Technological adjustment or the revival of conservatism: Japan’s national policy on Chinese characters

Author: Reijiro Aoyama (The Hong Kong Polytechnic University)
Speaker: Reijiro Aoyama
Topic: Language, dialect, sociolect, genre
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


Orthographic systems, carrying historical, political and cultural meanings, can generate continuing and emotional disputes between policymakers, linguists, educators and citizens. Japan’s writing system, which uses a combination of two phonetic scripts (hiragana and katakana) and one logographic script (Chinese characters, or Kanji), is no exception.

Since the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, formulating the national policy on Chinese characters and determining appropriate numbers of characters taught at school have been an area of ideological contention, intertwined with historical imagination, political intention and cultural pride of concerned individuals.

Historically in Japan, conservatives view Chinese characters as the integral core of the Japanese language, while liberals regard them as a possible hindrance in the pursuit of effective education. Western-trained linguists in the early Meiji period advocated various linguistic reforms, including abolition of Chinese characters, and proposed alternative writing systems such as adoption of either only Kana-based script or Roman alphabet. The main purpose of their efforts to find a new written medium was to improve the literacy of the nation’s general population, and eventually achieve a standard national written language for the national education system.

In 1961, in a dramatic show of discontent with the revised list of Chinese Characters for Interim Use (Toyo Kanji), which had reduced the number of Chinese characters required for official everyday use in 1946, conservatives walked out from the final general meeting of the National Language Council (Kokugo Shingikai). They accused liberal linguists of further trying to abolish Chinese characters from the Japanese writing system. During a related incident in 1981, ultranationalist far-right groups staged protests outside the Ministry of Education against the proposal discussed in the Council to exclude the Chinese character used as part of the then reigning emperor’s name from the list for Chinese Characters for General Use (Joyo Kanji).

However, the amendment of the list in 2010 did not cause such ideological or dramatic reactions among the experts and the public, even though, in the drafting process, the Council’s Small Committee questioned the necessity of producing the list at all.

This paper will review the debates on the use of Kanji in both the National Language Council and the mass media, and argue that the rapid advances in digital technology that took place between mid-1990s and 2010, and their impact on writing and reading, significantly influenced the direction of the discussion on Kanji in Japan, blurring ideological divides between experts and journalists.

Keywords: Japan, Chinese Characters, Toyo Kanji, National Language Council, Kokugo Shingikai