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Japanese Writing a Problem for Some

August 19, 1998

TOKYO (AP) _ Satoshi Watanabe and his fellow revolutionaries have a gripe most Japanese can relate to.

Writing Japanese is just too complicated, he says. The thousands of characters that must be learned just to read the evening paper is too much. It’s time consuming, inefficient.

So, Watanabe says, Japan should switch to something simpler, something more along the lines of an alphabet.

That’s where he loses his audience. While most Japanese agree the writing system is a strain, hardly anyone would dream of changing things.

Blind momentum, scoffs Watanabe.

``No matter how inconvenient, people have grown accustomed to things the way they are,″ said Watanabe, who is a leading member of the Kanamoji-kai, a venerable _ but tiny _ group calling for Japan to stop using Chinese characters.

Japan imported Chinese characters _ called ``kanji″ _ more than a millennium ago because it had no writing system of its own. The Chinese lexicon is difficult to begin with, but its use has been further complicated in Japan by the need to mold it to local pronunciations.

Today, writing a simple letter in Japanese means juggling two phonetic alphabets of nearly 50 characters each with the kanji, some of which are so complex it almost takes an artist’s sense of composition to pen them. For example, the character for sea bass, pronounced ``suzuki″ in Japanese, has 27 strokes.

Exhaustive dictionaries can list as many as 50,000 Chinese characters. And that’s only part of the picture. Even a simple character like the one meaning ``life″ can be read at least seven different ways and has several different meanings depending on context.

Fortunately, a well-educated adult can get by with knowledge of a mere 3,000 kanji. The minimum needed to read a newspaper is about 2,000.

But even getting to that level requires no small effort.

According to the Education Ministry, by the end of sixth grade Japanese children are required to know about 1,000 characters. Kanji study, though usually mixed in with grammar and reading lessons, takes up a great deal of language classes and after-school study time.

And learning kanji doesn’t stop at school.

Throughout life, the Japanese are judged by their handwriting, their ability to use the proper kanji combinations, the faux pas of each missed stroke.

``No matter how much we learn, it’s never enough,″ said Hiroshi Tatsuoka, a linguist at Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University.

Kanji teaching, not surprisingly, is a lucrative industry.

Classes and seminars on the finer points of Chinese characters abound. Penmanship schools for adults are a well-established business. Self-help books for the kanji-challenged can be found in just about any bookstore.

The spread of computers and word processors with kanji software has been a godsend for the legions of Japanese who lack confidence in their handwriting skills.

To write Japanese electronically, you type in the sound of a Chinese character using one of the phonetic alphabets. The computer provides a list of characters or character combinations matching that sound, and you select which one to use.

Experts say even that is a mixed blessing.

``Computers help people recognize characters″ in order to select the right one, said Kyoko Iwahashi, spokeswoman for the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation. ``But these people can also lose their ability to actually write them.″

Flaws notwithstanding, kanji has its defenders.

Biten Yasumoto, a professor of linguistic psychology at Tokyo’s Sanno University, said that once memorized, kanji give readers a more direct shot of meaning than words written with an alphabet.

This is partly because many characters are pictographs, devised to symbolically represent the word they stand for. The kanji for mountain looks like a mountain _ at least to the trained eye.

``Lots of people do complain about how complex kanji is,″ Yasumoto said. ``But we can understand the meaning of words easily at a glance, even if we can’t pronounce them.″

Others say the real reason Japan should stick with kanji has nothing to do with its pragmatic value. For them, the true worth of kanji is simply its beauty.

``I really like seeing crisp kanji written in a neat row,″ said Mari Shimizu, an office worker who practices calligraphy.

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