Character Assassination: Successes and Failures of Kanji Reform

Richard Medhurst [Profile]

[2017.12.01]

Reformers and Abolitionists

In 1866, as the Edo period drew to a close, the statesman Maejima Hisoka submitted a proposal suggesting that Japan abolish kanji to the last shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Maejima, who had both learned and taught English, bemoaned the amount of time students spent memorizing Chinese characters, which could have been used for other study. He was just one of many would-be reformers and abolitionists of the kanji system in the modern era.

The idea of doing away with kanji altogether has rarely been seriously considered at the highest level. Reform, however, has been a constant topic for discussion. The early postwar era was a high-water mark for the reformers. The government introduced a list of 1,850 characters in 1946, known as the tōyō kanji. Official instructions accompanying the rollout stated that when words used kanji not in the list, the writer should either choose a different word or write in kana.

The aim of this rule was to thoroughly discontinue usage of any kanji not in the list. It was applied to laws, public documents, newspapers, and magazines. However, the excluded kanji did not die so easily, and critics complained that preventing their use was a barrier to free expression. In 1981, the list was replaced with the jōyō kanji, consisting of 1,945 characters. More importantly, the wording of the accompanying introduction was softened to emphasize that these were simply guidelines, and compliance was optional.

Today, restriction of kanji usage is highly variable, depending on the text. Elementary school teaching materials are carefully graded to exclude characters children are not due to encounter until later in their studies. Newspapers are expected to largely stick to their slightly different version of the jōyō kanji, although numerous exceptions are allowed, such as characters used in the titles of films and television programs or terms used in the classical arts. Commonly used words also often appear in kanji rather than kana, such as the tei in 鼎談 (teidan; three-way talks) even though 鼎—also pronounced kanae, meaning a three-legged metal vessel from ancient China—is not part of the newspaper list. Many writers for adults, however, are limited only by the audience they wish to reach.

The Simplification Process

In English, spelling was standardized as the language modernized. Although more complex, the principle of kanji simplification shows some similarities, notably in the discarding of variants. Of the thousands of characters in existence, many are essentially the same in meaning as other more common versions. In these cases, it was relatively easy to stop using the rarer kanji. For example, the word “dog” can be written as 犬 or 狗 (both inu). There is no need to use the latter character.

This kind of duplication is almost entirely absent in the jōyō kanji. However, even this list is not free of redundancy, containing 付 and 附—both pronounced tsuku or fu, meaning “attach.” There are no words where the second character is absolutely necessary, so why is it included? The reason is that 附 appears in the Constitution, which as a public document had to be written using the original tōyō kanji. Rather than amending the Constitution, it was decided to ensure the superfluous 附 remained an essential kanji.

Another way to reduce the kanji burden was to substitute different characters with the same pronunciation into commonly used words. Sometimes they had similar meanings, as when a word for “flame,” 火焔, was simplified to 火炎 (both kaen). This is like the discarding process above. Sometimes, however, the meanings were totally different. The word 選考 (senkō), meaning “select,” is composed of kanji for “select” (選) and “think” (考), respectively. Before simplification, it was written 銓衡 (also senkō), with kanji for “measure” and “equilibrium.”

Characters Outside the Jōyō List Live On

Efforts to make the task of learning characters easier have achieved considerable success. There is a shared base of 2,000 kanji and a clear path through the process of studying them at school. Less common names of animals and plants are now typically written in katakana rather than kanji. The initial attempt in the tōyō kanji introduction to prevent the use of furigana, which indicate pronunciation, has given way to pragmatic acceptance. This allows writers to use other characters while sharing their readings with readers for greater accessibility.

Still, many kanji outside the jōyō list continue to thrive even without official support. Some are seen in the names of people or places. The jinmeiyō kanji list allows a further 862 characters in given names. When it comes to long-established family and place names, however, there are no limits. With such ties to individual and group identity, these kanji are difficult to dislodge. Fame can put the spotlight on obscure characters at times, as with the second kanji in the family name of former SMAP member Kusanagi (草彅) Tsuyoshi.

Cultural traditions also foster reluctance to drop less common kanji. These appeal to more than just dusty scholars. Displays across Japan now feature New Year nengajō cards with the kanji 戌. This is yet another way of writing “dog” (inu), as 2018 is the year of the dog. Using a different character when referring to the zodiacal animal is not necessary, but clearly highly popular. Advertisers, too, can convey sophistication or a hint of freshness with rarer, but still familiar, kanji.

Maejima got over the rejection of his plan to abolish the use of characters, going on to a successful career as the founder of the Japanese post office. He lived through an era when many new kanji phrases entered the language as translators of foreign texts invented words to convey concepts like “science” (科学; kagaku) and “revolution” (革命; kakumei). Maejima himself seems to have given in to the inevitable and is credited with establishing the kanji words for the “mail service” (郵便; yūbin) and “stamps” (切手; kitte).

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: The less-used character for dog, inu, appears on New Year cards once every 12 years.) 

  • [2017.12.01]

Translator and editor, Nippon.com. Received a master’s degree in modern and contemporary poetry from the University of Bristol in 2002. First came to Japan in the same year and taught English for three years in Chiba Prefecture. He has also lived in China and Korea. Worked in Imizu City Hall in Toyama Prefecture for five years until 2013, when he moved to Tokyo and started full-time translation. Joined Nippon.com in 2014.

Related articles
Other columns

Video highlights

New series

バナーエリア2
  • From our columnists
  • In the news