Computers and Japanese Literacy

Nihonzin no Yomikaki Nôryoku to Konpyûta

by J. Marshall Unger

Watakusi wa saikin, gendai no konpyûta siyô to Nihongo ni tuite kenkyu site orimasu. Gengogakusya mo konpyûta no nôryoku ya mondaiten ni tuite iken o happyo suru sekinin ga aru to omou kara desu....

Webmaster's note: This essay was originally published in both Japanese (written in romanization) and English. For the Japanese and English parallel version, see the PDF file of the original issue.

I am currently engaged in research on contemporary computer usage and the Japanese language. Linguists too, I believe, have a responsibility to present their views on the potentials and problems of computers.

Let me begin by quoting the former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, John Gardner. I am thinking of his phrase "unloving criticism and uncritical love." By this, he meant that it was wrong for proponents of American patriotism to oppose even the slightest criticism of the United States: although it is bad to dwell unsympathetically on finding fault with social and cultural shortcomings, it is equally bad for the future of society to advance nationalism and eschew all criticism. I think that this is also true when considering foreign societies and cultures. Linguists and historians would do well to avoid the twin extremes of "unloving criticism and uncritical love." As someone professionally involved with the language and culture of Japan, I have an affection for the country, but for that very reason, I wish to call into question the accepted theory of Japanese script and literacy. As we enter the age of the so-called informational society, and as more and more ordinary people begin to use computers on an individual basis, demands on network communications, educational software, creative programming, and so on, will steadily increase. Unless we understand the present situation and history of literacy, which underlies all these applications, we cannot hope to develop a rational basis for computer usage.

The term "ideographic characters" appears so often in books on the Japanese language that one might say it has become a stock phrase of Japanese linguistics. I wonder, however, whether such things as "ideographs" actually exist. When examined objectively, all languages are fundamentally speech. Characters are not the source of the meanings of words, although they do have their social and historical aspects. For example, blind people who cannot read a single character can nonetheless speak their native tongues perfectly, unless they suffer from some other handicap. The very idea of characters totally divorced from speech is therefore meaningless. For the meaning of language emerges from the structure of language, of which writing is merely a reflection. It is particularly important that we not forget this when we consider the computers of the future.

Today, however, virtually all the personal computers sold in Japan are supposed to provide so-called Japanese information processing capabilities. But it would be more accurate to say that they provide Japanese script manipulating capabilities: moreover, Japanese software development is not keeping up with hardware development, and is still being carried out in programming languages (such as BASIC and FORTRAN) based on English. In other words, the idea that "you can't write Japanese without Chinese characters" is widespread even though Japan lags behind in software development. Although this kind of thinking can be found in books, such as Suzuki 1975 and Kaiho 1983, by faculty at big-name universities, it flies in the face of the common sense of linguistic science, and is contradicted by both experimental and clinical results in psycholinguistics (Paradis et al. 1985).

To put it as briefly as possible, when one is dealing with the Japanese language on computers, all that matters is that word-meanings can be understood; either kana alone or Latin letters alone are sufficient. Of course, in applications such as preparing name lists and typesetting, in which Chinese characters serve as data in their own right, there is no option but to input Chinese characters: however, for most daily tasks there is no such necessity. Therefore, the idea that "you can't write Japanese without Chinese characters" is not only a misconception; it is unquestionably one of the main reasons for Japan's software problems. This has already been pointed out by prominent Japanese such as Umesao Tadao (1972) and Yamada Hisao (1984), but it seems that few Japanese in the worlds of politics and culture have taken their advice to heart.

From my point of view it is quite incredible that so many Japanese agree with Suzuki and Kaiho when the arguments of Umesao and Yamada are so obviously correct. Surely, if we could understand the reason for this, we could greatly advance Japanese sociolinguistics. I have been doing research on this problem this year as a Japan Foundation fellow, and what follows are the conclusions I have reached so far.

First of all, I think we need to pay attention to the fact that Japanese attitudes towards languages underwent a considerable change following World War II. For example, there seem to be many people who hold the belief that "no foreigner can ever master Japanese," but if we look at the educational policies in Taiwan and Korea during Japan's imperialist phase, it seems that even the ultranationalists, so far from thinking that foreigners could not master Japanese, thought it reasonable to force Japanese on non-Japanese. Script reform provides another example. Not many people are calling for more script reform today, but it is a fact that the Romanization Society, the Society for Kana Writing, the Ministry of Education's Provisional. National Language Survey Committee, and its successor, the National Language Investigation Committee were active from the Meizi Period right on to the end of the Pacific War, despite a far more conservative political atmosphere than exists today. Indeed, had it not been for this period of 70 years of preparation, it is unlikely that the so-called tôyô kanzi and gendai kanazukai reforms could have been implemented so quickly in response to Occupation pressures.

It was later, from around 1945, that the ethnocentric tendency in Japanese language attitudes gradually grew stronger. To the extent that the attitude among today's computer users that "you can't write Japanese without Chinese characters" is part of this trend, it is something which belongs to those who know nothing of the war, not just those who lived through it; therefore, one cannot explain it be saying that it came from a single event, such as the surrender, which traumatized society.

