Aso's verbal stumbles give kanji book writers a shot in the arm

by Mariko Yasumoto

Kyodo News

Prime Minister Taro Aso’s support rate keeps plummeting due to public doubts over his leadership ability and a series of policy flip-flops, but he may deserve a bit of kudos for brightening up one area of the nation’s dismal economy.

But it is not the cash handout plan that the 68-year-old leader has touted as one of his key economic stimulus measures that should win him public credit. It is his repeated misreading of the kanji in Japanese texts.

Books introducing how to correctly pronounce Japanese words and phrases written in kanji are currently all the rage in Japan, and publishers and bookstores largely attribute this sudden boom to Aso’s recent bloopers in reading the characters during his political speeches.

“Prime Minister Aso’s mistakes have definitely helped spark the boom,” said Takeshi Kato, manager of the Asahiya Shoten bookstore in the Akasaka district of Tokyo, noting the books started selling well shortly after reports of the prime minister’s misreadings.

Katsutoshi Tada, an editor of one of the recent blockbuster kanji books, said, “It seems that customers come for the books out of fear that they might also be making similar errors, if someone like a national leader has so much trouble reading.”

Since mid-November he has pronounced incorrectly “mizou” — a Japanese word meaning “unprecedented” — as “mizoyu,” and “teimei” (sluggish) as “teimai,” as well as several other words.

His most recent blunders were made when he delivered a speech in Japanese before world leaders at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 31. He misread “kiban” (basis) as “kihan” and two other words in the speech.

Tada is an editor of the book “Yomesode Yomenai Machigaiyasui Kanji” (“Commonly Misread Kanji that Look Easy to Read, but Cannot Be Read Properly”). It was published by Tokyo-based Futami Shobo Publishing Co. in January 2008, but its sales have climbed steeply since November.

Within the three months up to late January, the book has been reprinted 15 times and has sold roughly 600,000 copies in total, a remarkable record in the face of a long-standing slump in the publishing industry in general.

The B6-size book ranked at the top of a weekly list of popular books compiled by major bookstore chain Bunkyodo Co. for two weeks in a row from Jan. 19, up from sixth place previously.

It has also remained at the top for three consecutive weeks since the Jan. 19 week in another sales ranking compiled by entertainment business firm Oricon Inc.

Yo Kamiyama, a salesclerk at a Junkudo bookstore in Ikebukuro, said: “Many customers come up to me and ask, ‘Where is Prime Minister Aso’s book?’ And it often turns out they were looking for the one published by Futami Shobo.”

Capitalizing on the boom, the store set up a special section for kanji books this month. “I believed there was certainly potential demand for learning kanji, but kanji books have never sold so well before,” Kamiyama said.

Asked by reporters about his mistakes, Aso said in November, “Really? They are just reading errors, just mistakes.”

But even if they were “just mistakes,” Kyodo News polls nonetheless showed the Aso Cabinet’s approval ratings the following month came to as low as 25.5 percent, slipping sharply from the previous month’s 40.9 percent.

Yasunori Sone, professor of politics at Keio University, largely attributed the decline in voter support to Aso’s repeated policy flip-flops and refusal to seek a public mandate by holding a general election despite calls from the public and the opposition bloc to do so.

But Sone added, “His misreadings have devastated the public impression of him.”

When campaigning for the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election last September, Aso, who has proudly presented himself as an avid reader of “manga” (comics), proved to be popular with the young generation, including comics fans in the Akihabara electric gadget district.

“It would have been OK for him to pitch himself as a man who knew about what was popular with young kids as well if only he was a well-educated, intellectual politician,” Sone said. “But by misreading words too many times, he has completely demeaned this image and become a man who isn’t regarded as really intelligent and who reads too many comics.”

Munekazu Deguchi, author of “Yomesode Yomenai Machigaiyasui Kanji,” said “If you misread kanji, people will begin to doubt your entire intellectual level, including your knowledge of history, culture and all sorts of other things.

“Knowledge of kanji could form the fundamental basis of who you are,” Deguchi added, though hesitating to be further critical of a prime minister who has helped make his book such a huge hit.