Laptops, tablets, smartphones tools of choice

Kanji writing skills go through changes in the digital era

by Miwa Suzuki

AFP-JIJI

As a schoolboy, Akihiro Matsumura spent hundreds of hours learning the intricate kanji that make up a part of written Japanese. Now, the graduate student can rely on his smartphone, tablet and laptop to remember them for him.

“Sometimes I don’t even bother to take notes in seminars. I just take out my tablet to shoot pictures of what instructors write on blackboards,” he said.

Like millions of people across East Asia, Matsumura, 23, is forgetting the pictographs and ideographs that have been traditionally used in Japan and China for centuries.

While some bemoan what they see as a loss of history and culture, others say the shift frees up brainpower for more useful things, such as learning foreign languages, and even improves writing as a whole.

Naoko Matsumoto, a professor of law who heads international legal studies at Sophia University in Tokyo, said the students in her classes write more fluently than their predecessors.

“I’m in my 40s and compared with my generation, they have more and more opportunities to write using Twitter” and other social networking services, she said.

“I think they are actually better at writing” because they write in a simple and easy-to-understand way, she said.

Priorities are changing, with more emphasis placed on building logical thinking strategies — a case of content becoming more important than form.

“The skill of writing kanji perfectly is becoming less necessary compared with earlier times,” the professor said.

Kanji developed in China as a mixture of pictographs — characters that represent an entity, like a mountain — and ideographs — those that depict an abstract concept, such as “think.”

China uses only these characters — a simplified version on the mainland and the traditional form in Hong Kong, as does Taiwan.

Japan imported kanji some time during the first millennium to use as a writing system, despite there being no linguistic link between Japanese and Chinese. By around the eighth to ninth centuries, it had developed the hiragana syllabary, a system of consonant and vowel blends.

Where kanji contain meaning, but no inherent sound, each hiragana character represents a sound but has no inherent meaning — like a letter in the Latin alphabet. Unlike the alphabet, however, each syllable only has one pronunciation.

Modern-day Japanese is a mixture of kanji, hiragana and katakana, with an increasing amount of Western script also thrown in, known as romaji, or Roman letters.

In both Chinese and Japanese, computer and smartphone users need only to type the pronunciation of a kanji from the constituent sounds using either the syllabary or the alphabet. They then choose one of several options offered by the device.

Very different meanings can come from the same sounds. For example, “shigaisen” in Japanese produces “street fighting” and “ultraviolet rays.”

“It’s easy to forget even the easiest of characters,” said Zhang Wentong, an assistant at a calligraphy center in Beijing.

“Sometimes you’ve got to think for ages. Occasionally I’ll repeatedly type the character out phonetically in my phone” until the right one pops up, Zhang said.

Graduate student Matsumura said his reliance on devices leaves him adrift when faced with filling in forms for repairs at the electronics shop where he works part time.

“I sometimes can’t recall kanji on the spot while a customer is watching me,” he said. “I remember their rough shapes but can’t remember exact strokes. . . . It’s foggy.”

Traditionalists fear that forgetting kanji means the irrevocable loss of a fundamental part of culture.

In Hong Kong, Rebecca Ko said her 11-year-old daughter uses a computer, but she insists the child learn traditional characters and sends her to a Chinese calligraphy class.

“We cannot rely too much on computers. We should be able to write . . . (and) we should be able to write neatly. It’s a basic thing about being Chinese,” she said.

But, said Matsumura, times change and the spread of technology gives people opportunities to develop their language capability in other ways, for instance by allowing some to read more.

“I’m one of them. I used to listen to music blankly on trains, but I now read news and other things,” he said.

Guardians of the characters say there is no evidence of any drop in enthusiasm.

The Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation, a Kyoto-based organization, said the number of people who take its exam every year is holding steady at around 2 million. People are “increasingly using text messages rather than making phone calls,” thus they need to know which characters to use, a spokeswoman said.

And kanji are not falling out of favor with all younger people.

Yusuke Kinouchi, a 24-year-old graduate student at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, believes children should continue learning the characters in the same way people have done for hundreds of years.

Kanji provide a certain economy, he said, where one character can stand in for the sounds made by several letters in a language such as English — something particularly useful on Twitter, for example, with its 140-character limit.

But beyond the economy, there is one other good reason to keep them alive, he said. “They are beautiful.”

  • Mark Garrett

    Not to worry traditionalists. The slow-moving sloth that is the Japanese education system will still be requiring youths to waste a large portion of their childhood learning kanji stroke order for the foreseeable future.

