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Japan PM finds reading a political headache

February 4, 2009

Foreigners who’ve spent years trying to learn how to read the thousands of ‘kanji’ ideograms used to write the Japanese language might well sympathise with Prime Minister Taro Aso, who has come under fire in the media for his public bloopers in misreading the written word.

The 68-year-old Japanese leader, whose popularity has slid due to policy flip-flops and other gaffes, has been ridiculed in the media for misreading kanji, first imported from China in the 6th century or before and adapted to write Japanese.

There are more than 70,000 kanji in larger dictionaries, although only about 2,000 are generally used, and the pronunciation of each must be painstakingly memorised.

To make matters worse, many kanji are pronounced differently when combined with other ideograms and take on still other readings when used with the Japanese language’s two phonetic syllabaries, hiragana and katakana.

The heavy media attention to Aso’s verbal blunders when reading speeches in parliament or most recently to an audience of the rich and powerful at the World Economic Forumin Davos is helping to boost sales of books for ordinary Japanese who hope to avoid similar pitfalls.


Guides to reading kanji, with names such as “Commonly Misread Kanji – Think You Can Read Them But Can’t”, and “A Book To Keep You From Ever Being Humiliated By Kanji” are climbing up best-seller lists, with stores devoting entire shelves to them, sometimes not far from other displays of books using U.S. President Barack Obama’s speeches as a way to teach English.

Another key member of Aso’s cabinet, Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, similarly stumbled when reading his policy speech to parliament last month, including mixing up the words for “revenue” and “spending” to the extent that bureaucrats at his ministry issued a correction.

Aso once blamed his reading woes on a failure to wear his glasses, while language experts say learning the readings of obscure kanji can give almost anyone a headache.

Still, the prime minister’s literary missteps have not gone down well at his alma mater, Tokyo’s Gakushuin University, where one joke going around campus has it that students looking for work in Japan’s shrinking job market are now being asked in interviews: Can you read kanji?

Photo credit: Reuters/Christian Hartmann

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