This article is super long, so here’s a Cliff’s Notes. There’s a total of 3 parts.
Part 1 is a brief history of why people still talk smack about Sinoxenic (kanji-using) languages, leading to
Part 2 where we realize that when dealing with any language, Sinoxenic or otherwise, what we are dealing with is not a foreign language problem, but an adult illiteracy problem; finally, in
Part 3, we find that Pedro will make all your dreams come true, and also solve your adult illiteracy issues…
Part 1: Pens, Swords and Missionaries
Back in the day, the various nations of the western peninsula of the Eurasian landmass had just gotten done recovering from a massive thousand-year hangover after a drunken party in which they had destroyed their only stable nation-state, along with all its accumulated knowledge and human expertise, and proceeded to brutally brawl amongst themselves using weapons inspired by S&M movies.
Finally able to stand on their own feet, they set about sharing their extensive experience in violence with the world, with anyone and everyone they met. Theirs was a three-pronged approach, perhaps the most comprehensive offensive in human history, making use of the pen, the sword, and a cadre of highly trained psychologists called “missionaries”.
Before we get into all that: Kitten!
(Courtesy of Little Folks Puzzle)
The missionaries used a mind-control technique known as “Christianity” to tell people to give up on the real world, enjoy getting beaten with the S&M weapons (“turn the other cheek, be arch! God loves you, he loves you baby, yeeeah!!”), and pin all their hopes on a future world that, supposedly, existed after death. This future world was as idyllic as it was un-falsifiable, and worked well on the more trusting of foreign nations.
The pen was used both at home and abroad; at home to stir up xenophobia towards foreign peoples and their civilizations; abroad, to stir up autophobia (self-hate) among foreign peoples and their civilizations. And, when all else failed, the sword, in various forms, was applied generously.
It worked. And the world’s writing systems ended up like this:
Everywhere the Europeans and their descendants visited, they stole, brainwashed, raped and murdered until they had forced their religion and writing system on their hosts. As fond of efficiency as of violence, they started to figure out just who and what needed to be killed in order to make the theft of land and people complete, a policy that might be described as “decapitation”: every society rests on the shoulders of a handful of people and/or texts, a “head” if you will; sever the head, and the “body” tends to be quite ineffectual.
Finally, to cover their tracks, they developed two intricate distribution systems: distribution (division) of labor, and distribution of responsibility. As such, they managed to commit atrocities using people who were not necessarily fully aware of the entire scheme, and then act as if it were “no one’s fault”. Puppets were attached by strings to other puppets in a nested chain of puppet-upon-puppet so long that it takes an enormous amount of work to find out just who, in fact, was the puppeteer. It was the perfect crime.
This same intricate labor-division-responsibility-dissipation system continues today, allowing Western societies to commit acts of violent cruelty both at home and abroad, and then shrug it off and act helpless.
Consider the steak. One person kills an animal inhumanely, another cuts up her body parts, another packs them, another ships them, another stocks them, another buys them, another cooks them, another eats them.
Are the people who ate the animal the murderers? The person who cooked the body parts? Or is it the person who bought the parts? The part-time worker at the supermarket who stocked them? The truckdriver who shipped them? The meatpacker who packed them? The guy who cut them up? The woman who pushed the button to stun the cow? The person who turned on the switch on the machine that, apparently quite frequently, pulls off cows’ body parts while they’re still alive? The person who wrote the design document for the machine? The editor who allows ads for the machine to run in his trade publication? The graphic designer who does the layout for the ad? The farmer who sent his cows to the slaughterhouse? The farmworker who, while the cow was alive, injected her with so many funky hormones that she could no longer stand up? The engineer who wrote the software that processes credit card transactions for meat purchases? The chemist who synthesized the hormones?
So, by now some may be wondering, does Khatzumoto hate “whitey”? No, Khatzumoto’s loves “whitey”; all his friends are “whitey”; Khatzumoto married “whitey”. A good number of Europeans and members of European-extension communities were either made unaware of what was happening, or bullied into acting unaware; it was all a well-orchestrated affair with many players — including psychos for killing and stealing, academics for justifying it all, and “settlers” for covering up the evidence by reproducing and generally playing dumb.
