Kanji Arcane?

Your random Kanji fact of the day…

There are roughly 50,000 Kanji in existence for the Japanese language; number 50,128 accurately describes the nature of the universe and the purpose behind every action. Unfortunately, no one can read it.

This is closer to the truth than one may realize. Yes, there are technically 50,000 Kanji available for use in Japanese writing, but only the best of the best of the best language scholars would know all of these and how to correctly draw them. I’ve been told since the computer era, these language experts must be consulted every time a new font is created, to determine if every last character is found to be clear and legible.

Not that it’s very likely that someone would even use half of these Kanji. It’s a conundrum is what it is: a language in which the masses don’t understand more than 50% of the written word. That strikes me as a little odd, and this is coming from the native speaker of the most complicated language on Earth (English is, undisputed – all the small rules).

I was recently talking to one of my educated, well-spoken Japanese friends. Even with a bachelor’s degree, a master’s, and going for a doctorate, he still only knows about 2,000 Kanji. 4% of the language, and this is common. You might very well meet some people who know up to 20,000 characters (usual length of Japanese dictionaries), but I wouldn’t bet on it.

A few hundred Kanji will keep you sane on the streets of any major city. A few thousand will have you reading the newspaper and being considered a literate member of Japanese society. But why is this the case? Let me give you an example:

The Kanji for fish (in general) is
– sardine, iwashi
– turbot, karei
– killer whale, shachi
– bonito, katsuo
– carp, koi
– tuna, maguro

Look closely at the Kanji for fish and look at the left symbol for these different types of fish. Identical. Even without knowing the specific type of fish (or the correct pronunciation), you have a general idea of the vocabulary family you’re dealing with. Kanji is full of these mixed symbols – not every one is entirely original.

With these difficult patterns and the growing trend among Japanese youth (due to technology), I’d really recommend that everyone learn to type Japanese Kanji before writing it by hand. More and more people are, and who are we, if we don’t at least try to conform?

In the meantime, I’m off to study the brush stroke order to Hiragana. If you’re looking for a skiing job in Japan, this site may help you. Oyasumi nasai.