Writing skills lapse by strokes in Japan Heavy use of computers rapidly diminishes ability of younger generation


TOKYO -- The standard way to begin a letter in Japanese is "haikei," an honorific that can be literally translated as "your enlightened worship."

So it was a problem when a young businessman miswrote a few strokes as he penned the characters, inadvertently beginning his letter with "you enlightened piece of waste."

That kind of writing mistake seems to be becoming more common in Japan, and in some other parts of East Asia where Chinese characters are used for writing. One of the culprits is computers: People get used to tapping a couple of keys and having the computer write the character, so they forget how to do it themselves.

"I can read characters for grape or soy sauce, but I can't write them," said Yuri Abe, 28, a manager at Kirin Beer Co., who writes every day by hand and is studying for national exams on characters. "I also have problems with names of people or names of fish or birds."

It may seem odd that Japanese have difficulty writing "soy sauce," a character that most people see just about every day. But while soy sauce in Japanese is simple enough to pronounce ("shoyu"), it takes 25 strokes to write.

"The only time I write by hand is when I write envelopes and when I have to fill out forms," said Tsunao Ogino, 43, a linguistics professor who admits he is forgetting his characters. "When it occurs to me that we need spinach and soy sauce, I write an electronic message to my wife, even if she is in the next room."

When the Cultural Agency in Japan researched the effect of word processors, they discovered that nearly 40 percent of respondents said they had become more forgetful in writing characters.

Forgetting a few dots, or even one, can have huge repercussions.

For Satoko Katano, 27, a public relations employee at Sanyo Electric Co., the lapse in handwriting sometimes makes her frown. Her name actually means "wise child Katano." But on the pages of a sloppy writer, her first name sometimes turns into "haji" and takes on a new meaning: "shameful child Katano."

"It happens when they write by hand, mostly when I receive letters or New Year's cards from younger people," Katano said.

Katano says she doesn't see so many mistakes on New Year's cards from her adult colleagues, but one reason for that is that these days people are so lazy that even the New Year's cards are printed up. Even so, there is likely to be the odd mistake, so that when the wrong character is used, the traditional "year-end party" becomes the "losing-all-senses party."

Japanese children start out by memorizing 80 Chinese characters (kanji) by second grade, going all the way to 2,000 characters to allow them to read a newspaper in high school. Still, only 16.3 percent of test takers pass a national kanji exam that requires about 2,000 characters.

These days, more children are choosing computers over calligraphy, and sometimes even grade school teachers have lost their talent for teaching the traditional strokes.

"At school, teachers themselves can't write well anymore," said Yuichiro Oshiro, 25, a calligraphy instructor who teaches children how to write kanji. "So they can't teach how to write properly anymore."

Japanese also use a couple of alphabets based on pronunciation. So if a Japanese doesn't remember just how to write a character, it is possible -- though declasse -- to write it in hiragana, an alphabet based on pronunciation.

Kirin Beer Co. began encouraging its employees to take kanji tests after a manager became fed up with the mistakes in company memos. "Some employees could not even write the easiest kanji, and used hiragana in documents for business, which is shameful -- it would be shameful to disclose such documents to the public," said spokesman Kohsei Tabata.

China uses far more characters than Japan -- most educated Chinese adults can read about 5,000 characters -- but in China many people can still write fairly well because computers are less prevalent.

Pub Date: 12/20/96

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