TOKYO -As a schoolboy, Akihiro Matsumura spent hundreds of hours learning the intricate Chinese characters that make up a part of written Japanese. Now, the graduate student can rely on his smartphone, tablet and laptop to remember them for him.
“Sometimes I don’t even bother to take notes in seminars. I just take out my tablet to shoot pictures of what instructors write on blackboards,” he told AFP.
Like millions of people across East Asia, 23-year-old Matsumura is forgetting the pictographs and ideographs that have been used in Japan and greater China for centuries. While some bemoan what they see as the loss of history and culture, others say the shift frees up brainpower for more useful things, like foreign languages, and even improves writing as a whole.
Naoko Matsumoto, a professor of law who heads international legal studies at the prestigious Sophia University near Tokyo, said the students in her classes now write more fluently than their predecessors. “I’m in my 40s and compared with my generation, they have more and more opportunities to write using Twitter” and other social networking services, she said.
“I think they are actually better at writing” because they write in a simple and easy-to-understand way, she said.
Priorities are changing with more emphasis placed on building logical thinking strategies — a case of content becoming more important than form.
“The skill of handwriting kanji (Chinese characters) perfectly is becoming less necessary compared with earlier times,” the professor said. Kanji developed in China as a mixture of pictographs — characters that represent a thing, like “mountain” — and ideographs — those that depict an abstract concept, like “think”.
Greater China uses only these characters — a simplified version on the mainland and the traditional form in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Japan imported kanji some time during the first millennium to use as a writing system, despite there being no linguistic link between Japanese and Chinese.
By around the 8th-9th centuries, it developed a syllabary — a system of consonant/vowel blends — called “hiragana”.
Where kanji contain a meaning, but no inherent sound, each hiragana character represents a sound, but has no inherent meaning — like a letter in the Latin alphabet. Unlike the alphabet, however, each syllable only ever has one sound.
A second syllabary, called “katakana”, also developed. Modern-day written Japanese is a mixture of kanji, hiragana and katakana, with an increasing amount of Western script also thrown in (known as “romaji” or Roman letters).