Abe wants TOEFL to be key exam

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not satisfied with just revising monetary policy to spark the weak economy. He also appears bent on reviving another failing field — the public’s ability to speak English.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s panel on education will propose using TOEFL scores as criteria for entering and graduating from universities, reports said Monday.

Although the idea is still in its early stages, it is hoped the effort will help transform the way foreign languages are taught in the country, where English ability is considered subpar.

“It could have an impact on improving the level of English among Japanese in the long run,” Manabu Horiuchi of TOFL Seminar in Osaka told The Japan Times on Monday. The school specializes in teaching preparatory classes for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and other language tests.

“If the level of each student improves, the country’s skills should go up as well,” he said.

The English-proficiency tests, administered by the U.S.-based Educational Testing Services, are offered two to three times a month in most cities across the country.

The scores are usually required to get into most schools abroad, but the LDP’s proposal is to set minimum TOEFL scores as requirements to get into and graduate from universities. Some universities designated for special language courses could require a student to score over 70 on the 120-point test.

It has been reported that the government could invest up to ¥10 trillion toward education changes in the coming years, with a portion of it to be used on improving English-teaching courses.

While Japanese students take mandatory English lessons beginning in elementary school, Japan has continued to rank among the worst-scoring countries when it comes to the TOEFL.

Data by ETS show that out of 30 Asian countries with TOEFL examinees in 2009, Japan ranked second from the bottom, along with Tajikistan, with a mean score of 67. China scored 76, North Korea scored 75 and South Korea 81.

The education ministry has tried to raise the level, with English classes made mandatory for fifth- and sixth-grade students beginning in fiscal 2011.

But whereas the TOEFL gauges reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, Japan’s English education has often been criticized for lacking balance.

“Most universities don’t test their examinees on English listening and oral skills,” TOFL seminar’s Horiuchi said.

Some say that adding TOEFL preparation to school curriculums could be too much not only for the students, but also for teachers. But studying for the TOEFL could provide a more balanced way to approach the language, Horiuchi added.

The government is also expected to request submission of TOEFL scores from applicants for government employment beginning in fiscal 2015.

  • Spudator

    Maybe the problem of poor English ability in Japan doesn’t lie with the way English has to be learnt but, paradoxically, with the way Japanese has to be learnt. I’m talking about that ridiculous, over-complex, antiquated and completely inappropriate system used to write Japanese–kanji.

    Thanks to this absurdly unsystematic writing system, Japanese students have to spend years essentially learning how to spell. It’s so bad that while students in other countries have long since moved on from the basics of orthography to the advanced skills of essay writing and expressing their thoughts logically and coherently on paper, their Japanese peers are still learning their ABCs. (Maybe this is why so many Japanese are such rotten writers.)

    I think it’s time that the Japanese abandoned kanji and switched to a Romanized writing system. Not only would this free up time for students to learn how to use Japanese instead of merely how to spell it, it would also free up time for those students to learn English.

    • Adam D

      Japanese would be a total nightmare if it were written in romaji.

      • Spudator

        Actually, I think you’ll find romanized Japanese is more like a walk in the park.

        Years ago in London I knew a Japanese engineer who was on sabbatical at a British company to acquire knowhow needed by his Japanese employer. One of his duties while in London was to send regular progress reports to his boss in Japan. Obviously, handwriting was out, and as PCs were still a rarity and portable Japanese word-processors had yet to be invented, there was only one option: he had to type his reports in romanized Japanese on a British typewriter.

        Now, admittedly, he found doing the job this way a bit strange–amusing even–but, nevertheless, it was perfectly doable. He had no trouble in writing romanized Japanese and he had no doubt that his boss would be able to read it.

        There really is no reason why Japanese can’t be written using the Roman alphabet. In fact, from the point of view of orthography, romanized Japanese is far more rational than English because the spelling rules are completely consistent and systematic. That English spelling can be really weird is something we all know. No?

      • WhiteGuyInJapan

        For one thing, there are so many homonyms in Japanese. Kanji helps the reader sort out the difference. Imagine words such as bread/bred, red/read, etc. appear at a high frequency throughout a language.

      • Spudator

        Ah, that old chestnut. I was wondering when someone would mention homonyms. I’m guessing you heard that from a Japanese friend or colleague who wanted you to understand how unique and special the Japanese language is, and why the Roman alphabet, while perfectly satisfactory for ordinary languages like English, simply doesn’t have the necessary sophistication to do justice to Japanese.

        Here’s something to ponder: Don’t you find it strange that Japanese people can talk to one another, filling their spoken sentences with homonym upon homonym, and yet understand each other perfectly, without any confusion of words, despite there not being a Chinese character in sight to help “sort out the difference”? Now how can that be possible?

      • Kensuke Kohama

        You don’t know how we overcome the confusion with homonyms in spoken coversation.

        We sometimes share kanjis orally by explaining the kanji forms or write the kanji in a note or in the air with our fingers to solve the confusion. It surely works. Kanji is a good help.

      • Spudator

        Actually, Kohama-san, I’m aware of that technique of writing kanji in the air, although using notes is completely new to me. But I have to say I think they’re terribly weak justifications for kanji. I mean, how often do people resort to them? Probably once in a blue moon. I don’t think I ever see people air writing or passing notes in daily life. I’ve certainly never seen studio guests or hosts on TV do such things; viewers would probably chuckle if they did. I guess they’re a last resort when, confusion having occurred in a conversation, the matter can’t be instantly resolved with a spoken clarification.

        Misunderstanding occurs in English, too, of course; but when it does, people just rephrase. Use of notes or air writing would be considered comical. Regular use would brand spoken English a completely dysfunctional mode of communication, as it would Japanese.

        But spoken Japanese, despite all the homophones, clearly isn’t dysfunctional. It works just fine. How come? Well, one word: context. Language is about meaning, not sounds or symbols; it’s an intellectual phenomenon, not a sensory one, although it depends on sensory input. When people are listening, they’re processing meaning and building up a contextual schema of knowledge in their minds as the sensory data flows in.

        This schema, in which items of knowledge are cross-linked to produce understanding, is used to sift and sort new information and determine the correct interpretation of words with multiple meanings. The new information is then fitted into the schema as new knowledge and increased understanding. Using this schema and the context it provides, a good listener can stay ahead of the speaker and predict what they’re going to say next. That’s why, when someone can’t find the right words to express themselves, their interlocutor can finish the sentence for them.

        By the way, Kohama-san, thanks for your earlier reply to one of my previous posts. The points you raise about the importance of the existing corpus of literature and historical documents are very pertinent. I’ll try to answer your post as soon as I can, so please be patient and keep on eye on your Disqus notifications indicator.

      • Lily Queen

        There is much more context and clarification in spoken language than in written language.

        Try again! (Actually, please don’t. Your thought experiments have little relationship to reality and/or actual linguistic science.)

      • Spudator

        Ah! Context. So that’s how it’s done. Er, thanks, but actually, I ‘d already figured that out for myself.

        Oh, sorry: didn’t you realise that the question was rhetorical–designed to get you (or, rather, WhiteGuyIn Japan) to think about the issue? Well, well; I’m surprised. I could have sworn that, from the context, the question was obviously rhetorical and that nobody would mistake it for something requiring an answer.

        Oh well, never mind. I guess this context thingy doesn’t always work. :-<

    • Korekara

      You’ve forgotten that ppl in China, Taiwan, HK, Singapore all read & write Chinese, ie Kanji, but their English proficiency is higher than Japan. Giving up one’s linguistic heritage doesn’t guarantee improvement in a foreign lang. It’s curiosity about other cultures & a desire to communicate with them that motivate lang. learning

      • Spudator

        Yes, those are all good points. But doesn’t modern Chinese–at least on the mainland–use a large number of simplified characters? That would indicate the Chinese themselves realise that rationalising their writing system brings benefits. As for Singapore, because of the linguistic mix there, Singaporeans seem to have a flair for languages. I believe bilingualism and even trilingualism are quite common because kids grow up hearing and using more than one language. Japanese kids are never going to enjoy an environment so conducive to multiple language acquisition.

        A couple of countries you didn’t mention: Vietnam and Korea. Both used to use Chinese characters; but now Vietnam uses the Roman alphabet and Korea uses Hangul, although I’ve heard Korean kids still have to learn key Chinese characters. So there are precedents for abandoning Chinese characters and taking a more rational approach to the written language. I wonder if academics in those countries have any data about the educational effects of such rationalisation.

        I think you’ll agree that, even though becoming proficient in the use of thousands of complex Chinese characters doesn’t stop kids learning other languages like English, it can hardly help the process. How many additional hours of study does it take Japanese kids to achieve basic proficiency in their clunky logographic writing system compared with kids in countries that use rationalised phonetic systems? I’m guessing it’s a lot. Given that the only purpose of a writing system is to transcribe the spoken language, and given that there’s no difference in effect between a logographic transcription and a phonetic one, then all those extra hours spent learning the logographic system are surely just wasted time.

