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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

BILINGUAL

Calligraphy still holds the key to mastering kanji


I recently encountered a new term that's a real mouthful: IT依存性漢字健忘症 (IT izonsei kanji kenbōshō, kanji amnesia due to dependence on information technology). The word acknowledges that the proliferation of word processors has weakened people's ability to recall both individual kanji characters and compound words.

This has been a hot topic lately, thanks to Prime Minister Taro Aso's occasional gaffes at misreading kanji during deliberations in the national Diet, which has resulted in Aso being singled out as a dysfunctional speaker of his own language.

This may not be entirely fair to Mr. Aso. In a recent survey in one of the vernacular newspapers, 85 percent of respondents conceded their ability to read and write kanji had declined.

Despite the fact that Japanese people, from their political leaders on down, are struggling with kanji, the Education Ministry announced in January that it will increase the number of 常用漢字 (jōyō kanji, kanji in common use) by 191 and drop five others, raising the overall total in use from 1,945 to 2,131.

Those 2,131, however, only concern people who will be tested on their knowledge. Book and magazine publishers take their own approach, making the actual number of characters in use impossible to verify. What's more, the whole notion of "in use" itself is completely arbitrary.

If your goal is to acquire a functioning knowledge of written Japanese, don't let yourself get bogged down by the numbers. The immediate goal in acquiring any language should always be to raise the platform of your ability to learn. And if you are serious about wanting to master kanji, I would strongly suggest you incorporate calligraphy into your study program.

Brush calligraphy, referred to in Japanese as 書道 (shodō) or お習字 (oshūji), is introduced as part of the 3rd grade curriculum at public schools.

Think back to the time before you ever learned a word of Japanese. You were probably already familiar with typefaces used to make the alphabet resemble Asian brush writing. These go by various names such as "Rickshaw" or "Chowfun" (which is Cantonese for "fried rice") and look "oriental" because they are made to appear thicker on one end, curving and then tapering to a point, as if written by a 筆 (fude ,writing brush) used for calligraphy.

But brush writing is not nearly as easy as the uninitiated might think. I still remember my very first calligraphy lesson, shortly before my 19th birthday. After demonstrating the basics of gripping the brush and applying it to paper, my teacher (who was from China) invited me to practice by writing out the two characters 三山, meaning "three mountains."

Since 三 (san, three) and 山 (san or yama, mountain) both consist of straight lines, and both are composed of just three strokes, writing them out appeared deceptively simple. I tried — and tried and tried — to write them symmetrically. What an exhausting chore that turned out to be!

That said, calligraphy has helped my studies immensely and I can think of at least four good reasons for taking it up as a means of mastering kanji:

1. By writing down characters in a slow and deliberate manner, you will be able to concentrate on composing each character on a physical level, which helps to transcend rote memorization.

2. The learning process is also aided because breaking down the characters into their respective components heightens your awareness of the ways they convey sound and meaning.

3. Good brushmanship is an essential component in your overall literacy. Over the long run, being able to write well will raise self confidence in your ability to communicate in Japanese. Those who see your writing will also intuitively understand that your grasp of their language has advanced to the point where they can exchange ideas with you, an essential step toward overall fluency.

4. By appreciating kanji not only as a writing system but as an art form in itself, you'll acquire an awareness of the huge stylistic variations in newspaper headlines, brand names and company logos, which make it a running feast for the eyes and for the mind.

A working knowledge of calligraphy, then, is the first step toward nurturing an appreciation for the aesthetic appeal of kanji, which will give you a never-ending stream of practical insights into the language and the culture.

In next week's installment, I'll get down to the nitty-gritty of kanji calligraphy.



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