What was it, then, that made 1945 a turning point? I would suggest that it was the abolition of the prewar higher schools effected by the implementation of a new educational system. After the war, students, regardless of sex, were treated equally, and almost anyone could go on to high school or university as long as he or she had the talent. This was a truly revolutionary change when compared with the prewar situation. Moreover, it took place simultaneously with script reform, and so had an enormous influence on Japanese literacy. It is generally believed that there is not much differences between Japanese literacy before and after the war, but when one looks at the whole Japanese nation today, the "language life" of the average Japanese has not necessarily gotten any easier despite the reduction in the number of Chinese characters in use and limitations on character readings. This is because, before the war, it was generally believed that most people didn't have to be able to read or write Chinese characters at a very high level. The average person couldn't read newspapers or magazines unless they had hurigana (sidenotes in kana giving the readings of characters), and no one expected them to be able to write in the style approved of by the country's political and economic leaders. It was unusual for a girl to go on to secondary school, if she graduated from primary school at all; for that reason alone, the average level of Literacy had to be low relative to the postwar period. And the number of boys going beyond junior high school couldn't have been more than 20%. (The justification for this estimate will be given later.)

How has literacy changed from the prewar period to the present day? Currently, 95% of the school-age population enters high school. There are perhaps differences in the quality of high schools, but the Ministry of Education seems to expect that all children will learn the 1,945 zyôyô kanzi before entering high school. There may be many students who do not actually learn how to use all these characters freely, but this is the government's policy, and so can be taken as a standard. Now what percentage of the population attained this standard before the war? Even the most optimistic estimate would not exceed 20%. In other words, a full 80% of prewar youth did not bear the burden of learning Chinese characters now borne by today's students. If even that relative number of students who cannot learn difficult characters, before and after the war, is the same, there must have been a rapid increase in the absolute number. To put it the other way around, one could get by in the prewar period without being able to write educated Japanese or read serious books, but after the war, it became "common sense" among parents and teachers that inability to do these things was a matter of shame.

Since there are virtually no statistics on Japanese literacy before the war, one must investigate the situation indirectly. On the Japanese side, the evidence consists of the hurigana usage found in newspapers and magazines, sales figures of books, military conscription test results, and the remarks of prominent individuals (such as Nitobe Inazô [1931]). One exception is Scharschmidt 1924. This article is short on data, but it does state that although elementary school graduates were supposed to be able to write 1,360 characters and read 2,380, young conscripts could only write about 500 or 600 and read 1,000. Scharschmidt's research methods are unclear, and I do not know how reliable these figures are, but when research by others is taken into account (e.g. Taira 1971, Twine 1983), it appears that the figures which Scharschmidt reports must be close to the actual conditions of the time.  

As for postwar materials, we have the Literacy Survey of 1948. When its results were published in 1951, they were not as bad as had been predicted by some proponents of script reform, and even today there seem to be many who believe that it showed that the level of prewar literacy was actually high, If you read the survey itself, however, you will see that the conclusion is diametrically the opposite. For example:

Complete illiteracy among Japanese is extremely low, but the number of people who possess full literacy is also extremely low, only 6.2%. (p. 426.)

Questions requiring the writing of kanzi from dictation produced the poorest results, and in all groups tested produced significantly lower scores when compared with other problems. It can be said that the burden of written language for the Japanese depends largely on this skill (p. 426.)

The hypothesis, advanced by those who have studied problems of the national language and script, that "the literacy of today's Japanese is inadequate for conducting a full social life", was confirmed.... In particular, the ability to write kanzi from dictation was remarkably low, and clearly inadequate for a full social life. (p . 425.)

There is, of course, much more, detailed data regarding current Japanese literacy; however, according to DeFrancis 1984 and Neustupný 1984, there hasn't been that much change from the situation recorded by Scharschmidt. Graduates of modern junior high schools, as in the prewar period, can freely use only about 500 characters. Even if we assume that, over the past 60 years, the level of accomplishment attained by the best students has risen, we are talking about only a small part of the whole population. Shouldn't we focus, rather, on the everyday literacy of students selected "at random"?

One might say that, due to the script reform of the postwar era, the "language life" of the average person became richer, but the script reform did not go far enough to alter the fundamental difficulties of the mixed kana/kanzi writing system. Consequently, as the proportion of people who received postprimary education increased, the number of those who experienced problems with kanzi actually grew larger. Indeed, this seems to be the case not only in Japanese language classes, but in other subjects as well. For example, there was a peak in the suicide rate of 15- to 24-yearolds between 1955 and 1958. From 1959 until 1970, there was a decline; therefore, as pointed out by Rohlen (1983), one cannot explain the juvenile suicide rate by saying it reflects increasing entrance examination pressure.

Why, then, the peak between 1955 and 1958? I think it is because it corresponds to the time when children born during the war were graduating from high school. As graduation approached, those children had to decide whether to try for college or seek employment. Their parents and teachers had not had sufficient experience with the new educational system, and so the students had no one to talk about the kind of jobs or schools they could expect to get into. Later on, the absolute number of high school students who couldn't keep up with the class increased; nevertheless, the juvenile suicide rate fell off because they didn't feel as much uncertainty as existed during this initial experience.