    • http://www.facebook.com/codey.du Codey Du

      This comment is perhaps the most uneducated comment I’ve ever seen on this website. Having Kanji doesn’t make this language any harder than English. If your comment is correct, I guess no one in China would be able to speak any language but Chinese.

      • Spudator

        Well, I’m delighted to know I’ve set a record. :-)

        However, I think you’ve missed my point. I wasn’t arguing that kanji makes Japanese more difficult than English; I was arguing that, because of the complexity of kanji, it takes school students longer to acquire basic competence in reading and writing Japanese than it would if Japanese were written using the Roman alphabet. In other words, if the Japanese were to abandon kanji in favour of the Roman alphabet, the time saved in learning how to read and write could be put to better use, like learning advanced Japanese writing skills or learning another language like English.

      • Masa Chekov

        You keep mentioning the Roman alphabet. Why? If the Japanese language were to abandon kanji for something supposedly simpler it would be for a combination of hiragana and katakana. Correct pronunciation of both is implicit as they are syllabaries and not alphabets. The roman alphabet is extremely difficult to use for reading and writing Japanese and pronunciation of Japanese words written in the Roman alphabet is not at all obvious.

        Reading Japanese written in kanji is so much quicker than reading it in Romanized Japanese (and in hiragana/katakana alone). The current way of writing Japanese is the best.

      • Spudator

        Switch to kana only? That’s not a bad idea. When I look at a lot of modern written Japanese, I see an expanse of hiragana and katakana punctuated by kanji. So why not go the whole hog and drop the kanji? But why do you suggest a combination of hiragana and katakana? As the two syllabaries are phonetically equivalent, one or the other is enough: no need to make things complicated. However, you’re right about kana being a good match for Japanese. As the minimum spoken unit in Japanese is generally the syllable, use of a syllabary makes complete sense, and analyzing sounds down to the phoneme level, which is what an alphabet allows, is probably overkill. There again, Japanese does have diphthongs, doesn’t it?

        But I still think switching to the Roman alphabet is the better idea. Let me give you off the top of my head a few reasons why. Most people who type as part of their job don’t type in kana; they type in romaji, which their input editor then auto-converts to kana and then automatically or semi-automatically converts to kanji. These people are actually writing romanized Japanese, so why not simply stop there? Why continue on to those two redundant and time-consuming kana and kanji steps?

        Another reason: we live in the tech era and most scientific and technical written Japanese is full of katakana loan words taken straight from English scientific and technical vocabularies. Often, initial occurrences of such terms are followed by the original English-language terms in parentheses. So when Japanese people are reading or writing scientific and technical Japanese, they’re using a lot of English terminology. It’s almost as if they’re reading or writing English. Wouldn’t it make life easier to keep those English terms in English instead of converting them to clunky katakana?

        A final reason: handwriting. (Yes, I know, who writes by hand anymore?) But if you do want to dust off your fountain pen, surely it’s easier to write in a Carolingian hand, which is genuinely cursive, than in kanji or kana, which, at best, can only approximate cursiveness. If you want easy handwriting, then a cursive hand will always beat block characters.

        Going on to your point about kanji being better suited to Japanese than romaji, I fail to see why. Chinese characters were created by the Chinese for their own uninflected language; they are wholly unsuited to an inflected language like Japanese (which is why kana had to be invented). Imagine if ancient China had been in Europe and ancient Rome in Asia. Japan would probably have adopted the Roman alphabet for its writing system, which would have been good. But the poor old British would probably be writing in Chinese characters for word stems, supplemented by Ogham, or by Old-English runes, for inflected word endings. Think how crazy that would be. And it’s no less crazy to do the same kind of thing to Japanese with kanji and kana.

        Finally, why do you need pronunciation to be obvious in the written word? Maybe the modern emphasis on phonics has lead you to this misunderstanding. But actually it’s possible to read alphabetic writing non-phonically–that is, without vocalising the words in your head. Speed readers do this. They just fixate on groups of words and visually recognise the words as single units. No sound, no pronunciation, no phonetic analysis is involved; it’s pure, high-speed visual pattern recognition. Now I’m no expert on such matters, but in doing this, speed readers seem to be treating phonetically constructed words as ideograms, which rather turns the whole kanji/romaji distinction on its head, doesn’t it?

      • Masa Chekov

        To be perfectly honest, I think you must not read Japanese well. It’s much, much faster to read a combination of kana and kanji than just kana. Reading kana only is a mess. Reading romanized Japanese is slow and ugly, honestly.

        Kana is elegant for Japanese though – see the word, read the word. You know exactly how to pronounce it. I dislike the conversion of foreign words to katakana, generally, but one thing it greatly beats English at is the giving you pronunciation of said foreign word. I can’t pronounce French, for example, but if I read a French word in katakana I can pronounce it closely enough. Sweet.

        I am not expert myself but I can write in kana just as fast as in English. Kanji tends to be a bit slower but the density of meaning is so much greater with kanji than with kana or the roman alphabet. Hang out on Twitter and Japanese and compare the full thoughts Japanese speakers can express in 140 characters vs what and English speaker can express.

        As far as scientific writing goes – I deal with a lot of scientific Japanese and believe me very little of it comes from English or other languages, at least in my field. I’d say the native Japanese word to foreign loan word ratio is much greater in the scientific Japanese I see every day than in every day Japanese conversation. Perhaps it’s different in other scientific fields, I don’t know.

      • Kensuke Kohama

        The education system needs to be improved but learning a foreign language should not invade the native language education in schools. Without knowing Kanji, students would lose their accessibility to Japanese literature and/or other documents, articles in Japanese. If Japanese should be in roman letters like you said, they would lose their way to learn their history since the whole materials are currently written in the Kanji-hiragana-katakana combinations.

        English has been a common language in the world and I agree that most of Japanese are not good at speaking in English. Maybe it is because of the poor education in schools like you said but it is applied only for English learning and it has nothing to do with the native language education. The priority in Japan’s education is not for learning English. English is just a foreign language in Japan, never going to be its mother tongue unless Japan is colonialized by USA or other English speaking nations or Japanese decide to abandon their identity as Japanese.

        Browsing your comments here, it looks that your points are all based on your personal experiences. You may have had hassles with Japanese documentations written by Japanese people, but I am wondering if you know what is really going on in school educations. Are they really wasting time on remembering Kanjis in schools? Did you see that directly? As far as I have experienced in my school time and in my work as a native Japanese Speaker, I can’t find problems in kanjis, which you raised here.

        I’m afraid that your opinions here are neither objective nor fair to Japanese people. Romanized Japanese may work well for you and your folks but does it really work for the native Japanese? As one of the native Japanese, I completely disagree.

        Any native languages have cultural backgrounds in its nations. The truth is that the current writing system in Japanese is workable for native Japanese speakers since Japanese language is originally designed for Japanese people. You have tried to reveal how our ancestors adopted Kanjis in history and you are correct that it was imported from China. However, the reality is that we have been using Kanjis in our native language in the current era. Past cannot be changed. No matter what you think, you need to admit that Kanjis are an indispensable factor for Japanese people to make senses and/or differentiate meanings in writing in Japanese.

        Have you ever heard opinions on romanized Japanese from your Japanese friends? I believe most of them would disagree. They will understand how inconvenient it is to write entirely in Roman letters.

      • Lily Queen

        So much wrong with this idea. For example, did you know that Japanese speakers read faster with a mix of kana and kanji than with kana alone? That’s due to the huge number of homophones plus the fact that a kanji can convey a whole idea.

        In addition, Japanese is already made of a mix of simplified and traditional characters. Within China, while simplified characters are faster to write, they’re — if anything — more confusing in some ways because of the conflation of unrelated radicals.

        Etc.

        This is a red herring.

      • Spudator

        A kanji can convey a whole idea? Oh, I get it: the old kanji-as-ideogram meme. Where have I heard that before?

        I think you’ll find it’s been established that kanji are actually logograms, not ideograms; but the popular belief that they’re ideograms, like most popular beliefs, just refuses to die.

        Now I’m not sure whether you understand what a logogram is, so to make sure we’re on the same page, let me just explain that, for example, the Arabic numeral 8 is a logogram; it’s a way of writing “eight”. It’s not an ideogram standing for the concept of eightness; it’s just a symbol representing the spoken word “eight”, and is read as “eight”.

