. I think “Tried to use their influence to cause” is more accurate than “tried to order”. The fact that while there were a small but influential minority of Japanese who promoted romaji, it still never came about is proof of this. There are countries in Eastern Europe where children were forced to learn Russian in schools. They had no choice. Or, as another example, the Japanese policy of 同化政策 Doka-Seisaku in Korea ordered all Korean students to do their schooling in Japanese. They did it.

        I am not saying the Americans in Japanese occupation were not bossy, overbearing, and arrogant at times. But they did not “order” the use of romaji, many (but by no means all) of them pushed the idea that romaji would be superior, and they used their influence to place proponents of said policy on the council in charge of Japanese education. However, the opponents were never dragged out into a field and shot, or even placed in jail. They were allowed to state their views and in fact it was their views which were practiced. The proponents of romaji faded with the winding down of the occupation.

        The toyo-kanji itself was nothing to do with the Americans. The Toyo-Kanji was a continuation of the consolodation of Japanese writing and language which had been started by Japanese during the Meiji restoration.

      • paul

        It would be interesting to do some scientific testing as to just how much of a difference there in when kanji are not used. At first there is always confusion and complaints when it comes to getting used to a new environment. But as people get used to things I wonder how people’s perceptions might change. I am pretty sure that the younger generation would take to it- for to reasons. The first one is that most kids despise having to memorise them while the second one is that they are able to adapt much more quickly than us oldies. This means that there will be a strong rejection to change from the older generation. Given that presently most of the population is at least oldish it would be incredibly difficult to implement such a sweeping change.
        In the case of Korea I wonder people fared when kanji was replaced. How much did people’s reading speed actually change.
        Also it would be good to know just how much of an effect it had on people’s ability to acquire knowledge- the biggest comeback I have with it. Unless you know kanji you can’t read it. With the alphabet it is a mere 26 letters which means one is able to acquire the ability to read and hence obtain information much easily. Kanji inhibits information acquistion. I Often wonder whether a part of the elites stubborn defense of it is because they don’t want the young population acquiring information before they have been indoctrinated and going out and making the reforms this country needs BUT this is probably extending my hypothesis a bit too far.

      • Christopher-trier

        Korean is a bit different, actually. In Korean daily-use vocabulary is largely Korean in origin so Hanja are not quite as vital, although you will still find Hanja used in newspapers and academic works in order to provide context. Korean has not, contrary to popular belief, dropped use of Chinese characters — it has merely de-emphasised it. Both North and South Korea tried to but realised that it was not possible.

        The problem with Japanese is that word compounds use Chinese readings. The language, thus, developed using the Chinese writing system. Half the words in Japanese are of Chinese origin, 60pc in Korean. It becomes unintelligible because so many words sound exactly the same and could not, without the characters providing context, be understood. There is no way to “get used to it” and your assertions that it is done to keep people ignorant is absurd and, frankly, rooted in ignorance. Your comment that Kanji inhibits information acquisition is absurd. That’s like saying that meaningless squiggles randomly piled together is the ultimate writing system.

      • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

        > “Korean has not, contrary to popular belief, dropped use of Chinese characters”

        Your assertion is “absurd,and, frankly, rooted in ignorance”. As in ignorance that you seem NOT to have examined the front page of a Korean daily newspaper, or NOT actually chatted with average Koreans and asked them what Hanja they know. Here is a link to Kukmin Ilbo newspaper: http://www.kukminilbo.co.kr/news/index.asp

        How many Hanja on the front page? I see one; “Ken” to indicate investigation (of some naughty bank business).

        If you show simple Hanja like “come” or “go” to ordinary Koreans working in a shop or factory (not college graduates) they usually do not know them.

        Christopher, you are strong on opinion but weak on opening your eyes and ears and seeing what is in front of your face.

      • Christopher-trier

        In a prior post on this thread I indicated that Korean de-emphasised Hanja, but has not done away with them completely. I also indicated in a previous post that in most daily situations Hanja are not necessary, but in academic works and in newspapers they are still used for context when necessary. That is not the same as saying that they are in use as often as Japan.

        When I was in Korea I saw little Hanja used, but I did see them on occasion. In general they were added in parenthesis after the Hangul. Some Koreans know Hanja quite well, others do not. I have met both. Even some university graduates are not especially skilled in Hanja when they are not necessary for the course of study.

