The hiragana fad continues

First it was みずほ銀行 (Mizuho Bank), then it was さいたま市 (Saitama City). Now the word is that two of the new companies coming out of the postal privatization will be ゆうちょ銀行 (Yucho Bank) and かんぽ生命保険 (Kampo Life Insurance).

What is it with hiragana names these days? Have I studied kanji for so long, only to have the language be dumbed down before my eyes?

18 thoughts on “The hiragana fad continues”

  1. For what its worth, I remeber hearing from my teach when I studied Japanese in college that despite the Ministry of educations offical standards of knowing something like 2000 kanji, actualy recognition is about 500-1000. He expected the country start converting to hiragana soon for most daliy commnication (which would include commercial ads and such). Perhaps its just start of the trend.

  2. Dram_man: I need to tell you that is utterly false. A typical Japanese adult can actually read quite a bit more than 2000 characters, although they are not necessarily able to recognize very obscure and archaic readings of the characters (particularly in proper names of people or places), which is why even books for adults tend to put furigana readings on such difficult words.

    Now, the question of how many kanji a typical Japanese adult can actually write by hand from memory without cheating is a different story. I would love to see some statistics on that. But since actual written communication these days is comparitively rare, and PC or cell phone based text input systems only require the ability to recognize kanji to input them, it is very easy to get by using a word processor as much as possible and checking the shape of a kanji on your electronic dictionary/cell phone on the rare occasions you have to write something by hand. I almost NEVER write Japanese by hand myself, and can easily recognize/read several times as many kanji as I can actually draw if put on the spot.

  3. A more accurate description would be that an average Japanese adult “knows” more than 2,000 characters, in the sense that they would know the meaning if they saw it on paper, but only thoroughly “knows” 1,000 or maybe fewer, in the sense that they would know all the readings and be able to write the character off the top of their head.

    Still, reading kanji is not a big deal. Compulsory education (first through ninth grade) leaves people perfectly literate in the basic 2,000 characters. Where you do see hiragana increasingly used is in written notes, because people are forgetting how to handwrite the characters. I guess it’s kind of like how spell check functions are dumbing down some English-speaking adults’ ability to spell.

  4. And anyone who thinks Japanese will lose kanji anytime soon doesn’t understand why Japan has kept its kanji for so long: the language has borrowed so much vocabulary from Chinese that removing the kanji would make documents a million times harder to read.

  5. I think most people know most of the readings that actually matter. Even some very common characters have very unusual readings that are effectively worthless in ordinary life. How many readers of this blog know, for example, how you pronounce 戦ぐ ? (No cheating please!)

    To give you an idea of this reading’s rarity, the word 戦ぐ written with kanji + okurigana gets only 744 hits on Google.

  6. To rebut your proposition, Mutantfrog, I was asking several of my co-workers (lawyers) about the meaning of 調合, and they were divided on whether it was supposed to be “chougou” or “chouai.” These guys were Waseda and Keio graduates, mind you. (It’s the former, and only the managing partner could tell me what the word meant in a commercial context.)

    Even knowing the readings for each character isn’t enough; you also have to know how they work together.

  7. 戦ぐ←I am Japanese who was not able to read this!

    Actually, a young person tends to dislike reading and writing of the Kanji compared with an aged person. However, when the character of Japan is seen as a figure, we feel a soft impression in Hiragana.

  8. The case of Yucho and Kampo is more than just an example of the hiragana boom. There’s a hint of a subliminal message involved as well.

    See, part of why they chose those names is because they wanted to keep the recognizable brands of postal savings/life insurance while at the same time losing the intrinsic limits of the brand names’ kanji meanings. The idea is to sell these companies (literally – they are planning an IPO in 2011) as real private entities with a future beyond the current (declining) functions of postal financial services.

    Yucho = *postal* savings; Kampo = Kan’i hoken = “simple insurance.” Both those meanings imply that they are supposed to serve a supplementary function in the market rather than act as real private companies that aggressively compete with the private sector. For example, presently Yucho deposits and Kampo coverage are limited to 10 million yen per person.

    So the thinking is, keep the names (which have been around forever), lose the government restrictions (and guarantees) along with the public’s perception of them as soon as possible, and compete in the marketplace. They might succeed in subtly changing the public’s perception, but whether this former government agency can somehow transform itself into a viable company in a manner that is consistent with principles of fair competition is another issue entirely.

  9. MF: It basically means going through a middleman. If I remember correctly you’d use it like this: A社を調合してB社に販売する, meaning you’re selling to Company B using Company A as a distributor or agent or whatever. This makes no sense if you’re going by the usual definition of 調合 which means “mixing.”

    Adamu: Good points, illustrating what I noted above–when you lose the kanji, you lose much of the meaning of what you’re saying. Didn’t South Korea start moving recently to bring back hanja for this very reason?

  10. In Korean books they often print the original hanja for a difficult word in parentheses after the hangul, so you can perhaps distinguish it from some other homonym whose hanja you also probably don’t know.

    In North Korea they have completely abandoned hanja, and I hear that to solve the problem of large numbers of Chinese-derived homonyms they have replaced a number of hanja terms with ones built from native Korean root words. An example of what I mean in Japanese: 成立(seiritsu) ->成り立ち(naritachi)

  11. By the way, 戦ぐ is そよぐ, and refers to trembling or rustling, in the wind, usually vegetation of some kind. Considering the more stanrd uses of 戦, it actually seems like a pretty inappropriate character to write such a mild verb. It actually can mean tremble in Chinese, but I think hardly anyone knows that.

    In fact, I remember seeing this word in a book entirely of difficult and obscure readings of more common kanji, targeted at adults who want to be able to impress people, or maybe read old books that don’t use furigana.

  12. I think most japanese use そよぐin writing, not 戦ぐ. The meaning of 戦 is mainly “battle”. So そよぐ has much softer image than 戦ぐ. That’s why people use hiragana when they want to impress something in softer and milder.

  13. I think they should be using katakana instead. Hiragana are soft and curly and cuddly; katakana are hard and pointy and look like they want to kick your ass (which is probably why everything switched to katakana during the WWII era).

    Anyway, ユウチョ銀行 and カンポ生命保険 look awesome.

  14. Yes, yes, agree that it’ll be hell reading stuff entirely in hiragana and katakana. I wouldn’t know where a word starts and ends in a full sentence…

  15. oddly enough, this sort of thing confuses me more than it helps. If I see kanji, I may not know the reading, but I will at least be able to guess the meaning. With hirigana, I am sadly lacking in comprehension. Sometimes if I do know the word, it won’t click without the kanji.

  16. The only Chinese word I know of in which 戰 means “tremble” is 戰慄, which still seems pretty violent to me. Does the compound 戰慄 exist in Japanese?

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