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Saturday, Feb. 25, 2006


That's no kanji, that's just a hairball

So, how's your kanji study coming along? What? You've been slacking off? Well, me too. And I have a good reason: hairballs. Any Westerner who has studied Japanese kanji has had hairballs: those things that result when you start to write a kanji, usually one you've written a thousand times before, but suddenly you stop and think -- which radical goes with this kanji? Was it "hito ben" or "ki hen"? Hito ben, you decide, and write it down. But then, no, no, you remember it was ki hen, and you write over the other with the new. But then, no, no, it turns out you were right the first time -- it was hito ben! Scribble, scribble. And you write in hito ben again. What's left is a large, undecipherable scribble that looks more like a hairball.

News photo
A typical "gaijin"-made kanji hairball

The obvious solution is to vacuum up the hairballs. But this is not so easy, because it would require studying and brushing up on that kanji. I am to the point now where I no longer even try to study. Why bother buying textbooks that will just sit unopened on the shelf?

My study days are over. I'm no longer plagued by endless slips of paper with new Japanese vocabulary written on them, or rings of word cards to be studied at some later date, nor the occasional vocabulary jotted on paper bags, the corner of the newspaper or on the palm of my hand. I just don't go there anymore. I am a tired and retired kanji student. I am no longer the militant language extremist I used to be. I have achieved language freedom and have even moved on to gain an understanding of other languages.

But the development of kanji hairballs is, nonetheless, fascinating. It's a wonder that hairballs exist, because in Japan, you are not allowed to fix a kanji once you've written it. No lengthening a stroke upon second thought, no shortening an errant stroke, nor careful erasing of a smudge or a radical. No, no, no! You must erase the entire defective kanji, with nuclear weapons if necessary, to eliminate even the subtlest sign of imbalance, hesitancy or ignorance of the written language. Unless you're a "gaijin," in which case you invariably try to fix it while no one is looking. This leads to hairballs.

And don't even think of offending the carefully thought-out stroke order! Kanji stroke order has been meticulously planned by panels of experts who have thoroughly researched the feng shui of stroke order and know the consequences of misstroked kanji: famine and disease. And besides, the kanji never quite looks the same in the wrong stroke order. It looks, well, fake. Remember, kanji writing is an art. If you were trying to fake a Monet painting, wouldn't you copy Monet's strokes rather than insisting on using your own?

It is also possible that the Japanese government is trying to protect the eraser industry. Erasers are a huge business in Japan, where any one person is bound to have a drawer full of brightly colored fruits, little brown bears and Mickey Mouse erasers. These erasers are used to wipe out flawed kanji and start over again. But it seems to me that the government has overlooked the huge eraser market for gaijin creating kanji hairballs. If the government encouraged more gaijin to learn kanji, we'd single-handedly make Japan the top eraser producer in the world. When considering all of the possibilities of writing the wrong kanji with the right radical, and the right radical with the left kanji, we gaijin surely invent more kanji than could ever exist. That's a lot of hairballs. And a lot of erasing.

Planet Japan: www.planetjapan.org

Animal Tales: amychavez.blogspot.com

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