        Likewise, kanji are just symbols representing spoken words, not symbols representing ideas. Quite simply: they’re words. And the way they work is no different from the way words work in, say, English, French, or Thai. If you’re a poor reader, you can internally vocalize them, because, being words, they’re pronounceable, just like English, French, and Thai words are. If you’re a good reader, you can extract their meaning without vocalization and thereby speed-read, just like you can with English, French, and Thai words–just like you can with kana; probably just like a blind person can with Braille.

        Ultimately, of course, words give rise to ideas. So there is a grain of truth in your statement that a single kanji can convey a whole idea. But, by the same token, a single English, French, or Thai word can also convey a whole idea. I mean, that’s how words work, isn’t it? Language would be pretty useless if they didn’t work like that.

      • Aden

        I’ve followed this and while I do agree with you on many points, and am impressed by your concision, Chinese characters were originally ideograms. If you take the characters apart they do contain meaning on their on, and when assimilated, synergise. This is all very culturally based of course, and to what degree a character is ideogram vs. logogram is admittedly quite difficult to extricate. Forgive me, but breaking this up felt like a good idea.

        ~Phonetics, and English is a ultimate mongrel language~
        I think something that everybody seems to be forgetting is that all ‘alphabets’ are actually true phonetic. If I were to were to provide you with a word you’d never seen before in English, you would be able to decode it’s probable pronunciation. If I hand you a new word in French, and you know the rules for pronunciation of French, then you would be able to pronounce it. That is what a phonetic alphabet allows. The reason we seem to think that English isn’t phonetic is because it has thousands of words borrowed from other languages where it has maintained the pronunciation patterns of the original language while rendering them in a very rough approximation.
        I will acknowledge a certain degree of inconsistency in certain common words as well – Most languages have inconsistencies in their most commonly used words. These lexical artifacts are often quite interesting, though not relevant to our discussion.

        ~Transcription~
        Japanese when rendered phonetically is perfectly legible when rules of consistent rules of punctuation and spacing are applied. The reason it is not as fast, is because you haven’t trained yourself to read it, and the rules for transcripting Japanese into alphabet are not set in stone, nor consistent in many cases. A good transcription is actually remarkably easy to read. For a example however, any transcription that attempts to attach particles to other words instead of separating them out is, in my opinion, a bad transcription. Most phonetic languages have rules that prevent most functional grammar being attached to other words. Imagine tryingto read Englishif I putthe functional words directlyuponthe preceding word. It’s not effective, and far too confusing.

        ~Homophones~
        Homophones are confusing for Japanese people, and are usually understood only by taking surrounding words into account. In daily language, the number of homophones used is actually quite small and does not interfere with communication. Furthermore, many of the students I teach English to at present in Japan, know fewer kanji than I do as a foreigner. In fact, in reading some of the conversations young teenagers have on mobile applications, I find that they automatically apply various forms of punctuation to allow communication.

        ~Concluding~
        While it is perfectly fair to query whether we want another language to die in this way, I think many of the arguments people are attempting to make are invalid and irrational. At the very least, for my grade 5 and 6 Japanese students in primary school, forcing them to read and write in clear and concise romaji is the best preparation I can think of for middle school and up when they are expected to read alphabet with minimal time to acquire the necessary skills.

      • Glen Douglas Brügge

        Can you even read Japanese at a competent level? I can hardly get through a sentence with speed unless I have Kanji to punctuate and define the structure. A hiragana/katakana-only alphabet would make reading complex Japanese nigh impossible. You really should not be arguing about something you don’t seem to understand very well – I can only assume this, as your comments are very uninformed.

        Japanese is not an easy language to learn, but it makes perfect sense, and once you have the basics, it becomes very easy – just like English. I consider it to actually be easier, grammatically, than English – far more flexible.

      • Spudator

        Look, this is all terribly simple, and I’m quite astonished that it’s created such an irrational and acrimonious response. It’s my contention that a systematic writing system based on 26 simple characters and a handful of regular spelling rules is going to be far easier to learn than an unsystematic writing system based on 2000 or so highly complex characters.

        Now, is there something preposterous about that statement? Am I overlooking something? If so, then I’m all ears.

      • Glen Douglas Brügge

        As a learner/teacher of Japanese, I agree – if Kanji did not exist I would have no idea where the nouns, particles etc. began or ended. Kanji is essential to learning Japanese (if you expect to read and write), and even taking a single step down to hiragana/katakana, would make reading complex Japanese, anything beyond a Kindergarten, level a chore.

      • Kuma

        I have to agree with you. This is about as uneducated an opinion as it could possibly get. I went through a public Japanese school system, and most of the kanji we “learned” in class, we already knew most of the time. It certainly didn’t hold me back from learning anything else. People don’t learn kinji only in schools; they learn them in everyday life, reading mangas for example. Kanji may be “ridiculous, over-complex, antiquated and completely inappropriate” to someone who can’t understand it, but I find it even more inappropriate for someone who can’t understand it to take such an opinionated stand on something they don’t even understand. I’ve also been through the public school system in the States, and I must say, the average American student’s ability to write was nothing impressive. They can hardly spell and have poor understanding of the most basic grammar. They pride themselves so much in having free expression, but they lack the ability to find the appropriate words and to put them in the appropriate order to communicate their all so free thinking. Free thinking means nothing when you’re deprived the ability to express it. It’s quite difficult for me to say that the Japanese are the least expressive. They just seem to have a different way of expressing themselves, as should all cultures. What I see in Spudator’s comment is blaming the communicator for the communicatee’s lack of understanding. Giving up on understanding is ignorance. Perhaps there needs to be less focus on the definition of words as they may mean to you and more focus on people’s actions, the universal language.

      • Spudator

        Kuma, why are you saying all this to Codey Du? If you take issue with me over my ideas, then please have the courtesy to address your objections to me. I’m still here, you know, and I don’t much appreciate being treated like a piece of furniture. Do you?

        I think the word you want isn’t “uneducated”, but “ignorant”. Now I don’t mind being thought of as ignorant because, actually, we’re all ignorant to a greater or lesser extent. It’s the human condition. But to call someone uneducated isn’t the same thing–there’s a subtle difference between the two words–and, worse, it’s offensive. I would never be so rude as to accuse you of being uneducated, especially as, judging from your comment, it clearly wouldn’t be true.

        Look, if there are things about what I’m saying that you can’t understand, then just ask me to explain; that way we can have an intelligent discussion about the matter. If you think that I’m “blaming the communicator for the communicatee’s lack of understanding”, then let’s talk about that and try to achieve some mutual understanding. Maybe, in the process, we’ll each discover things we didn’t know. As you say yourself, “giving up on understanding is ignorance”. So let’s not wallow in ignorance.

        These JT threads are a forum for discussion. Not to use them as such is a terrible waste, don’t you think?

      • Kuma

        I believe I was correct in labeling your comments “uneducated.” I think “ignorant” would have been more insulting. You’re not ignorant, are you? Clearly, you care about the subject enough to respond so diligently. We are now back to blaming the communicator for the communicatee’s lack of understanding, are we not? I admit my comment could have addressed you, but I chose not to invite “terrible waste” taking up this forum. I see now it couldn’t have been avoided either way.

        Now back to the subject, I failed to elaborate on the most flawed aspect of your concept on my previous email, so I’d like to do that now; there are simply too many homonyms in Japanese. If you take into account all the words normally written in kanji that share the same sounds, I honestly couldn’t put a number on how many there are. I work as a translator, translating all sorts of business documents. If contracts were written in romaji, every Japanese company would need quite the legal staff, for companies would be required to spend much of their productive time in courts. Kanji defines words, while hiragana, katakana, and romaji merely sound out the words. It’s much more efficient to learn Japanese words with kanji than the other three methods of writing. There are considerably fewer instances of “What do you mean by ___?” using kanji. Your system may work if every Japanese person was born knowing Japanese, but like any other person in the world, they have to learn the language first before they can use it. You should start your own school teaching foreigners Japanese in romaji. Good luck teaching your students the difference among 消火, 消化, 唱歌, 商家, 商科, 硝化, 小暇, etc. I definitely wouldn’t recommend an assignment of writing short poems. It would be a nightmare for you too. Japanese is a vague language as it is. Writing everything in romaji would not alleviate that. My suggestion to you is spend more time studying the language than trying to destroy it.

      • Spudator

        As the target of your accusation, I think it’s for me, not you, to decide whether or not it was offensive. And, quite honestly, to be called uneducated is grossly offensive. Even worse is to hear you now justifying the insult. I think you need to learn some tact.

        Well, I honestly haven’t a clue what you mean when you ask, “We are now back to blaming the communicator for the communicatee’s lack of understanding, are we not?” We are? Sorry, you’ve lost me. If you’ve a point to make here, spitting it out might be better than asking an obscure rhetorical question.

