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Column #7 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, August 17, 2001
"Yes, it's you, reading a Japanese newspaper!"

TO: Diane Grace Shimizu and other serious students of Japanese
RE: Passion for reading Japanese newspapers

In my last communication I stressed the overriding importance of having a kanji dream: a concrete vision of yourself conquering a specific type of adult-level written material in Japanese.Possessing such a dream is essential if you long to get off the kakueki(local) train chugging toward kanji purgatory and transfer upstairs to the kanji shinkansen (Bullet Train) bound for your desired destination: literacy in Japanese.

It's time to switch trains, Diane, but don't forget to pack your kanji dream!

Do you recall the thrill, the sense of accomplishment you used to feel when you could actually read Le Monde over morning coffee and a croissant during your study abroad program in Paris? You had studied French for two years in high school and one as a college freshman. And that is exactly how long you have been studying Japanese--three years. You've made great progress with spoken Japanese and have learned 500 kanji, but the thought of picking up a Japanese newspaper with the intention of readily grasping its contents has probably never crossed your mind.

To read Japanese newspapers with ease you need to learn the 1,945 general-use characters --there is no escaping this fact. Your Japanese teacher quotes a National Language Research Institute study: the 1,000 most frequently used characters comprise 94 percent of the kanji used in newspapers. Sounds good. But it's the less frequently used characters, and especially the compounds words that contain them, that chain you to your kanji dictionary.

This is not to suggest that you should postpone reading Japanese newspapers until you have mastered every aspect of all the general-use characters. In fact, knowing a key English meaning and the shape (as opposed to pronunciations) of each of them, along with your knowledge of Japanese grammar, will allow you to make plenty of sense out of newspaper articles.

Let's take a look at the Yomiuri Shimbun (読売新聞) headline for July 1, during the first state visit to Washington of Japan's "movie star" prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi:


There are five kanji in the above headline: 揺 "shake" (the negative form here means "unshakable"), 同 "same," 盟 "alliance," 宣 "proclaim," and 言 "say." Knowing a key English meaning for each of the 1,945 general-use characters, (including 揺, which does not happen to fall within the 1,000 most frequently used), would tell you that Koizumi and President George W. Bush announced something along the line of an "unshakable alliance."

Millions of Japanese begin their day by reading headlines like this in the Asahi Shimbun (朝日新聞) and Yomiuri Shimbun, which together command nearly 40 percent of market share.

The Asahi carries a widely read daily front-page commentary called "Tensei Jingo" (天声人語 "Vox Populi, Vox Dei"). On July 1, for example, it proposed that Americans-- including Bush-- possess their own version of tatemae (one's words) and honne (one's real intentions). "Tensei Jingo" urged Koizumi and Bush to avoid confusion between personal and national relations by curtailing their charade of first-name friendliness.

Editorials, news, special-interest stories, sports commentary, letters to the editor: Japanese newspapers give foreigners an intimate look at how the Japanese view themselves and the rest of the world. My heartfelt recommendation is that you develop a passion for reading them, even if, at first, you must rely on your kanji dictionary.

Picture this: You purchase your Asahi from the station newspaper kiosk at the start of your morning commute. Rush-hour train etiquette prevents you from opening up the newspaper, but you have read Page 1 before reaching Shinjuku Station. During lunch at your company, you quote from the morning's "Tensei Jingo." Your coworkers are deeply impressed.

This is the kind of kanji dream that will propel you towards literacy in Japanese, Diane, and in the process allow you to penetrate straight to the heart of your adopted land.

Let Mary hear what your kanji dream is, and how close you are to making it come true, at Kanji Clinic.