NOTE: A list of the 196 additions to the joyo kanji, along with their pronunciations, example compound words, and an English meaning for each, is available here.

Column #100 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, December 16, 2009
"New joyo kanji are mighty compound-word builders"

Joyo (general-use, 常用) kanji, currently numbering 1,945, are the characters officially approved by the Japanese government for use in newspapers and government publications. Japanese schoolchildren study these kanji during their nine years of compulsory education, and foreigners aspiring to pass the top level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test must do battle with them, too.

A number of commonly used kanji compound words (jukugo, 熟語) comprise non-joyo kanji, but this is set to be remedied with next year’s revision-- the first since 1981-- of the joyo list. A 15-member Council for Cultural Affairs committee has painstakingly vetted candidates for joyo inclusion since 2005 and is poised next March to recommend the addition of about 200 kanji. In addition to frequency of use, jukugo-building muscle gave many kanji the competitive edge needed to survive thus far.

Joyo inductee 葛 (KATSU, kudzu) is one-half of the commonly used jukugo 葛藤 (kattou, kudzu/wisteria, “discord”). Its compound word-building chops enabled 葛 to edge out fellow botanical contenders 栗 (kuri, chestnut) and 蘭 (RAN, orchid). 藤 (TOU, wisteria), also a joyo newbie, features in three of Japan’s most common surnames (No. 1: 佐藤, Sato; No. 6: 伊藤, Ito; and No. 10 斎藤, Saito).

Many additions represent anatomical and medical concepts. “Tumor” (腫瘍, shuyou) and “ulcer” (潰瘍, kaiyou) can be written with inductees 腫 (SHU, tumor), 瘍 (YOU, ulcer), and 潰 (KAI, fester). Others tapped include: 蓋 (GAI, lid, used in 頭蓋骨, zugaikotsu, head/lid/bone, “skull”), 骸 (GAI, bone, in 骸骨, gaikotsu, bone/bone, “skeleton”), 腺 (SEN, gland, in 前立腺, zenritsusen, front/stand/gland, “prostate gland”), and 痕 (ato, mark, in 傷痕, kizuato, injury/mark, “scar”). The omission of 癌 (GAN, cancer)-- the #1 cause of death in Japan -- is indicative of a society still unable to squarely face this disease, even linguistically.

Many common Japanese jukugo (e.g., 語い, goi, vocabulary; 洞くつ, doukutsu, cave; and じん臓, jinzou, kidney) are currently officially written with a combination of hiragana and kanji called mazegaki (交ぜ書き, mixed/writing). The induction of 彙 (I, compile, in 語彙), 窟 (kutsu, cave, in 洞窟), 腎 (JIN, kidney, in 腎臓), and a variety of other hiragana hole-fillers will greatly minimize mazegaki-written jukugo. After the revision becomes official, junior high school students will be expected to pencil such jukugo as 謙遜 (kenson, humility) and 浄瑠璃 (joururi, ballad drama) entirely in kanji instead of mazegaki. (The upcoming revision will not affect the 1,000 kyouiku kanji taught in the six elementary school years).

Off-kilter ら致 (rachi, abduction) will morph into 拉致, and 覚せい剤 (kakuseizai, stimulant drugs) will become 覚醒剤. The Asahi Shinbun will print 賄賂 (wairo, bribe) in its pages instead of 賄ろ, and 金属破綻 (kinzokuhatan, bankruptcy) will replace kanji-challenged 金属破たん in NHK subtitles. Watch as local pharmacies advertise with signboards that include 処方箋 (shohousen, prescription for medicine) in lieu of mazegaki manifestation 処方せん once 箋 (SEN, paper) enters the joyo fold.

Three Japanese historical periods, 奈良 (Nara), 弥生 (Yayoi), and 鎌倉 (Kamakura), include kanji expected to be placed on the joyo list: 奈 (NA), 弥 (ya), and 鎌 (kama). And a hallowed feature of Japanese culture, the bath (furo, ふろ), now officially written in hiragana, will stand proud as 風呂with the induction of comprising kanji 呂 (RO).

Some revision-watchers call the vetting process hopelessly subjective, bemoaning the inclusion of relatively obscure kanji over others they reckon are more widely utilized. Others dismiss the entire revision as much ado about nothing, pointing out, correctly, that most of the inductees already appear in a variety of written materials. Still, with a whopping 10,000 kanji now being used--and widely misused--in Japanese software, it makes sense for the government to rethink which among these its citizens should be expected to read and write properly by hand.

The quiz below will allow you to explore more fully the remarkable creative power of kanji to form compound words.

Match each of the following jukugo with its pronunciation and meaning. Each contains one current joyo kanji, which is underlined, and one new joyo candidate, which is not.

1.牙 (elephant/tusk) 
2.臆 (inward/illness) 
3.臼 (mortar/tooth) 
6.妖 (bewitching/spirit)
7.戚 (parent/kin) 
8.蜂 (bee/rise) 
9.玩 (trifle with/tool)
10.踪 (lose/traces)

a. kyuushi (molar) b. shinseki (relative) c. omocha (toy) d. zasetsu (frustration) e. koketsu (dangerous situation) f. okubyou (timidity) g. shissou (disappearance) h.houki (revolt) i. zouge, ivory j. yousei (fairy)

Answers: 1.i 2.f 3.a 4.e 5.d 6.j 7.b 8.h 9.c 10.g

New to Start reading archived columns here. (Column #1, "Don't despair--you can put an end to kanji chaos")

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