        You are strong on presumptuousness but weak on delivery. Unless you expect others to re-state everything they have written on a matter in each post they write it might be better to read everything, especially when there are not that many posts, before making snide comments.

      • paul

        Why is it then that kids have to spend thousands of hours memorising characters or ridiculous stroke orders when they could be learning much more valuable things. Foreigners who study Japanese all say that the greatest difficulty to learning the language is the character system and many Japanese students say they hate the time they have to consume memorising them. SInce when do you have a test (the kanji kentei) just to show you know how to read something. The beauty of the 26 letters of English is that it is so much easier and allows students to unlock a world of knowledge at a much earlier age. Could you imagine a Japanese kid reading the Lord of the Rings at 12 or 13? I doubt that many kids could.

      • Christopher-trier

        Foreigners who study Japanese all say that the greatest difficulty is learning the character system? A bit broad a statement — it’s not the greatest difficulty I’ve had with Japanese. Rather, it’s the multitudes of minor rules that are easy to confuse yet critically important. Kanji are challenging, but not the worst.

        The problem is not with the writing system, but the laziness of students learning a language.The Japanese language is a product of many centuries of improvisation. It became what it is because that is what worked. The kana have been around for centuries yet never made kanji redundant for the very reason that the meaning of words is not immediately clear without the context provided by kanji.
        Considering the rapid increase of functionally illiterate native speakers of the English language, the 26-letter theory falls flat on its face especially compared to the vastly greater literacy in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan — places where Chinese characters of different varieties are used.

        What does the Lord of the Rings have to do with this? Those inclined to read that work, and I could never understand exactly what people saw in any of Tolkein’s books, is best taught in its native language and your use of it as an example would better serve as an argument for better English-language education in Japan. The Japanese have their own literary tradition, almost universally with a fair number of kanji.

      • paul

        The rules may be complicated but they don’t take that long to learn in comparison to the time it takes to memorise the key 2000 or so characters.
        Recently with the younger generation there seems to be a move away from their usage. True enough the language has evolved but one wonders what the language would look like if conservative people who despise change had less influence and the use of Kanji took it’s natural cause.
        With regard to literacy this is more a social point. You may point to higher levels of literacy but then again look at the kids coming out of the system here. One couldn’t say they are superior to those of other countries- I didn’t say that western kids are better here.
        With the case of the Lord of the Rings this was merely an example and I could have given a thousand different examples of how easy it is for kids to read English rather than Japanese. I feel knowledge acquisition is easier in English. What do you think?
        They have their own literacy traditions but one wonders how in this age how they will develop.
        It way well and true that the older generation may be used to kanji but scientific testing would be good to find out just how people who have not used it all their life adjust.
        Some scientific testing would be good rather than just hypothesising about things just as to what the effect such as change would be.

      • Christopher-trier

        I recently had a discussion about the use of Chinese characters with a friend from China. According to him, people can get by with only knowing 500-700 characters as the rest are not as commonly used and can generally be understood either from the context of the sentence or from their radicals. The discussion was about Chinese, but it is equally applicable to Japanese. Most Kanji that people are requires to learn are not used that often and only need to be understandable as they appear most frequently.
        People will learn what they must to get by and use only what they see as necessary. Based on my experience with younger Japanese, kanji are alive and well and will continue to be a part of the Japanese language to the extent that they are necessary. Scientific testing is not nearly as relevant in this regard as empiricism.

        Reading comprehension? Japanese has furigana for that. Even with the 26 letters of English most do not understand the nuances and subtleties of words. The two languages are not comparable. The traditions are different, the historical development are different. This debate in reality makes no more sense that cleaning up the eccentricities of spellings and different sounds for the same letters by writing English in Hangul and using Chinese characters for clarity.

      • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

        Korean scrapped Kanji in the late 60′s early 70′s. Now Korean newspapers have only one or two Kanji per page, mostly for peoples names.

        However, as it happens, 50% of Korean words used in print are loan words from Chinese. Just as in Japanese, an abundance of Chinese two syllable words are crowded onto a paucity of pronunciations. This is an accident, because in Chinese the words adequately dis-ambiguated by their tones (of five tones in Beijin dialect Chinese.) With five tones per syllable there are a tenty five combinations of tones per two syllable word, ready to disambiguate. But Korean and Japanese are non-tonal languages, so they dropped the tones, resulting in potential ambiguity in meaning for Chinese loan words with the same pronunciation.

