Aso reveals more than wealth gap with kanji-reading blunders


So now we know. Aso the “manga” man cannot read Japanese. At least not when it is written in kanji. The newspapers have been full of revelations these past few weeks about Prime Minister Taro Aso’s slipups in the art of kanji deciphering.

Mind you, kanji reading is no easy feat. Children have to spend very long hours trying to master the technique. Even the most well-read Japanese are apt, every so often, to come across a word that defeats their kanji-unraveling skills. Yet if the newspaper reports are to be believed, Aso’s difficulties in this field seem to be in a league of their own, and quite creative, too.

It seems the problem is being generated by his habit of making up his own way of reading certain kanji, not an inability to read them. One might call it the art of imaginative misreading.

And that, in a sense, is where the problem lies. After all, who really cares if politicians cannot read, write or spell? Literacy may be the hallmark of an expensive education (although apparently not in Aso’s case), but it doesn’t necessarily ensure the person has leadership skills or integrity.

Aso’s problem isn’t so much his ignorance as it is his arrogance. The blase way he keeps making up his own words indicates a lack of sensibility and an unwillingness to learn. He just cannot be bothered.

Such a mind-set is unacceptable in a politician. We do not elect politicians so they can abuse the language of their country to their heart’s content. Nor are they elected to entertain the press with their foibles and drinking habits. They have a job to do. They are accountable to the electorate and need to be able to understand other people’s problems. They must be able to share their pain. Especially when a global depression is looming and people are about to feel the pinch in a big way.

Aso’s word usage is disturbing, not for the lack of knowledge it displays but because of the psychology it reveals. Reports have it that he once began a speech by addressing the audience as “ladies and gentlemen of the lower classes.” He may have meant to say something else, but one has the sneaking suspicion he really does view people outside his extended family circle as belonging to social strata inferior to his own.

Shinzo Abe, one of his recent predecessors, displayed similar condescension with his “let them eat cake” attitude toward the plight of the working poor. That cost him the Upper House election last year.

But Aso is much worse than Abe because his stance is totally unapologetic and highly cynical. He doesn’t even bother to keep up appearances. He just keeps on immersing himself in comics and reading the kanji as he pleases, making outrageous remarks about how the other half cannot conceivably begin to comprehend how he and his lot live.

This mentality, more than anything else, makes Aso seriously unfit for the office he now holds. No wonder his popularity is plummeting. The lower classes may not know how his half lives, but they can spot insolence when they see it.

Politicians are paid to represent the public, not flaunt their skills at linguistic abuse. Somebody needs to tell Aso these things. Not in written form, though. Not in kanji, anyway.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.