A crisis for the Japanese character

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 December, 2006, 12:00am

The ability to read and write, nurtured by a basic education, was once a passport to employment. With advances in education, secondary school graduates were able to take the cream of the jobs - until they in turn were displaced by university graduates. Literacy remains the foundation of education. The word still conveys a strong metaphor for success and security.

When modern technology took over the workplace it took over the word as well. With reading and writing taken for granted, 'computer literacy' became the buzz words of education and employment. Schools soon found themselves under pressure from parents and employers to provide training in computer skills. Now it seems every household that can afford one has a computer. Two-year-old census figures show that nearly 4 million Hongkongers, or more than 60 per cent of the population aged 10 and above, have at least basic computer literacy.

All kinds of knowledge can be found, in words and pictures, on the internet, using basic computer skills. The information superhighway has itself become an aid to literacy.

It comes as a surprise therefore to read our report from Japan today that the increasing use of computers at work and home is being partly blamed for the decline of traditional literacy. About 90 per cent of 400 people aged 35 to 40 who took part in a study of adult knowledge of the 1,945 kanji characters still taught today in Japanese schools could not remember the correct number and positioning of strokes. Experts say that if people do not use kanji regularly, many forget how to write it. Moreover, a professor of multiculturalism said Japanese children were no longer forced to learn 10 kanji characters every day and never wrote letters or essays by hand. As a result, some cultural experts believe Japan may in future scrap the use of Chinese pictograms in favour of the 46 simplified hiragana characters.

Recent research by the department of linguistics at the University of Hong Kong may point the way forward for Japanese concerned with preserving their culture. It found that writing skills were more important than listening skills in determining a child's ability to read Chinese. Previously it was believed that phonetics was the most important factor across all writing systems. The new finding was based on a neuro-imaging study that showed that reading Chinese produces activity in part of the brain close to the section that controls motor skills, whereas alphabetic languages such as English use a part close to the section associated with processing sound.

If borne out, the findings could have implications for the way Chinese is taught in schools. And as part of a move to have nationalism taught in Japanese schools, they may strengthen the case for a return to the basics of reading and writing kanji characters.