Aso’s kanji conundrums spur self-reflection, textbook sales

by Mari Yamaguchi

The Associated Press

Reading Japanese isn’t easy — even for Japanese.

Take Prime Minister Taro Aso. He’s made so many public blunders that an opposition lawmaker tried to give him a reading test during a televised session of the Diet.

The leader bungled the word for “frequent,” calling Japan-China exchanges “cumbersome” instead. Another time, he misread the word “toshu” (follow), saying “fushu” — or stench — and sounded as if he were saying government policy “stinks.”

While the media and Aso’s political rivals have been quick to heap ridicule, many Japanese have seen a bit more of themselves in Aso’s goofs than they would like to admit. Since his missteps, books designed to improve reading ability have become all the rage.

Aso’s nemesis is his mother tongue’s notoriously tricky mishmash of Chinese characters and its two sets of indigenous syllabaries.

Here is what he — and all Japanese — are up against.

Just reading the newspaper requires knowledge of about 2,000 characters. Another 50,000 are less common but useful to recognize.

And that’s just for starters.

Most characters have several different pronunciations, depending on the context. For instance, the two characters in the prime minister’s surname can be read several ways. The first character, which means linen, can be pronounced “asa” or “ma.” The second — meaning life, raw, or to occur or grow — can be pronounced “nama,” “sei,” “sho” or “ki,” to list just a few possibilities. Together, they are pronounced “Aso” (Ah-so).

During last month’s televised Diet session, opposition lawmaker Hajime Ishii chided Aso for his stumbles, saying: “We’d better discuss Chinese characters.”

Then holding up a cardboard panel with a list of a dozen words, he asked: “Can you handle them?”

Aso refused to take the impromptu test, but Ishii didn’t back down. “Today, those who can’t read Chinese characters are scoffed at, and people are rushing to buy textbooks,” he said. “Perhaps you deserve credit for boosting their sales.”

Literacy-boosting books are selling briskly. One titled, “Chinese Characters that Look Readable but are Easily Misread,” released a year ago, has sold more than 800,000 copies — most of them since Aso’s mistakes first got national attention in November, said Yukiko Sakita, a spokeswoman for Futami Shobo Publishing Co.

“We owe a lot to Prime Minister Aso,” she said. “Many people don’t want to make mistakes like his.”

The book has held the top spot in the weekly best-seller rankings compiled by the nation’s largest distributor, Tohan Co., since the beginning of this year, ahead of “The Speeches of Barack Obama,” which ranked second for weeks before falling to 17th this week.

“A text like this holding the No. 1 spot is extremely unusual,” said Tohan official Hiroki Tomatsu. “As far as the book ranking is concerned, Mr. Aso beat Mr. Obama.”

Gossip magazines have compiled lists of words that Aso has misread and blamed the prime minister’s love of comic books, or “manga,” for his weakness. “Manga brain,” one magazine lamented. At a school in Aso’s hometown, Fukuoka, children who make reading mistakes are called “little Taros.”

Aso’s gaffe over Japan’s relations with China occurred in a speech in November, when instead of saying the countries’ exchanges were “hinpan,” or frequent, he proclaimed them “hanzatsu,” or cumbersome.

His most embarrassing stumble, however, was over the word “unprecedented,” which takes three Chinese characters to write. He read the third character incorrectly, saying “mee-zoh-you” instead of “mee-zoh” — such a basic mistake that it would turn a high school kid’s face red.

Aso may be trying too hard, said Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano, respected statesman and grandson of a renowned poet.

“Some people just fall deeper into trouble the harder they try,” he said.

Some pundits have acknowledged Aso isn’t alone in the struggle with the written word.

“It’s not just Aso,” columnist Kenichiro Horii wrote in a recent issue of the Weekly Bunshun magazine. “I feel awkward ridiculing someone else’s reading mistakes. Haven’t you made mistakes in the past, too?”

According to a 2007 government survey, one-fifth of Japanese 16 or older often encounter kanji they cannot read, while one-third have trouble writing them without looking them up. Nearly half said they still need to master the 2,000 characters considered necessary for daily life.

“Japanese is difficult,” the best-selling primer on reading said. “But we don’t want to humiliate ourselves in public.”