Perhaps it was just coincidence, but it was at just this time that Kindaiti 1957 and Oono 1957 became best-sellers, and the newspapers were talking about a "Nihongo boom." The National Language Investigative Committee announced rules for okurigana usage in 1353, but by the following year, the Minister of Education, under pressure from the Liberal Democratic Party, had packed the committee (see Ookubo 1971) . It was from this period that the signs of linguistic ethnocentricism become clearly visible.

The cause of this, to summarize, was the establishment of the new educational system. The link between social policy and individual attitudes is to be found in the Japanese writing system itself. In a word, the problem is kanzi. The tôyô kanzi reforms were not bad in themselves, nor was the liberalization of education; but the combined effects of these two changes seems to have produced an unintended result. To make an analogy, it is like an illness which gets worse because one mixes two medicines which, taken individually, would effect a cure. There is absolutely no need for an elaborate psychological theory.

To put it another way, the question of why Japanese believe that Japanese cannot be written without kanzi can be given a sociolinguistic interpretation. The explanation of this way of thinking is rational, but the way of thinking itself is devoid of any scientific basis. To give an example, consider the case of Japanese who use word processors daily. There is no efficient keyboard standard. kana- or rômazi-to-kanzi conversion input is easy to learn, but cannot compete with English touch typing in speed or cost; moreover, as the number of loanwords from Western languages increases, the efficiency of such input systems declines. Furthermore, conversion input is inappropriate for real-time communications. Some people think that facsimile equipment can be used in these cases, but it is hard to believe that businessmen who avoid writing letters and are constantly on the telephone will happily switch to handwritten input systems. Word processors have their points of convenience, but they also encourage the overuse of kanzi, errors in okurigana usage, and, so far from raising productivity, often increase labor time and stress. As if this weren't bad enough, people who rely on word processors notice that they forget kanzi when they try to write with pencil and paper. Therefore, unless Japanese restrict kanzi input to those situations which require kanzi output, and integrate computers with the earlier handwriting technology, they will unwittingly lose the very kanzi culture they seek to preserve.

In short, I believe that Japanese will in the future have to add rômazi to kana and kanzi in their writing system. Japanese data and programs written in rômazi are after all just as much Japanese as those written in conventional script.  In order to move into the new world of computers at the same pace as the English-speaking world, all that is necessary is giving up kanzi.


DeFrancis, John. 1984. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Kaiho Hiroyuki, ed. 1983. Kanzi o kagaku suru. Tôkyô: Yûikaku.

Kindaiti Haruhiko. 1957. Nihongo. Tôkyô: Iwanami.

Neustupný, J. V. 1984. "Literacy and Minorities: Divergent Perceptions." In Linguistic Minorities and Literacy, edited by Florian Coulmas, 115-129. Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton.

Nitobe Inazô. 1931. Japan: Some Phases of Her Problems and Development. London: E. Benn.

Ookubo Tadatosi. 1971. Itioku-nin no kokugo kokuzi mondai. Tôkyô: Sanseidô.

Oono Susumu. 1957. Nihongo no kigen. Tôkyô: Iwanami.

Paradis, Michel, Hagiwara Hiroko, and Nancy Hildebrandt. 1985. Neurolinguistic Aspects of the Japanese Writing System. Orlando: Academic Press.

Rohlen. Thomas P. 1983. Japan's High Schools. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Scharschmidt, Clemens. 1924. "Schriftreform in Japan. Ein Kulturproblern." Mitteilungen des Seminars für Orientalischen Sprachen (Universität Berlin) 26-27:1.163-212.

Suzuki Takao. 1975. Tozasareta gengo: Nihongo no sekai. Tôkyô: Sintyôsya.

Taira, Koji. 1971. "Education and Literacy in Meiji Japan: An interpretation." Explorations Economic History 8:4 (Summer) 371-394.

Twine, Nanette. 1983. "Toward Simplicity: Script Reform Movements in the Meiji Period." Monumenta Nipponica 38:2 (Summer) 115-132.

Umesao Tadao. 1972. "Gendai Nihon mozi no mondai ten." In Nihon bunka to sekai, edited by Umesao Tadao and Tada Mititarô. 196-206. Tôkyô: Kôdansya.

Yamada Hisao. 1984. "Wâpuro to Nihongo no genzyô to syôrai." Nihongogaku 3:7 (July) 4-17.

Yomikaki Nôryoku Tyôsa Iinkai. 1951. Nihonzin no yomikaki nôryoku. Tôkyô: Tôkyô Daigaku shuppan-bu.

This essay was originally published in January 1988 as issue no. 6 of Sino-Platonic Papers and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial NoDerivs 2.5 License.

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This HTML document was prepared from a scan of the English portion of the printed original and therefore may contain some errors. If spellings or references are in doubt or if you wish to view the Japanese version of this, please consult the PDF file of the original issue.