        So there are simply too many homonyms in Japanese, are there? Umm, haven’t you read the other comments on this thread? This issue has already been brought up and I’ve already dealt with it. (See my reply to Kensuke Kohama.) Still, as so many people really do believe the fairy tale that the plethora of homonyms in Japanese makes kanji essential, a further debunking of the myth can’t hurt.

        Let me repeat a question I asked elsewhere: why is it possible for people to converse in Japanese, filling their speech with all those confusing homonyms that you refer to, and yet understand each other perfectly? Where are the kanji? They’re not there (oh! two homonyms), are they? Despite the abundance of those supposedly indistinguishable homonyms and the absence of those allegedly indispensible kanji, no confusion arises. Doesn’t that rather undermine your premise that kanji are essential to clarity?

        Another question: if you see the romaji expression “kaiten” in a book about Japanese World War II naval tactics, are you going to wonder, “Why is this book describing conveyor-belt sushi restaurants?” And if you see the same expression in a modern guide to eating out in Tokyo, are you going to ask, “Why is this guide referring to World War II piloted suicide torpedoes?” No, of course you’re not. “Kaiten” can refer to piloted torpedoes or Japanese-style fast food, but what intelligent reader is going to confuse the two meanings? The context provided by the subject matter and the sentence or paragraph in which the word appears makes it absolutely clear what’s being referred to.

        Where you go wrong with your homonym argument is in assuming that the brain decodes language by analysing sentences into words and treating each word as a self-contained item unrelated to the rest of the sentence. In fact, at the highest levels of perception and consciousness, the brain works not by analysis but by synthesis, concerning itself not with individual elements but with the interrelationships between elements and with the compound structures revealed by those interrelationships. Although aware of the parts, it perceives the whole.

        Let me give you some examples of this difference between awareness and perception. The brain is aware of the eyes, nose and mouth; but what it sees is the face. It’s aware of the notes, but what it hears is the melody. It’s aware of the bricks, windows and roof tiles, but what it sees is the house. It’s aware of the trunk, branches and leaves, but what it sees is the tree.

        And it’s aware of the words, but what it hears is the sentence.

        The brain doesn’t need to focus on the words to understand the sentence. (If it did focus on the words, it’d be so engrossed in the parts that the whole–the meaning of the sentence–would slip from its grasp.) And because it doesn’t focus on the words, it doesn’t need kanji to differentiate between homonyms. Quite simply, the brain understands language at the sentence level, not at the word level, because this is the level at which it perceives language.

        Ultimately, your argument that homonyms are an obstacle to understanding can be refuted by simple logic: If the human brain weren’t fully capable of differentiating between homonyms, Japanese, a language that depends on homonyms to such a great extent, would never have evolved. The very existence of Japanese is proof that the brain has no difficulty decoding homonyms.

        Finally, your statement that Japanese is a vague language is just another Japanese fairy tale. No language is intrinsically vague or explicit; vagueness and explicitness come from the way the language is used. A language is simply a tool for communication, and its effectiveness depends entirely on the skill of the speaker or writer. Craftsmanship comes from the craftsman, not his tools. Yes, there’s much vagueness in spoken and written Japanese, but it’s entirely the fault of speakers and writers, not of the language. It’s the failure of the Japanese to express themselves fully, clearly and logically–to use Japanese coherently and rationally–that causes problems. This is the basis for my original criticism that the Japanese are rotten writers.

        However, you’re right about one thing. Using romaji wouldn’t alleviate the vagueness found in Japanese writing. The only thing that can do that is for the Japanese to learn how to write properly. They need to learn how to use their own mother tongue. Again, I’ve covered this issue elsewhere: see my reply to Glen Douglas Brügge.

      • Kuma

        There’s a reason why TV shows in Japan, including the news, have captions. Written Japanese isn’t used in the same way spoke Japanese is. People don’t write like they speak nor do they speak like they write. As you may or may not have noticed, communicating in spoken Japanese takes more time than written Japanese, as it invites much need for clarification to get each point across during a conversation. Writing in romaji would essentially be no different from proposing the vaguer method of communication to become the primary one. True, it is “possible” to communicate using romaji. It would however significantly deprive the language of precision, the ability to communicate concisely. You take such a strong stand on a subject for which you clearly lack necessary expertise, not that I’m claiming to be an expert myself, but your comments are subjective to the nth degree. For one, you keep saying “the Japanese” are lousy writers, but exactly to whom are you comparing them? Personally, I’ve met very few competent writers, seemingly making the issue non-specific to “the Japanese.” As difficult as they may seem to you, kanji are rather irrevocable in learning the Japanese language, and remember, you have to learn a language before you can use it.

      • Spudator

        Well, for simplicity, I’ll work through your points sequentially, summarising and responding to the eight issues you’ve raised.

        (1) Written Japanese isn’t used in the same way spoken Japanese is.

        Yes, that’s correct. It’s because the modes of use of the written and spoken forms of any language are different; it’s a feature of languages in general. Human beings, whatever their language, don’t write the way they speak. Sorry, did you think this was some special characteristic unique to Japanese?

        So if you’re saying that a phonetic writing system won’t work for Japanese because written Japanese and spoken Japanese are different, you’re wrong. Such a system works perfectly for other languages, which also differ in their written and spoken forms, so clearly it would work for Japanese.

        (2) Spoken Japanese takes more time than written Japanese.

        Oh dear. Where on earth did you get this bizarre notion from? You really couldn’t be more wrong.

        Compared with speaking, writing is much more laborious and time-consuming because you’re on your own as you search for the right words, the right phrasing, and the right way to express what’s in your head. You have to anticipate problems and areas of confusion your reader might encounter and construct your sentences with great care to avoid such difficulties. This takes thought, planning and time; it’s a real struggle. But with speaking, you have someone–your interlocutor–giving you instant feedback on how well you’re communicating and so helping you find the right thing to say and keep your meaning clear and on track. Conversation has a spontaneity, a life of its own, that writing lacks and that keeps the exchange of ideas flowing effortlessly.

        (3) To write in romaji would essentially be to write vaguely.

        Writing in romaji instead of kanji would have no qualitative effect on the language. As I explained elsewhere, the quality of writing depends on the skill of the writer. Good writing is a reflection of the intellect, not an effect of the writing system. The only effect of using romaji is to simplify and accelerate the process of becoming literate and spare children the wasted time and educational hell of learning kanji.

        (4) Writing in romaji would deprive Japanese of precision.

        How? The Roman alphabet doesn’t deprive English of precision, and I’d be astonished if it deprives any of the other languages that use it of precision. Are you claiming that Japanese possesses characteristics that other languages lack and that are lost when it’s written in romaji? If you are, please describe those characteristics.

        (5) You’re taking a strong stand on something you lack expertise in.

        My “strong stand” is nothing more than common sense, and backing it up requires no special expertise, only simple logic. And the logic is this: Japanese, a language based on spoken sounds like all other human languages, can be recorded on paper or any other medium by means of a writing system that represents those sounds phonetically. Why shouldn’t it be? Almost all other languages in the world use such a system and do so with complete success. Phonetic writing is a rational, workable, time-tested method for making a permanent record of any human language. And that includes Japanese.

        Why is this common sense such rocket science to you? You’re effectively claiming that the Japanese language, in supposedly requiring a special writing system, is completely different from all other human languages, as if the Japanese mind is different from the mind of the rest of humanity and the Japanese occupy a special exalted position in the family of man. I find this nothing more than an irrational cultural and racial conceit that has no basis in fact.

        (6) Who are you comparing “lousy” Japanese writers with?

        Didn’t you read my reply to Glen Douglas Brügge as I suggested? In that reply I clearly state that I’m referring to educated Japanese people who, as part of their work, have to write descriptive or explanatory material–for instance, scientific and technical writing, business writing, and even academic writing. And obviously, in singling out “the Japanese”, I’m comparing them with their peers in other countries.

        As part of my job I get to see a lot of English technical material and business correspondence from overseas, written by both native and non-native English speakers. I also get to see the responses to this material by my Japanese colleagues. In a nutshell, in terms of quality of content–the information contained and the way it’s conveyed–the material from overseas is generally very good, sometimes excellent, just occasionally bad; the material produced in response by my Japanese colleagues is almost always bad. I’ve explained what the problems are elsewhere, so I won’t repeat them here.

        (7) I’ve met very few competent writers.

        I’ve met a lot of competent writers, not in person, of course, but in the way one usually meets writers–through their writing. Perhaps you need to read more.

        (8) Kanji are essential to learning Japanese.

        This is yet another bizarre statement. How can you believe such a patently false claim? Children acquire and start to use Japanese long before they learn their first kanji. Haven’t you noticed? Kanji may be the only route to literacy in Japan at the present time, but literacy and fluency aren’t the same thing.