    • Christopher-trier

      A bit like discouraging the learning of Latin in Western schools, isn’t it?It might not be trendy, but it requires diligence, effort, and the ability to memorise things correctly. In the West the quality of education has imploded since the trend has gone in favour of dumbed-down educational fads. Encouraging East Asia to do the same will result in much the same result.

      • Mark Garrett

        You might ought to check the data before making unsubstantiated and inaccurate statements.

        According to the United Nations Education Index the highest ranking Asian country is Korea at number 8. All 7 above it are western countries. Japan ranks 35th.

        If you want to use OECD figures Korea comes in first with Japan at #12. All of the countries in between – western.

        Contrary to what you may believe, education has made great advances in the last 30 years. The problem is that many (most?) countries are either extremely slow to adopt, or too stubborn to change (read Japan).

        While there may be short-term benefits to rote memorization, i.e. getting high scores on the myriad Japanese exams, studies have shown that critical thinking is far more propitious in the long run.

        Take a look at Finland’s system if you want to see what a 21st century “fad” can accomplish. Number one in nearly every educational category year in and year out with no homework or tests until age 13, and even then it is extremely rare.

      • Christopher-trier

        I’ve worked in higher education for years. The quality of students is in steep, steep decline. Many professors are horrified that they are dealing with students increasingly unable to do simple assignments correctly. I was lucky to have had “stuck in the mud” teachers who were “unable to change” — they actually taught us something.

        The point, which you seem to have missed, is that the process involving learning how to write kanji teaches discipline and the ability to think through multiple steps. It is much like learning Latin, those who receive a proper education in the language tend to be more disciplined intellectually.

      • Mark Garrett

        “I’ve worked in higher education for years. The quality of students is in steep, steep decline.”

        If you truly believe this then you ought to take a look at yourself and your obviously antiquated thought process.

        ” I was lucky to have had “stuck in the mud” teachers who were “unable to change” — they actually taught us something.”

        Apparently they taught you to be close-minded and inflexible.

        “It is much like learning Latin, those who receive a proper education in the language tend to be more disciplined intellectually.”

        “Disciplined intellectually” sounds a lot like an oxymoron to me. As someone in higher education you obviously put a lot of weight on test scores and book knowledge, but being “intellectual” is much more than that. At its heart is an insatiable curiosity about oneself and the world around us. Curiosity does not require discipline. On the contrary, it demands imagination.

  • KTA

    I work in the translation business. I can count on one hand the times I’ve had to write things out in kanji since I took the job almost a year ago.

    • Masa Chekov

      I have to do it many times a month – any time I write my address, for example. Fill out forms, write notes on a whiteboard or note pad, etc. It’s a vital skill.

      • Mark Garrett

        You can write your address in romaji and it will get there just fine.

      • Masa Chekov

        Or you can spend a few minutes and learn how to write it in Kanji. It’s not hard – maybe 10 characters?

      • Mark Garrett

        True, but even then knowing the correct stroke order is of zero importance. Just make sure the symbol looks accurate. And that’s what the point of this article was. The fact that the need to know stroke order in the digital age is becoming less and less important and there are far more useful subjects that the time could be used for.

      • Masa Chekov

        I can tell you don’t write kanji, Mark. Try writing a complicated kanji in a random order, then try writing it in the correct stroke order. You’ll find writing in the correct order gives you a much better looking kanji.

        The rules are simple, it takes literally a few minutes to memorize them. It’s not a complicated art, and doing it in the correct order gives you a better balanced kanji that people can actually read and understand.

      • Mark Garrett

        You’re right! I don’t write kanji! Because I don’t have to!
        That is the whole point of the article! Your arguments have no value because they are completely off topic. Seriously, if you cannot except that we are quickly entering a new phase of communication that is changing the way we think about and use language, then there just isn’t any point in even trying to reason with you.

        Please go back and actually read the article. It has nothing to do with the merits of learning kanji or whether older people still write them. It’s all about how children today communicate in a different digital way and that the need for endless hours of pencil to paper memorizing stroke order is becoming less and less necessary. These aren’t opinions, they’re facts!

        You may make the claim that writing kanji helps you memorize them. That’s a valid argument. But it certainly doesn’t hold true for everyone. In fact, studies have shown that critical thinking is far more effective long-term than rote memorization.

      • Masa Chekov

        “I don’t write kanji! Because I don’t have to! ”

        You don’t have to if you don’t want to be fluent in Japanese, which clearly you do not want to be. You mention you can write addresses in romaji – can you fill out forms at your shiyakusho that way? (I’ll answer my own question – NO) So how do you do this without writing in Japanese? Get someone else to do it for you?

