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    New Japanese literacy survey

    When the OECD education survey was published, indicating lower rankings for Japan than it’s accustomed to, it became clear that the Ministry of Education and Culture was worried.

    We’re now getting an indication how worried: the first national language survey in a half-century may be conducted as early as next year. The OECD isn’t the only factor, though:

    The move is being spurred by rising concern over the linguistic ability of the nation’s youth-or rather, the lack thereof. The initial alarm went off last fall when the government extended its list of kanji characters approved for use in names.

    It became apparent that the younger generation were choosing kanji characters for names more by the way they sounded or the number of strokes (for luck), rather than their meanings.

    I believe that this is a gingerly way of saying that people are trying to give their children names that use kanji that aren’t what you’d normally call auspicious:

    Parents like to make minute adjustments, adding a stroke here and there, by choosing a similar-looking character with an extra radical added to the left hand-unconsciously changing the meaning of the whole character.

    For example, the pretty character for “love” can turn into “dimwit” if an innocent-in-itself radical denoting a person is added to the left. So you get “dimwit” rather than the hoped-for meaning of “people loving.”

    There was a highly-publicized case when I first came to Japan of a couple who wanted to name their son 悪魔 (Akuma: “devil”), kind of like the baby named Satan Speaks in David Sedaris’s hilariously satirical family Christmas letter from the fictional Dunbars. (It’s in this book, which also includes a fantastic short story constructed as review of local children’s Christmas pageants by an embittered old theater critic.) The couple lost their case.

    Literacy problems are not just affecting the naming of newborns. People who arrived in this world long ago suffer, too. Everyone in Japan knows a 聡 (Satoru: “clever [boy]”) who’s sick of being inadvertently addressed in writing as 恥 (Hajiru (?): “shameful [boy]”).

    But, then, it’s understandable why the naming system here gives people a headache. Some names usually come in just one permutation…say, 瑠璃子 (Ruriko: “lapis lazuli” + “child,” which I’ve always thought was lovely). But the very common names are often not so restricted. Japan has scads of women named Yumiko, for instance, but the different kanji create different strings of meaning. The most basic is 弓子 (“bow [as in ‘bow and arrow’] + “child”), which has a nice warrior-culture fierceness to it. You can make it more conventionally girlie by using 有美子 (“has” + “beauty” + “child”) or 優美子 (“outstanding” + “beauty” + “child”) or 由実子 (“source” + “fruit” + “child”). As one of the Asahi articles mentions, people often choose characters or pronunciations based on the advice of their priest.

    BTW, the custom of gay guys’ calling each other by the closest equivalent gals’ name in sarcasm or bemused affection is just as strong here as at home. The other night, someone asked whether we’d see our friend Akihiro that night this way: “Is Akiko coming?” It’s not that Aki (which is what we usually call him) is femme; neither is the friend who asked, for that matter. He was just kind of being mischievous. I didn’t even notice until just now when I was thinking back for an example to use. I’m very used to it, but, oddly, it’s not the sort of thing I usually do in English. Then, too, it’s not always effective: When I’ve written with annoyance about Andrew Sullivan, the main reason I’ve never referred to him as Andrea is that there’s no point–Andrea means “man” in Italian and is originally a guys’ name.

    In any case, it’ll be interesting to see what the new survey turns up when it’s actually conducted.

    Added in yet another fit of free association: Something interesting with 愛 (ai: “love”) and 僾 (honoka, I think, though it doesn’t come up as a possibility when you input those kana: “dim, hazy”) is that the same problem happens in reverse with one of the kanji that are used for names. I mentioned it above as one of the things that come up on the Yumiko slot machine: 優 (yu, in this case: “outstanding”). If you take away the person radical on the left, it becomes 憂 (yu: “apprehensiveness, depressiveness”). Kind of like naming your daughter Dolores, I guess. Actually, since 僾 and 優 look kind of similar, I wonder whether some parents are…not necessarily mixing them up, but looking at the first with the feeling they get from the second.

    Added on 16 January: Okay, as Amritas points out, Andrea isn’t the common noun that means “man” in Italian. I mean, I don’t think it is. It’s just the same male stem as in androgen or androgyny, so it probably means something more like “manful.” If anything, that bolsters my original point. :)

    4 Responses to “New Japanese literacy survey”

    1. Sean Kinsell says:

      I don’t know the solution; I do know that word processors are a menace. Pushing the space bar is way too easy, especially when there’s a dictionary function to tell you which of the 50 compounds that use the kana you entered is the one that means what you want.
      I don’t know whether people here with unusual names gravitate toward foreign companies; I do know that you’re right that the list of compounds that comes up when you input a given pronunciation only has the one you’re looking for about half the time. Trust but verify, huh?

    2. John says:

      I usually reply to emails from Japan in Japanese, even if they originally wrote in English – it helps my Japanese and it really breaks the ice with someone who doesn’t know me. I give thanks every time I do that for the Japanese company website personnel directory in which you can seach by romanji, katakana and kanji. The kanji name that comes up when I type romanji into my Japanese word processor is almost never correct – I wonder if oddly named Japanese tend to gravitate towards foreign companies? 😉
      It’s not just the youth forgetting or not knowing kanji. As Wapuro and PCs begin to penetrate the workforce, more and mroe older Japanese are beginning to forget how to write kanji, although the passive memory is there for them to recognize the characters. Despite the inordinate amount of time I’ve spent on memorizing the dang things in both Japanese and Chinese, I vote to scrap them altogether and just go to zhuyin with diacritics and with hiragana in Chinese and Japanese, respectively. The hanzi / kanji writing system was orginally designed to prevent literacy, as opposed to the designing principle of the alphabet.

    3. John says:

      I was only half joking about the names. I think that an unusual name is one possible indicator that the family in question is not totally in tune to the herd, ergo the kid might be a little bit different and tend to hunt for a place to be free (i.e. a gaijin work environment).
      I did notice an inordinate amout of Kansi natives and (Japanese) Christians at my company in Tokyo, and I think the same social dynamic is at work there.

    4. Sean Kinsell says:

      Yeah, could be. Idle question: I wonder whether there are any surnames associated especially with buraku-min The occasional television special seems to identify them with the same common names as everyone else.