      • Glen Douglas Brügge

        Agreed. I came from a British school system, and I was taught how to read and write “properly” – and when I came to America, as you stated, the complete lack of basic English ability was rather shocking – it is a systematic issue, as is English learning in Japan – not one of native inefficiencies in language acquisition. I find kanji actually helps me a great deal due to the rather simple phonetics of Japanese, and the many words that share similar if not identical pronunciations. If I started reading something written purely in romaji I would have a horrible time. Nouns, particles etc would all run together into a giant mess – I guess this guy has never heard of Haruki Murakami, Yukio Mishima or Natsume Soseki…?

      • Spudator

        Hi, Glen. “This guy” here. (Goodness! Why are my ears burning?) May I butt in?

        So, you think that if you started reading something written purely in romaji, you’d have a horrible time. I see.

        Well, I’m afraid what’s wrong with your thinking here is the same as what’s wrong with the thinking of all the people on this thread who insist that kanji are somehow more suited to Japanese than Roman letters: it’s entirely subjective, exhibits confirmation bias, and overlooks one crucial and obvious truth.

        Let’s deal with those three flaws in reverse order:

        Overlooks one crucial and obvious truth: Have you noticed how everything is hard at first, but gets easier as you become more accustomed to it? Riding a bike is difficult to start with; but with enough practice and a loving, patient parent to catch you when you fall, you gradually acquire the skills to ride unassisted. And from then on you gradually acquire the skills to ride safely on the sidewalk and then on the road. Eventually you may even acquire the skills to do wheelies and other tricks. As the old saying goes: practice makes perfect.

        You, and everyone else on this thread who finds it easy to use kanji to read and write Japanese, are simply experiencing the effect of that natural progressive improvement in a skill that comes with practice. You’ve got used to using kanji, and you’ve been doing it long enough to have become good at it. In the case of native speakers of Japanese, because they’ve been practising their entire lives, they’re virtually perfect and can read and write kanji with consummate ease. And that’s the simple truth of the matter.

        Which leads us to confirmation bias: Based on the above obvious truth, the logical conclusion to reach would be: “Well, I’m good with kanji because I’ve been using them for so long.” However, this simple conclusion eludes you because, for some reason, you seem to want to believe that these special kanji characters are the most suitable way to write Japanese. Maybe it’s because you believe the Japanese language itself is special and requires special treatment. I don’t know. But anyway, lo and behold, you notice that you’re pretty good at reading and writing Japanese when it’s full of kanji. Of course! It must be the kanji! That’s what’s doing it; that’s what’s making it so easy. I knew it! Belief confirmed and elevated to the status of a truth.

        Subjective: Well, I guess the subjectiveness of your thinking is simply the sum total of the above two errors. You’ve only looked at the issue from your own point of view, not as an impartial observer. You’ve been both experimenter and test subject. Had you taken a long, hard, objective look at people in general, you’d have noticed a general truth–that experience brings competence. But you chose to be subjective and to only consider matters as they affect you personally within a specialized area of activity. You overlooked an actual truth and allowed confirmation bias to guide you to a false one.

        The reality is that, had you learned to read and write Japanese from scratch in the Roman alphabet, you’d now be as at home with Roman letters as you are with kanji. You’d find using Roman letters easy and natural. Practice makes perfect.

        Kanji aren’t special. They’re just logograms and have no intrinsic quality that makes them especially suitable for Japanese. How on earth could they have such a quality? They’re a utility; their only real value is that you can use them to construct written sentences. But you can do exactly the same thing with Roman letters. The thing is, the kanji system takes years to master, whereas you can become proficient in writing in Roman letters in a few weeks. So which gives you a better return on investment? A system that delivers results in next to no time, or one that takes a chunk out of your life before it starts giving back to you?

    • WithMalice

      Completely ridiculous comment.
      The reality is that there are quite literally THOUSANDS who manage quite well. I know of small children who can acquire both languages successfully. There’s no reason that if English were taught correctly in schools, the nation would be proficient in it.

      • Spudator

        And there are millions who manage very badly. As the article points out, in 2009 Japan came second from the bottom in Asian TOEFL rankings with a mean score of 67. In contrast, North Korea’s mean score was 75. Talk about embarrassing!

        Now I’m not suggesting that the only reason the Japanese do so badly in English is that they don’t have time to study it because they’re too busy learning kanji. The problem’s much more complex than that. However, kanji does seem to be a part of that problem.

        Let’s talk about writing. I’ve lived in Japan for 28 years working in various areas of technical documentation, and one thing I’ve learnt is that Japanese technical documentation is utterly abysmal. Japanese technical writers are only technical writers because it says so on their business cards. In reality, they couldn’t write to save their lives. They simply haven’t a clue how to use their own mother tongue to communicate factual information in a clear, logical, and coherent manner. Supposedly intelligent, university-educated adults are like children when it comes to writing in Japanese!

        Now, if they can’t use their own mother tongue properly, how on earth can they be expected to do any better in a foreign language like English?

        More importantly, why don’t they know how to write in Japanese? Well, clearly schools aren’t teaching students the advanced writing skills they’ll need as adults. And I suspect that’s because learning to write in Japan is all about remembering kanji rather than developing intellectual skills in such areas as logic and critical thinking, composition and rhetoric. It’s all about mastering the writing system rather than mastering what gets done with the writing system. The focus is all wrong.

        I can’t help but think that this failure to focus on what really matters in language is completely undermining Japanese students’ ability to use language–not just Japanese–effectively. In other words, Japanese students lack the high-level linguistic skills they need to succeed with English.

      • WithMalice

        That has nothing to do with your prior commentary that learning a “ridiculous, over-complex, antiquated and completely inappropriate system” – that’s a system of education.
        Yes, I agree with you that the Japanese scholastic system needs an overhaul.
        No, I do not agree with a nigh on xenophobic comment that said overhaul should come at the expense of children learning their native writing system.

      • Spudator

        In what way does it have nothing to do with my previous comment? If you read it carefully and in its entirety, you’ll see that it elaborates on that comment (try re-reading the fifth paragraph) and also takes the ideas in that comment further. Perhaps you overlooked the second paragraph, where I say that the time spent learning kanji isn’t the only reason the Japanese are poor at English and that the problem is much more complex than that.

        So I’m a xenophobe, am I? Oh, brother! It’s depressing how quickly things can descend into ad-hom. And your evidence for my xenophobia would be what exactly? Look, if you’re going to stoop to name-calling instead of employing reasoned argument, then I think we’ve lost all hope of having a civil, intelligent discussion. Maybe it’s time to move on.

      • WithMalice

        Reasoned argument? How on earth did your initial comments even remotely enter into that realm?

        Name calling…
        If you can’t see that calling kanji “ridiculous, over-complex, antiquated and completely inappropriate system” is xenophobic, then yes, you are correct: “intelligent” discussion isn’t going to occur.

      • Spudator

        I see. So I ask you to provide evidence that I’m xenophobic, and your response is, essentially, to say, “Well, it’s obvious, innit?” Brilliant. I do hope you aren’t considering a career as an attorney.

        Well, they do say that if you want a job done properly, you have to do it yourself. So, since you seem unable or unwilling to examine that allegedly xenophobic statement of mine, I’d better take a crack at it on your behalf.

        First, let’s just revisit the offending piece of xenophobic invective:

        “I’m talking about that ridiculous, over-complex, antiquated and completely inappropriate system used to write Japanese–kanji.”

        OK, now let’s analyse it with the help of a little four-adjective glossary:

        (1) Ridiculous: Kanji takes years to master because it fails to take advantage of the user’s existing linguistic knowledge–their mother tongue. Effectively requires the user to completely re-learn skills they already have. Such an irrational and inefficient approach cannot be considered sensible.

        Romaji capitalizes fully on the user’s mother-tongue knowledge by mirroring it and extending its functional domain from the spoken word to the written, allowing the user to get up to speed in reading and writing in weeks. A completely rational response to the fundamental human need for literacy.

        (2) Over-complex: Kanji uses 2000 difficult characters that do far less than romaji’s 26 easy ones. Need I say more?

        (3) Antiquated: Kanji was designed to meet the needs of a culture that disappeared centuries ago. Completely inflexible design is impossible to update to meet modern language needs in science, technology and society. Can only hobble along in the modern world by using katakana and romaji as linguistic crutches.

        Romaji offers an open-ended, infinitely expandable approach that keeps pace with changes in culture, additions to human knowledge and extensions of human capabilities, and so is always current. The quintessence of modernity.

        (4) Inappropriate: Kanji was designed specifically for Chinese, an uninflected language. Needs to be jerry-rigged through the use of hiragana to work with Japanese, an inflected language.

