Saturday 22 July 2017

The "Japanese is Difficult" Reality: How to Read and Type Kanji

The image of spoken Japanese as difficult is certainly without foundation, as discussed in an earlier post (incidentally the most read post to date!). On the other hand, the image of written Japanese as difficult is spot on and partially justifies the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) ranking of Japanese as "exceptionally difficult for native English speakers." Take a typical newspaper (picture left) for example: a regular article will contain a combination of kanji (ideographs adapted from Chinese characters) and characters from the two phonetic alphabets known as hiragana and katakana (the latter used mainly for foreign loan words). How many kanji are required to read a newspaper? Generally, just over 2,000 will be enough, namely the 2,136 jōyō (=daily use) kanji (常用漢字) specified by the Ministry of Education. The good thing about reading kanji, though, is that you don't necessarily have to remember the pronunciation: because the characters and combinations of characters are pictographs it's possible to get the gist of an article without perfect memorisation. And if there is a kanji you really don't know - or a kanji whose reading you would like to check - any electronic dictionary (denshi jisho =電子辞書) worth its salt will have a touch panel allowing you to directly write the mystery kanji onto the screen. Failing that, the Google Translate ap will quickly de-mystify any image you point your smartphone camera at!

Kana keyboard on an iPhone
Writing, though, is a completely different matter. Avoiding kanji and relying on the syllabries will make you look like an elementary school kid (not to mention that it'll be horrible to read - there are no spaces between "words" in Japanese). Luckily, no-one seems to write on paper anymore so you can cheat when writing e-mails and text messages. Whether computer or smartphone you can choose between entering text using a kana keyboard (iPhone keyboard pictured right) or qwerty keyboard. Then, as you write you can use the henkan kohō (変換候補) button - typically the space bar on a computer - to select the kanji "candidate" (kohō) you want. This may sound rather cumbersome but a teenager can type incredibly fast on a smartphone (see video below) using a kana keyboard - by far the most popular input method - helped also by self-correction (jidō shūsei) and predictive text (yosoku henkan =予測変換). The kana keyboard using the "flick" (フリック) input method is the secret here: while it is possible to repeatedly tap one kana to get the character you want (e.g. tapping あ quickly three times will get you う), most Japanese use the "flick" method. For example, to get う with this input method you place your finger on the あ button, thereby bringing up  the あいうえお crosspad (pictured right) and then swipe or "flick" up to enter う. This system is being constantly refined: see KDDI's new Fleksy for example (video here).

But if the struggle to conquer written Japanese seems too difficult, don't despair. Despite studying kanji for 12 years (assuming they went to high school) any Japanese venturing outside Japan will inevitably be struck by a terrible affliction called kanji dementia, where they are gradually able to recall less and less kanji. Symptoms include desperately drawing kanji with their forefinger on their palm or in the air, refusing to be separated from their smartphone, and avoiding other Japanese. Luckily, we Japanese language learners are immune!