        In the casual spoken language this is simply not an issue (1) because Chinese loan words are less frequent, or (2) the meaning is immediately evident from context in the case of ambiguity.

        However, in higher level writing, the incidence of Chinese loan words increases, and the ambiguity increases with conceptual complexity of the writing.

        For a person used to reading Kanji in Japanese, trying to read a newspaper article which has been converted to entirely Hiragana is difficult and slower. It is because of the time required for the Chinese loanwords bust be dis-ambiguated. It may be just 10′s of microseconds involved for each one, but it is enough to kill speed reading.

        The Korean’s are having the same problem with this. Of course they have adapted to a degree, both in the skill of reading it, and the choice of words used in writing. But there is always a (minority) movement to increase the number of Kanji taught to schoolchildren. However, since the teachers no longer know Kanji, this is impossible.

  • Christopher-trier

    Japanese is a difficult, but not impossible, language to learn. While spoken Japanese is not too difficult, as others have pointed out, truly becoming fluent in the language is difficult. There are so many nuances and shades of meaning, there are so many subtle rules that guide the language that much more dedication is needed to learn it. Even the multiple readings of a single character complicate matters. While not as special as some might think, the Japanese language certainly does become easier when one grows up speaking it.

    English, by the way, is not that difficult a language. Try studying German or Russian. English has its absurdities, but it is nothing compared to other languages. Claiming English is especially difficult indicates that one wishes to deflect responsibility for not being able to speak it properly.

  • Guest

    I was a person who, literally, read the dictionary. I would sit for hours going from word to word, meaning to meaning, and when I found a different version of dictionary, I would do it all over again just to see if there were any differences.
    I travelled and enjoyed the many ways that people used the language and it is more a matter of enjoying the people and ending up “falling in love” with their words, the same way that you learned your first language from your Mother.

    Is there really any other way?

  • http://ameblo.jp/cluttered-talk/ Michiko

    Very devoted article, appreciate the contributor much.
    I think it’s not possible or appropriate, or good idea, that our language is going to be internationalized, for some reasons.
    In brief to explain major parts of my concern, our language has few capability to become international, with its too much complexity, at least 3 different charactors to learn, ひらがな, カタカナ, 漢字, before someone manages Japanese language normaly.
    Also pronouncing Japanese correctly, or even getting at least level, would be too hard for every foreigner but Koreans.
    This particularity, is not so convenient to offer for international using.
    Besides there’s more un-pleasent relevance, that ideogramic cursing power, which deeply concerns with current right leaning phenomenon, or increasing of egoistic Japanese patriotism, or many activities which violating human rights, these are all related to Japanese Internet singularity, which I figure is its exclusive, international deserted circumstance, or strong influence what ideogram brings to human brain.
    I don’t expect the people who’re not exact native 漢字 managing ones, to decipher “ Japanese code”, since which might be rarely succeeded in my feeling, instead of that, I expect you English native people to “give”us more plain, easy texts to touch with, so that we Japanese can easily join a forum as here.
    I think your devotion would be appreciated more, and it’s going to bring more Japanese readers to any English forum, if only it’s written by less difficult words, than no native Japanese people try to decipher us.
    I’ve found something very interesting recently, through having communications with some Chinese gentleman, that we could share certain understandings by 漢字 managing, which might be not supposed to do with someone who’s not grown up with 漢字, only he could tell me about it though we were talking by English each other.

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    The problem with this kind of analysis is the underlying “desire to be accepted”. It’s much easier to put that desire down and just be yourself, let other people draw their own conclusions and let the cards fall where they may.

    At the end of the day, someone else’s hang-ups (about language or otherwise) are their own problem. There’s no need to create hang-ups for yourself by over-analyzing the situation, or worse, 1) change yourself to please them 2) not be able to enjoy yourself fully without “educating” them.

    Instead, on the positive: Do things that you enjoy, self-actualize, and that will attract the right kind of people for you. On the negative: Define your boundaries and the kinds of behaviors that might encourage someone to break those boundaries, and then enforce them consistently.

    Don’t wander around wishing for approval. You don’t need to “fit in”. Live your life.

  • shinjukuboy

    The difficulty of English spelling is no more or less difficult than learning Kanji. How about the word “through”? What’s with the “ough”? Why not just “u”? It may look natural to native English speakers, but to us, English spelling looks just as irrational as you think Kanji are.