        Romaji provides a language-agnostic, future-proof, globally standardized writing solution. Already configured to work perfectly with Japanese. Accessible through all technologies and computing platforms worldwide. The logical choice for a fast-approaching future where all writing is done on a keyboard and all written knowledge is electronic, existing in the cloud and accessed by mobile devices.

        So there you go: not a very flattering critique. A finger-wagging admonishment of old-man Kanji by another crusty old curmudgeon. But hardly xenophobic. And isn’t it the truth?

        My real beef with kanji is adjective #3: it’s an antiquated system. Actually, that’s too polite. It’s a complete anachronism–a dying language on life support. Kanji can no longer do what it’s supposed to do, which is to allow you to express yourself fully. And that’s the whole point of a language. It has to contain words that represent every aspect of your world so you can discuss that world without restriction with your fellow humans. The world has moved on since the days of ancient China, and kanji long ago ran out of words to describe the things around it. It’s no longer fit for purpose. Could there be a more damning indictment of it than that?

        Virtually all new developments in science and technology, society and the humanities, coming into Japanese already have English names, which Japanese maintains through transliteration into katakana (and then maybe contraction into something that’s less of a tongue-twister [for example, "sekuhara" for sexual harassment and "sumaho" for smartphone]), or by using their Roman initials (for example, SOC for system-on-a-chip and GMR for giant magnetoresistance). Maybe if these English terms were translated into Japanese instead of transliterated, they could be expressed in kanji. But that doesn’t happen because that’s not the way in languages. Languages expand by borrowing from other languages–through the use of loan words–not by translation. This is why English is the richest language in the world: it’s borrowed heavily from just about ever other language.

        This influx of loan words into Japanese isn’t going to stop. Written Japanese is going to become more and more a language of katakana and romaji, with a few kanji as reminders of the past. You can see this already in modern Japanese writing, which can be as much katakana as kanji–sometimes a stream of katakana interrupted by the occasional bit of kanji. But this isn’t a bad thing. This is proof that, while kanji may represent a dying writing system, spoken Japanese is very much alive–a modern, vibrant, ever-expanding language. The real language, the real culture, is the spoken one. The written language is just the spoken language committed to paper or thumb-typed into a smartphone. A writing system’s job is to allow that transcription process to happen, not to add anything extra to it, and certainly not to inhibit it. Kanji fails in this respect.

        The future of Japanese lies beyond kanji. Time for old-man Kanji to bow out and let someone more vigorous, more modern, and more capable take over. The good news is there’s a new kid in town–a likeable, good-looking, easy-to-get-along-with linguistic gladiator who can’t wait to fill the old man’s shoes. His name is Roman.

      • WithMalice

        You probably should have stuck with your “intelligent discussion isn’t going to occur”, because despite the lack of brevity, you’re no closer. I do hope you’re not considering a career in… well… that’d be a list of similar length to your last effort.

        On your xenophobic commentary… I spelt it out before, and I’m not sure it can be done with any greater simplification.
        The mere fact that you STILL cannot see that declaring someone else’s native writing to be nigh on ridiculous… actually, I think you do see it, but are too miserly/bitter to acknowledge it.

      • Spudator

        You didn’t spell out anything; you just made a bad-tempered, unsubstantiated assertion that was little better than a slur. When asked to provide evidence for your assertion, you merely repeated yourself. And now here you are repeating yourself again. You’re sounding a bit like a broken record.

        Here’s the thing: I don’t have to “see” or “acknowledge” anything. This is a essentially a debate (didn’t you realise that?), and your job isn’t to convince me; it’s to convince the people following this thread that what you’re saying is true. You do that by demonstrating that it’s true, not by insisting it’s true or repeating it over and over. I guess anyone reading your comments is feeling a bit unimpressed by your debating skills and your powers of persuasion.

        I’ve given you some solid reasons why my original statement was anything but xenophobic. If you think my reasoning is wrong then you need to demonstrate why it’s wrong. Sorry, but that’s how it works. Didn’t they teach you how to debate at school?

      • WithMalice

        Aaaaah… I get it. Having scrolled through the responses here, I understand: you’re “that guy”. The one who goes into forums, chat spaces, anywhere to comment and *argue*.

        My bad.

      • Spudator

        Oh dear. More ad hominem. [Sigh.]

    • Masa Chekov

      The Japanese language is MUCH easier to read and write in kana/kanji than in western alphabets. I cannot overemphasize this.

    • Glen Douglas Brügge

      In addition, Chinese and Taiwanese, even with their “somewhat” more simplified Kanji writing system still have to learn far more characters in order to be able to read and write their language than Japanese high school students do. You seem to have no understanding of either. And to say that Japanese are “rotten” writers? Are you implying that the language makes Japanese completely incompetent in terms of written expression? Or just in written English? I suppose Murakami Haruki has all his books ghostwritten? – either way, both scream ignorance of Japanese society, language and culture – and those of China too.

      The issue at hand is the education system and the Japanese Government’s habit of making English learning a chore, meant purely for entrance exams – not focusing at all on speaking for enjoyment and COMMUNICATION; it also does not help that the teachers employed to parrot grammar patterns cannot speak the language to a competent degree either – but this is because the purpose is not to speak to begin with. If you thrust children into this awkward way of learning, they will not be confident to begin with.

      Sadly, it is all about the money and backward ideas regarding language acquisition. If the Japanese Government moved away from this system of forcing students to parrot grammar patterns, by hiring native speakers, and revamping the entrance exam system, then we would could have progress. Granted, as with learning any language – one needs exposure to some degree or guidance on how to effectively study.

      I had some pals in Japan, who loved English, and purely out of effort, and a supportive environment, spoke virtually perfect English with limited, if no actual experience of having lived outside of Japan. It is not a “Japanese” issue – but a systematic one. Many of these people who could speak beautiful English would complain that their TOEFL scores were not high enough for this or that job – which I would often consider ludicrous, while at the same time I knew of people who had astronomically high TOEFL scores but who could barely introduce themselves in English.

      • Spudator

        If you read my first post to WithMalice, I think you’ll get a better idea about what I mean by the Japanese being rotten writers. I’m not talking about authors like Haruki Murakami or about Japanese literature in general. I’d have said Japanese authors are rotten writers if I’d meant that. I’m talking about ordinary, educated Japanese people who, in the course of their work, have to use Japanese to commit their thoughts to paper in an organised way, or write descriptive or explanatory material. So, on the whole, I’m talking about written Japanese for professional purposes–scientific and technical writing, business writing, even academic writing.

        The problem is quite simple: the Japanese are unable to write coherently. Specifically, their writing is characterised by such faults as crucial information being omitted; irrelevant information being present in abundance; facts and thoughts being in disarray, there being no logical thread to the writing; and repetition abounding: instead of something being said once in the right place, it gets said several times in all the wrong places. Ordinary, educated Japanese people don’t understand the craft of writing, so that when they do write, the result is a disaster.

        Now if these written disasters were for the consumption of the Japanese only, I wouldn’t mind. It would be their problem. But in this international world, a point comes where this material has to be translated into English, and thence into other languages, for consumption overseas. And then it becomes everybody’s problem.

        So why can’t the Japanese write? Well, let me quote from my post to WithMalice: “. . . clearly schools aren’t teaching students the advanced writing skills they’ll need as adults. And I suspect that’s because learning to write in Japan is all about remembering kanji rather than developing intellectual skills in such areas as logic and critical thinking, composition and rhetoric. It’s all about mastering the writing system rather than mastering what gets done with the writing system.”

        Surely if the first step in learning to write consists of a relatively short period spent mastering such fundamentals as orthography and the mechanics of writing–which is the case with the Roman alphabet–then it’s logical to assume that the next step will consist solely of learning to apply the fundamentals. In other words, in the next step, students will concentrate on learning the craft of writing.

        But with a complex writing system like kanji, such a two-step process is impossible because students simply can’t wait the several years required to complete the first step. At some point they’ll have to start learning the craft of writing even though their mastery of the fundamentals is incomplete. They’ll have to learn the craft while playing catch-up on the fundamentals, and the craft will suffer. More likely, their teachers won’t even try to teach the craft properly.

        And this is one reason why I think kanji should be abandoned in favour of romaji. It would remove the stranglehold kanji have on learning the craft of writing.

        Now I could be completely wrong about this; maybe there’s some other reason the Japanese don’t learn, or aren’t taught, how to write. All I know is I have to go to work tomorrow and look at documents translated into English from Japanese. And I know exactly what I’m going to see: a disaster. (And it’s not the fault of the translators.) So why is that?

        I’ve given you my theory. If you have a better one, I’d be interested to hear it.

    • Tanaka

      Well, quite a bold statement of yours! And I guess you expected all the angry replies from “I’m a foreigner who loves Japan and its culture and language, and by the way, I can read and write kanji very well, thank you.”.