Now, as an Internet discussion gets longer, the probability that someone will refer to Hitler asymptotically approaches 1 — so let’s make our obligatory Nazi reference here. Ordinary German citizens were either unaware or forcibly “unaware” of the existence of…let’s just say “rustic accommodations out East” for Jewish Europeans. A good number of the German people were kept in forced ignorance (or sometimes, forced “ignorance”). A minority of ordinary Germans even stood up for justice.
At the same time, this does not erase a certain amount of responsibility, nor does it erase the existence of the “rustic accommodations”, nor does it erase the need to make these things known and repair them. Or, are you going to go up to Victor Frankl and say: “Dude, it couldn’t have been that bad — you got a book deal out of it and everything!! I like your hair, by the way — is it always curly like that?”
Anyway, bringing it back to language. Times have changed, but the writings from back when it was OK to openly proclaim that Asian people and their civilizations were inferior, still exist. Many of them may be far too uncool or oldskool to be read now, but the memes they produced are still alive and well, repeated in subsequent pieces of research, and I use the word “research” in the loosest sense possible.
Take, for example, my history class at an accredited four-year institution of higher learning in a certain united state of America, where the instructor quite happily discussed — with visual aids — how ideograms (like kanji/hanzi) represented the lowest, dumbest, most “primitive” form of writing system and alphabets the highest, with syllabaries (like kana) and abjads (like Hebrew and Arabic), somewhere in the middle.
Kanji sucks, East Asian people are stupid drones who reproduce too much and all look alike and “the Chinese civilization has no creativity…but China is modernizing and in a few years may stop using [those ghastly squiggles]”. These were the exact words of my history instructor — the ones in quotes. Said many times, in front of hundreds of students. Some of them Chinese. You know those chinks…always getting straight A’s and taking all the scholarships that used to go to mediocre people like us. Wait…
A lot of the time, when people make claims about the Chinese writing system and Sinoxenic languages, they are merely parroting this kind of attitude, an attitude from the days of “gunboat diplomacy”, calling people “東亞病夫” (“the sick man of Asia”) and countless attempts to break up the Chinese state by stirring up ethnic division. This has led to the ossification of the “kanji are hard”/”Chinese is hard” myth, a myth so often repeated that it is quite frequently taken as fact. This “fact” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, reinforced every time people come to learn Chinese and Japanese, and try to use their eyes, elbows and wrists to learn kanji, and invariably fail, without ever trying to engage the old brain.
The key thing that many keep failing to realize is that learning kanji is an intellectual exercise, not a physical one. You need to use your brain, not yer wrists fer endlessly repeated writin’, not reams of paper fer copying out the same character a kajillion times, not yer mouth fer whinin’ out loud, not yer fingers fer rantin’ on Internet message boards, not even really yer eyes fer seein’ a picture. It is not a test of brute strength; it merely requires a tiny bit of mental flexibility. And now, with an SRS, all you need is some consistency.
Wow, way too friggin long. Anyway. So, yeah, I came to this realization, with a lot of help and a lot of love from folks like Heisig, Sisk-Noguchi, Houser and Wozniak.
Speaking of the pen, one tactic of cultural genocide used by Europeans back in the day was to not only suggest that Europeans had trouble learning kanji, but that the original kanji-using peoples themselves could not use them. They assumed adult literacy in the Sinosphere to be low. Ironically, Japanese people to this day help keep perpetuating this myth. When you know kanji, Japanese people will tell you “wow, even I can’t write that”. This is called a compliment. They don’t mean it. They’re just being nice. They can write the durn kanji.
Indeed, over the past several months, I have challenged many of my Japanese acquaintances to little kanji tournaments. They have been able to write everything I have thrown them. The only way I have “won” is by lobbing ridiculously curvy curve balls (like “闖入”); the equivalent in English would be asking someone to spell and define “floccinaucinihilipilification”; of course you would “win” but for what? Also, every once in a while, on the news here in Japan, they show people talk about how “them young ‘uns nowadays with their computeys ain’t writin’ their kanjis no mar”. Wanna know why that’s on the news? Because it’s newsworthy. Most people are absolutely fine reading and writing their kanji.
