The kanji cultures pack a punch

Economics must truly be the dismal science based on what professor Dipak Basu wrote in his Sept. 26 letter, “Questionable link to innovation.” Did this economist really suggest that Japan’s education system would be greatly improved if Japan abolished the Chinese kanji character system — which he says takes too long for schoolchildren to master — “as it should have done in 1860″?!

The Vietnamese have never forgiven the French for abolishing their traditional kanji system in the 19th century because it was considered just too much trouble to master.

Functional illiteracy is the bane of educational systems around the world, including India and the United States. Perhaps English phonetics and the odd spelling of so many English words should merit the demise of the English alphabet! Obviously a great many students are failing to master the English language even in Britain. So, why not make French the universal language? Oh, wait a minute, what about all those difficult French verb tenses? Ugh. And the masculine and feminine articles. Forget French.

Are Basu’s students aware of his kanji phobia? And then Basu goes on to say, “I don’t think there’s much need to overburden university students with liberal arts.”

He suggested that two of America’s most celebrated inventors and technologists, Thomas A. Edison and Bill Gates, were poorly educated. I did a bit of research on the life of Gates, the founder of Microsoft, and discovered that he is an avid reader and keeps a very large library in his home. On the ceiling of that library, Gates had a decorator engrave a quotation from one of America’s more highly regarded novels, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Apparently Gates appreciates literary genius almost as much as he does the computer languages COBOL and FORTRAN. I might also mention that Gates is a strong advocate of “Big History” — from the Big Bang theory to the present.

Yes, it’s true, Gates “dropped out” of Harvard University to found his own company, but Gates loves the humanities so much that he purchased the Codex Leicester in 1994 for $30.8 million. These are a collection of writings by Leonardo da Vinci. He’s also a well-known philanthropist, perhaps inspired by writers like Fitzgerald.

As for the poorly educated Edison, the “Wizard of Menlo Park” was home-schooled by his mother. In the local public school, young Edison asked too many questions during class and “interrupted” the teacher. His mother had him read R.G. Parker’s “School of Natural Philosophy” among other texts. Although Edison suffered from severe hearing loss caused by a childhood bout of scarlet fever, he went on to establish 14 companies. He shared Mahatma Gandhi’s love of nonviolence. When asked to serve as a naval consultant during World War I for the U.S. Navy, he specified that he would only work on defensive weapons.

So, what’s this nonsense that university students should not be “overburdened” with liberal arts? If I were the president of an engineering university, I’d ask all first-year students to read a well- written biography of Edison, for inspiration if nothing else.

Yet, I must also thank Basu. I never would have discovered the aforementioned “Big History” if I hadn’t decided to respond to his letter. And I’d say the rest of the world might benefit by learning more about Japanese or Chinese kanji. Just think, nearly one-fourth of the world’s population uses some form of kanji for written communication, and Basu thinks this is a mistake.

These kanji cultures have captured much of the world’s economic power. I’m just stunned by Basu’s suggestion. Question is, was he serious? Perhaps he was just kidding.

robert mckinney
otaru, hokkaido

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

  • Starviking

    “The Vietnamese have never forgiven the French for abolishing their traditional kanji system in the 19th century because it was considered just too much trouble to master.”

    This is a surprising statement, given that the Vietnamese nationalists eagerly adopted the Latinization of their written language, a stance also adopted by the Vietnamese Emperor. The nationalists did so because both Chinese Kanji and the Vietnamese version of Kanji – Chữ Nôm – were very difficult to master. These scripts, and the time required to master them, left most of the population illiterate. The adoption of a Latin script, Quốc Ngữ, fostered the spread of literacy throughout the populace.
    I think that any ill-feelings felt by Vietnam towards France would be due to their role as former colonial masters. If it were due to France robbing them of a Kanji-based writing script then the Vietnamese have had almost 60 years to reverse the adoption of Latin script. They have not done so.