      Frankly, my opinion was the same as yours when I arrived here. As time passed, though, and I learned enough of the language, I started to notice that, yes, is very hard to read Japanese writen in Romanji, as well as texts in kana/kata only.

      I guess it was just a matter of adaptation and, of course, learning process. That’s not to say that I’m fluent now. I may never be. Kind of quit. Maybe start learning Spanish.

      And speaking about leaning process, I think you have a very strong point. It’s hard, complicated, time-consuming to learn kanji. And we all know, who has time in modern days? Besides, Japanese people have to write less and less, becoming very poor in reading their own language; Japan as a country utilizes more and more foreign words in all fields. One has to wonder, why insist that kanji has to exist? (Sound poetic, eh?)

      I really don’t want to elaborate, since I don’t have an answer for this issue.

      I also don’t have the same patience as you to discuss with belligerent and conservative people.

      But I think this is a reality that can be improved without doubt. But what you suggested (banning kanji) is not a change, it’s revolution. And revolution in Japan?… Maybe in the anime world.

      • Spudator

        Thanks for your interesting and supportive reply. I enjoyed reading it very much. It’s nice to know there are people looking at this issue in a calm, reasonable way.

        Yes, I did rather kick the hornets’ nest with that original comment of mine, didn’t I? To be honest, I probably overdid it a bit. My intention was to give the hornets’ nest a gentle nudge and get the debate going, but hornets are hornets, right? They’re on a pretty short fuse, and they really like to sting!

        As I imply elsewhere in this thread, I feel that if people were to learn to read and write in kana or romaji from their very first day at school, they’d eventually have no problem with either system. It would become second nature for them. (Let me just say that I’m not advocating writing without word spacing; yes, that might make people cross-eyed!) But, of course, whether my ideas are true or not is something we’re not going to know unless Japan does indeed decide to abandon kanji. And as you say, such a move would be revolutionary–certainly at the present time–and revolution just isn’t the Japanese way. I agree with you completely on this point.

        My suggestion that Japan switch to the Roman alphabet is, ultimately, hypothetical (although I still think it would work). I just wanted to get people thinking about the educational cost of learning kanji and how it takes time from other educational pursuits–like learning English. Actually, I think it would be nice if kids could simply use the time that abandoning kanji would save to forget about schoolwork altogether. Kids need to be allowed to do what they do best: to get out in the open air and enjoy being young. Japanese educational insanity, with things like cram schools and after-school clubs, robs children of enough of their childhoods as it is.

        There is, of course, an alternative to revolution: evolution. As you point out, more and more loan words are entering the Japanese language. And they’re not just being used for concepts that don’t exist in Japanese, but for ones that do. They’re taking the place of existing native words and replacing the associated kanji with katakana. The use of kanji is, little by little, declining; the system is heading for extinction. A point will surely be reached where there are so few kanji left in written Japanese that the Japanese themselves will start wondering why they’re even bothering with them.

        Probably what will happen is that the number of official kanji that schoolkids have to learn will, over the decades, be gradually reduced from the present 2000 or so. Maybe the number will drop to 1600, then 1200, then 1000, and so on. Eventually there’ll only be a hundred or so key kanji left. And these won’t get used in written material: they’ll just be for things like official names of government departments and decorative headings on degree diplomas or whatever.

        I’m tempted to say we’ll just have to wait and see, but this evolutionary process could take a century or longer. Most people alive now are never going to see the demise of kanji. And generations of schoolkids to come are going to be condemned to spending years of their precious childhood lives mastering this antiquated writing system. It’s a crying shame.

      • Tanaka

        Kanji. Kanji is more than reading and writing, and we all know. Kanji is Japanese culture, history and spirit. Kanji is a national pride.

        Pride because, at times, Japanese people seem to pride themselves for enduring. Enduring the system, the laws, the interminable rules written and non-written. And, boy, if you have to spend years of your life to read and write correctly in your mother tongue, that’s a hell of enduring. That’s not to say inefficient.

        After all, if a person spends part of his/her life learning how to write and read, and he/she is not a MASTER of it in the end, something’s wrong. Japanese plainly don’t recognize a good part of their writing system, and the problem here is it affects communication.

        Why make the writing system a challenge?

        As you mentioned the hornets, let’s not forget that they are hornets from abroad. For a change, why don’t we ask the home bees, the kids maybe, if they wouldn’t prefer the simple and practical instead of the complicated way?

        I say again that today, yes, it’s easy for me to read a sentence in kanji than in all-kana or Romanji, but I assume it’s pretty much because of adaptation, not meaning that kanji is easier not now, not in a million years.

        And wait a second. A kanji filled sentence is easier to read until the moment you face yourself with an unknown kanji. If it was in my language or in English, French, Italian, whatever else it may be, I would look up in the dictionary.

        Not in Japanese. Just because I don’t know how it sounds. “Oh, you should count the strokes”. C’mon…

        What annoys me the most, though, is that this thread is very biased. The majority of the hornets are not even Japanese, and they attack different opinions and wave the Hinomaru flag as their own. It also should be noted that there is a lot of language teachers and language students in the hive, people that love and cherish this part of the culture or that have it as part of their jobs. It’s understandable that they get emotional about “let’s annihilate kanji!”.

        Kanji should not be eradicated. It should be preserved like art. People then could continue to discuss and analize the subtlety of the strokes, meditate during the practice of caligraphy and tatoo it all over the body whithout knowing its meaning.

        And welcome the alphabet!

        You see how people can get off of the track? I didn’t even mention the TOEFL subject! Oh my!

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

      That you may have problems with kanji does not mean it is actually that difficult. It is not “over-complex”. It in fact, makes reading much faster.

      Besides, Japanese contains so many homonyms that it would be impossible to read with any efficiency if all you read were romanizations.

      One of the problems of the JLPT is that is presumes that non-native learners of Japanese ought to learn Kanji in the same order as actual native speakers — this is wrong. It is wrong because native speakers learn to speak first, and develop a large vocabulary before they even write anything of significant meaning. The kanji is just a matter of association then. It’s like irregular verbs in English. Japanese students struggle with those, but for you, it was totally natural and not difficult at all.

      Because new Japanese learners have to learn everything at the same time, they should be learning Kanji in a hierarchial order, which leads to a totally different results than copying elementary school’s order.

      If you want to blame something for your opinion about Kanji, don’t blame Kanji itself, blame the government for enforcing a one-size-fits all standard on everyone — and the resulting culture that creates for foreign learners.

      If you want to see an orderly explanation of Kanji, visit kanjidamage dot com.

      • Spudator

        Oh dear. That broken old 78 by Kanji and the Homonyms is still stuck in the groove [click] the groove [click] the groove [click] the groove [click]. . . .

        Sorry for the sarcasm; I should’ve resisted the temptation to use it, but hearing this homonym argument repeated over and over is becoming a little tedious. If you read through the rest of the thread, you’ll see that several others have already brought up this tiresome old canard and that I’ve responded by peppering the noisy old quacker’s backside with shot from both barrels of my twelve-bore.

        If you want to know why I think it’s nothing more than a myth that, without kanji, homonyms would present an impediment to reading Japanese, please see what I have to say elsewhere in the thread. While you’re at it, take a look at my comments explaining why kanji do indeed constitute an over-complex writing system and why claims that they make reading Japanese faster or easier are just more mythologising.

  • phu

    Note that, even when touted as a valid and important goal like improving Japan’s English language ability, the result is still just a push to make students study with the specific goal of passing a test. It may be arguable that doing so for TOEFL would be more valuable than the current and obviously sub-par English training methods used in schools, but this is still a failure to think outside of the test-shaped box that has been and continues to fail Japanese education.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000580228225 Brian Prager

    I’ve taught in US universities for 26 years where Japanese are consistently among the least expressive students in the world. Changing that, and improving TOEFL exam scores are not the same aims, nor are they particularly compatible. But given Japan’s current form of business-government partnership and the absence of educational psychology in this discussion, it’s not surprising to see that this is the direction robo-education policy makers would choose to take.

  • nobuo takamura

    I had been teaching English for more than 30 years in Japanese high schools. If I’m asked to say the only one thing to prevent many Japanese students from improving English while in school, I’d say that they can’t be willing to make some mistakes in speaking as well as in writing, among others. What’s worse, they must be reluctant to study how to write as well as to read without any tenuous mistakes in grammar and spellings, which forces them to be intimidated to express themselves, especially in front of other students in class. When it comes to language learnig, making various kinds of mistakes leads them to learn a lot, which is sure to take a lot of time and is bound to be quite demanding for teachers and learners alike. I suppose TOEFL won’t help them all as long as it is carried out in a situation such as Japanese schools. To be honest, I’m a little bit embarrassed to see Prime Minister Abe suggested this plan in school.

