JIN-307 -- Toward a List of Kanji for the Information Age

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Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News
Issue No. 307
Saturday February 5, 2005 TOKYO

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@@ VIEWPOINT: Toward a List of Kanji for the Information Age

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@@ VIEWPOINT: Toward a List of Kanji for the Information Age

Lu Xun (1881-1936), the great 20th-century Chinese storywriter,
reportedly said, "If Chinese characters do not fade away,
China will perish!" The characters have not disappeared; yet
China's economic growth has been one of the biggest news stories
of recent years.

But the characters have been simplified. Simplification began
in 1950, the year following the foundation of the People's
Republic, and a final list of simplified characters was published
six years later.

Japan, likewise, reformed kanji, as Chinese characters in their
writing system are called, following the Second World War. In
1946 a list of 1,850 simplified characters was published and
these were adopted by the government and for school textbooks.
This list was replaced by the "joyo kanji" (kanji designated for
everyday use) list, in 1981.

The new list added 95 characters convenient for writing words
that had come into vogue since the war. More controversially,
it liberalized the use of kanji by serving as a guide rather
than prescriptive list. Some people feared its less prescriptive
nature would lead to a surge in the number of kanji
in use. Their fears proved groundless. However, from the
mid-1980s the number of kanji in use did increase. The reason
was new technology.

Until the late 1970s the limitations of the Japanese typewriter,
encumbered by a font of more than 2,000 characters, tended to
restrict the number of kanji in use. The Japanese word processor,
which appeared in the late 1970s, fomented a revolution in the
writing system by giving the user access to thousands of more kanji
at the touch of a button.

Technology continues to up the number of kanji in use. Earlier this
week the Japanese Language Subcommittee submitted to the Culture
Deliberative Council a report calling for review of the joyo kanji
in an attempt to bring the list in line with the information age.
Against the background of a rapid increase in the number of kanji
in daily use on account of the dissemination of personal computers,
the subcommittee called for the planning of a kanji policy. The
subcommittee is expected to begin deliberations in the new fiscal
year. Whether the subcommittee will recommend expansion of the list,
or the building of a new framework, kanji policy has reached a

The joyo kanji, formulated in 1981 as a guide for use of kanji in
daily life, number 1,945 characters. A list intended for printer's
type, the joyo kanji list gives character styles and pronunciations
in both the Japanese and Chinese ways. Laws and public documents use
only kanji in the list. Schools use the joyo kanji as a guide for
teaching the characters. Newspapers and other periodicals as a rule
limit kanji to the joyo.

However, personal computers, cell phones, and other IT devices may
be encoded with as many as 6,355 characters, the total of the first
and second levels of the Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS). Simple
arithmetic shows the Japanese are using a lot of non-joyo kanji.

What's more, the use of Japanese and Chinese readings and character
styles not in the joyo kanji list is increasing. For example, the
old forms of the kanji for "kuni" (country) and "sawa" (valley)
have come to be widely used in personal names. As well, many kanji
used in place and personal names are not in the joyo kanji list. The
reason, according to a Cultural Affairs Agency spokesperson, is that
"proper names were expected to be handwritten." The joyo kanji
list was intended as a guideline for printed characters. Even
"saka" in Osaka and "oka" in Okayama are not joyo kanji.

The Japanese Language Subcommittee's report notes "it is necessary to
deliberate whether joyo kanji are functioning as a guideline for
kanji." The report also notes that handwriting of kanji, which
is in precipitous decline, "is a part of Japanese culture that should
absolutely not be discarded."

Finally, the report cites the necessity of the creation of a
comprehensive kanji policy embracing joyo kanji, under the auspices
of the Cultural Affairs Agency, the JIS kanji (Ministry of Economy,
Trade and Industry), and the kanji designated for personal names
(Justice Ministry).

Chinese characters, Lu Xun believed, would be the death of China.
What would he think if he knew Japan was about to officially
expand its use of the characters to keep up with the times?

-- Burritt Sabin

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Written and edited by Burritt Sabin (editors2@japaninc.com)


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