        ” the need for endless hours of pencil to paper memorizing stroke order”

        Are you going to bother to read what I wrote? It takes literally a few minutes to learn the rules of stroke order, as I said. There will ALWAYS be the need to memorize kanji as they are an essential part of the Japanese language, the only difference is people write them less. But they still need to write them, and they will always need to write them.

        “In fact, studies have shown that critical thinking is far more effective long-term than rote memorization.”

        ???? How exactly does one “think critically” about kanji? You memorize them or you don’t. Do you recommend people “think critically” about memorizing the Roman alphabet? Or is it only alphabets you can’t be bothered to learn?

      • Mark Garrett

        “There will ALWAYS be the need to memorize kanji as they are an essential part of the Japanese language, the only difference is people write them less. But they still need to write them, and they will always need to write them.”

        You’re forgetting the other big difference which is the point of the article (I’m beginning to sound like a broken record! Could you please just read it already!). Children today are learning them and using them in a much different way than even 10 years ago. People write them MUCH less today, but it’s true that there are still a few occasions where it’s necessary. They will NOT need to write them in the future however.

        Even in a country as slow to adopt change as Japan is (they still use fax machines FFS!), it is inevitable. More and more businesses are going paperless. Everything will be done electronically within 10 years (or probably much sooner). Count on it.

        “How exactly does one “think critically” about kanji? You memorize them or you don’t. Do you recommend people “think critically” about memorizing the Roman alphabet? Or is it only alphabets you can’t be bothered to learn?

        I never said one should think critically about kanji. My point is that all of the time saved by doing away with antiquated teaching methods could be used to learn far more useful skills in the 21st century. You are aware that it’s 2013, right?”

      • Masa Chekov

        You sure have a whole lot of opinions about how Japanese people should learn kanji for someone who doesn’t read/write kanji. Do you even speak Japanese? I find the people who are most critical of the teaching methods of learning Japanese are those who have not bothered to learn to read/write/speak in it…

        “Children today are learning them and using them in a much different way than even 10 years ago.”

        I read the article, and I just read it again to refresh my recollection. It seems that some like the less reliance on kanji writing and others do not. Not much in here about stroke order, which you seem to think is this onerous task that takes years to master. Nope, you still gotta learn the kanji no matter how you use them – electronically or otherwise.

        “They will NOT need to write them in the future however.”

        Sure they will. Absolutely they will. I use electronic communication as much as anyone and I still write as much as I did 25 years ago. And if you think the shiyakusho is going to go electronic for everything anytime in the next 40 years, you are mistaken.

        “they still use fax machines FFS!”

        Quite useful if you need a paper copy of something. I see if you don’t find something useful it’s automatically not useful to everyone else?

        “More and more businesses are going paperless. Everything will be done electronically within 10 years (or probably much sooner).”

        Citation, on either? Have you stepped in a Japanese office, or especially a Japanese government office? There will be paper required by the Japanese government for the next 100 years. Count on it. Go inside one of the government ministry buildings and check out an office. Tell me if you think that wall of paper is going anywhere.

        “My point is that all of the time saved by doing away with antiquated teaching methods could be used to learn far more useful skills in the 21st century.”

        You have yet to point out how people are not going to need to learn kanji. This will still require hundreds and hundreds of hours to learn, regardless of whether people write them or not. Writing is a good method to remember them (and of course there are others), so it seems likely that people will still be writing them in the future. Perhaps they will write them using styluses instead of ink. E-shodo practice is kind of popular these days (go see the number of Nintendo DS games on the topic, for example).

    • Christopher-trier

      Good on you. I can’t even look at lyrics to a Flumpool song or write an email to friends in Japan without using Kanji.

      • Mark Garrett

        So I’m curious, when writing emails to friends in Japan, do you use some type of stylus that converts to kanji? Because if not, I don’t think stroke order makes a bit of difference when typing on a keyboard. And that is what this article is about.

  • Masa Chekov

    Learning to write kanji is not a waste of time at all – if you rely on mechanical translation and kana conversion you have a much harder time remembering the form of the kanji. That’s bad since there’s 2000+ kanji, many of which look very similar.

    The act of writing kanji repetitively helps train the mind to remember the kanji. It’s not just for tradition’s sake.

    • Christopher-trier

      I have never found Kanji to be that difficult. Actually, I’ve found it easier than reading only kana — or even the Roman alphabet. One knows what a word means and what nuances it has. It also teaches discipline and diligence, something sorely lacking in many Western educational systems.