  • Ted O’Neill

    I am shocked. Shocked to see this kind of cozy relationship between the exam business and government. The owner of a test prep school advocating mandatory TOEFL for university applicants? How could he possibly benefit from that?

    But more seriously, here comes the same old canard about low TOEFL scores in Japan. Could it be that too many students are forced to take TOEFL here even though they do not want to and have no intention of ever studying overseas? Could that possibly bring down the average?

    Students in Japan are already tested too much with little or no educational or pedagogical purpose.

    • kur1

      In what situations are students ‘forced’ to take the TOEFL? Maybe if they’re going for some really kickin’ colleges. But in general, only 5-ish students at my school of 700 take it in Junior High, and the number might double/quadruple in high school.

      Far from forced.

  • WithMalice

    The reality is that unless there’s a focus on teaching English within schools as a communicative tool, rather than a purely scholastic undertaking, then the Nation would quickly improve.
    There are Japanese teachers teaching English who can’t even introduce themselves successfully.
    Whilst grammatical structures and vocabulary acquisition are relatively important, the key focal point of any language should be *communication*. For the vast majority of schools, this is not the case… and merely putting up yet another test as an end-point isn’t going to change much.

  • Emi Rowan

    Why TOEFL exam? I am totally shocked at this.
    They care about score of the exams too much, not care about education. Japanese language education has just started to change, but it’s hard to change it without changing the system of the entrance exam for university. I am totally shocked at teaching at highschools, they still translating English into Japanese, and still explain grammar with old Japanese. We have to finish the language Sakoku era.

    • http://twitter.com/aocchi99 あおき

      So how do you want to change?
      If TOEFL is adapted, the system of the entrance exam will be forced to change definitely. I think the PM’s true intention is that introducing TOEFL will make system of exam changed.

  • http://twitter.com/tripod090 tripod090

    I just expect to request submission of TOEFL scores from all of politicians and professors.
    We might be reading a never-ending story about English ability.
    TOEIC(2003~) -> TOEFL(2015?~) -> IELT -> SAT

    Japan should globalize in every field. So TOEFL? that’s not the point.

    • WithMalice

      I’d love to hear PM Abe’s thoughts on this.
      In English…

      • http://twitter.com/tripod090 tripod090

        Auto-translation program will be released sooner or later (perhaps by 2020). My TOEIC score is about 700. I guess it’s enough. hahaha.
        And I don’t want to waste time studying English because computer will do that.

      • WithMalice

        I know a 9 year old who scored about the same as you…
        Fine. Stay in front of your computer and utilize highly inaccurate translation software… but you’ll get slaughtered in the real world job market by those who *can*.

  • Phillip

    It is the wrong test to use for the purpose, but that’s nothing new in Japan. It is also setting the bar incredibly high compared to what is on offer now. I hope the teachers in high school get the training and support they will need in order to prepare students. I also hope parents and students are prepared for disappointment.

    But if this becomes the measure for all uni graduates and public servants, I’d say that it is a marked improvement; an international test being applied nationally; we don’t see that too often.

  • GCNavigator

    Japan’s entrance exams today are highly inconsistent from school to school, and they are all filled with rarely used words that do not help Japanese prepare for real world communication in English. The Tokyo University exam corpus, for example, requires about 3,900 words to reach 99% coverage and the Keio University exam corpus requires about 6,100 words. When we take Japan’s top 30 universities and put all of their entrance tests together in one corpus, it requires 7,435 words to reach 99% coverage. Lexically speaking the different tests are all over the map. Across the sea in China they have a single national university entrance exam called the Gaokao. It requires just 4,300 words to reach 99% coverage, and the vocabulary on the Gaokao is a very close match with the high-frequency vocabulary commonly used in the USA and UK today. Japan would do well to study the logic behind the design of the Chinese tests.

  • Toolonggone

    I don’t think students and teachers are ready for this. The current version of TOEFL exam is far more challenging than TOEIC or STEP English. How does this lead to the change of teaching practice in English class!? How’s gonna affect student’s enthusiasm in learning? Who’s gonna take responsibility if students fail? Teachers!? Schools!? This is not No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top Education.

  • Nagato

    Requiring TOEFL would simply lead to the goal of passing the test instead of improving proficiency. The problem i think lies in the learning environment outside the school which hardly reinforces what students learned inside the classroom. Movies in english are either dubbed or subtitled, publications written in english are translated, when you turn on the tv you’ll hear ‘katakana pronunciation and so on. Creating a conducive environment where students can apply or practice what they learn in school is really needed.

  • Jake

    “I am shocked. Shocked to see this kind of cozy relationship between the exam business and government” interesting comment

  • Yoshimi

    I think that abolishing Kanji and adopting only Romaji or Hiragana/Katakana is an interesting,idea, but I can guarantee that it wouldn’t possibly be accepted by Japanese people. It only focuses on learning efficiency at school and completely ignores the history and the spirit behind the Japanese language.

    When we inherited Kanji from the ancient China, the Japanese society was dominated by men and it was their prestige to use it. That’s why Kanji is called a “male language.” However, Japanese women invented Hiragana to express their rich emotions in an aesthetic way during the process of establishing their own literature. That’s why Hiragana is called a “female language,” and I would consider this as the first feminist movement in Japan, and you can see that Japanese people appraise those women who contributed to the movement – like Lady Murasaki, for example. Katakana was not invented until much later than that, but it was due to an effort to accept things that were totally foreign to the Japanese culture at the time in a way that Japanese people could understand.

    The Japanese language has evolved with the people and their harmonious relationship with the beautiful nature in Japan. It is not just a tool for communication, as all other languages are not either. If we were to abandon any part of it, we would lose our origin and heritage as Japanese people. You have to consider the totality of the potential effects that your proposal may have. We embrace our spirit and pride as Japanese citizens, and would not easily give them up.

    As far as the Japanese education system is concerned, I don’t see any problem with it. I grew up in it and it benefited me a lot. I wasn’t even an English major at Japanese college, but I received the highest grade in my first- year legal writing class at a US law school. Yes, I’m a law student in the US (of a JD program, not an LLM). All of my professors seem to be impressed with my English grammar. I couldn’t have come this far without the English education I received in Japan. It was not of itself perfect; so I had to make a lot of efforts on my own to supplement it, but remember that nothing is perfect in this world – just like you cannot eat just a single item of food every day. So I don’t think the Japanese education system is the culprit. This tool works. I rather think that the problem is the people who cannot use/manage it properly. I believe that the majority of it comes from their mentality that only focuses on the deficiencies. I think that we need to appreciate what we already have before desperately trying to acquire something we don’t have. Language skills are like happiness. Once we realize how blessed we already are, we will naturally find a way to utilize and bring it to the next level.

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

    Tests as such are no replacement for actual learning.

    I remember next to nothing from my ESL classes, or History classes, or Geography classes. I studied because I had to, and then when exams were over, my brain quickly flushed all these useless “facts” — which were never explained how they were facts, thereby chopping my brain out of the learning process and making it a mere task of memorization — down the toilet.

    Exam businesses receiving subsidies from government, or governments mandating particular ESL standards creates a coercive monopoly that destroys competition.

    As a result of the monopoly, few alternatives exist, thus employers are left choosing among “the best” individuals of who “slaved for the exam” and then flushed — since the system being cultivated does not give incentives to actual learning, actual comprehension, and actual speaking (good luck finding an oral examination). Of course, the real “best”, the motivated self-starters, have NO USE for such tests and not reason to take it, except for the fact that some prospective job may demand it — but that condition is only created by the monopoly governments have given to particular language testing standards.

    In a real market, businesses would decide which test they trust, which standard they think is best, and demand that prospective employees pass that particular one — not some-size-fits-all mediocre solution. Several tests might vary from business to business. And each test might be reflective of the skills needed in those particular industries. And individuals would be free to choose the test that they think most comprehensively challenges them, for travelling overseas, moving overseas, for a hobby, for work, for whatever — instead of say, a JLPT that presumes foreigners ought to be learning Kanji, grammar, and structure in the exact same order as native speakers — as if their were no difference in their learning contexts!

    Get the hell out of the way!

  • Peruro

    well functioned and rational thinking/expressing way by mother tongue is first priority.

  • Kansai ALT

    This is a horrible idea and one that, to be honest, will do jack squat to improve English education in Japan. I teach as an ALT in Kansai and what I have learned is that Japanese education is more or less a joke. Students learn little to nothing in their English, all they learn how to do is cram for an exam, then forget everything. In addition, students in Japan don’t care about English because they have zero reason to. Unless you are going to have a job that requires English speaking ability then you don’t have to be able to speak English. The fault lies with the way Japanese education is, and unless that issue is addressed any further policy changes are a waste of money.