Don’t believe me? Neither did General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, Knight Grand Cross of The Most Honourable Military Order of the Bath and Field Marshal of the Philippine Army, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, husband to a murdered son, father to a murdered wife and he would have his vengeance in this life or the n…wait…
MacArthur, or “Biggie Mac”, as he was known to his friends, believed the Japanese people to be inferior, at a developmental stage analogous to that of a child when compared to the adult, fully grown “West”. And, as supreme military ruler of all the Japans, following that little worldwide scuffle in the 1940s, he was going to tell those slant-eyed beelzebubs who was boss. Effen Japs. In (this is the real deal, folks), one of his many orders to his Occupation Government, he decided that:
Of course, MacArthur was far too well-trained in hiding his true feelings to actually come out and say something so gauche. Instead, he couches his words in appeals to “international communication”, “breaking down barriers” and “sharing ideas”. This is a fundamental technique found in the brainwashing carried out by colonial powers: religion or no religion, always appeal to universal principles…as long as they’re our universal principles. Works every time. In fact, it’s so well phrased that I want my country to be invaded, occupied and reprogrammed right now!
Mac didn’t think these rice-eatin’, fish-lovin’ SOBs could read kanji — their own language — and he set out to prove it. He issued forth a national test/survey of literacy (「日本人の読み書き能力調査」) , aimed at, as I recall, adults of both genders and from all strata of society, throughout Japan.
Now, what MacArthur didn’t know is that Japan, thanks initially to the 寺子屋/”temple sideroom” system, has had near-universal literacy since medieval times. That’s right, in the Edo Period, when samurai walked the earth, Japan already had full literacy and a fully developed popular literature. Medieval pop lit, that’s how hardcore Japan was. Regular people, man, woman, rich, poor — reading. And this is back when Japan publicly made full use of two written standards — 漢文 (so-called “Classical” Chinese…although it’s actually easier to read than post-1912 “Modern Standard” Chinese) and 訓讀文 (Japanese written more or less as spoken, with Japanese grammar and word order).
Verily, let it be known that the world’s first novel was written by a woman in Japan who taught herself kanji in her spare time; this was back before even the Edo Period, when kanji-learning was still brand, spanking new to Japan, and limited to men), until she got better at it than her husband despite his having a tutor and all that.
In a sense, it’s telling that Biggie Mac was a completely illiterate man; in fact, he had gone his entire life unable to read — Japanese, that is. Of course he could neither see the meaning nor even the possibility of such a thing. And that’s fine. It’s just that he had no place making decisions about literacy. Do you ever see Michael Jordan urging women to use his special brand of tampons? “Wait till I get my Hanes on you” would take on much more blush-inducing connotations.
So, anyway, they didn’t have trouble reading in Japan. And this was reflected in the results from MacArthur’s test. The test conclusively demonstrated two things: (1) Liv Tyler is hot whether or not she has make-up (2) Japanese people could read. Their own freaking language. Very darn well, thank you very much. Both genders, all classes. Yes, housewives, too. Also, make-up doesn’t actually do Liv Tyler justice…nope.
But by now there were enough puppets in the Japanese “government”, enough brainwashed people that wanted to wipe out kanji in Japan as had been done by France in Vietnam, that a compromise had to be reached. That compromise was the 當用(later 常用)漢字/”general use kanji” system, whereby forms were changed that didn’t need changing and some attempt was made to limit the number of characters used despite their not needing any limiting.
Importantly, these changes were not made for the benefit of readers, writers or learners — they didn’t need them; they didn’t want them. They were made to placate then-powerful/well-backed groups who lobbied variously for anglicization/romanization/kana-ization. They also served, quite conveniently, to put an unnecessary hurdle between pre- and post-War Japanese literature, weakening people’s connection to their own history, which, as we know, works very well when you’re wanting to mold a nation into a new shape you’ve picked: see Communist China for further instructions.
Fortunately, the people of Japan love their kanji; names of people, places and organizations have remained quite unscathed (examples are everywhere); every change to the “approved kanji list” since the Occupation Era has been an addition, and there are more on the way.
Part 2: Adult Illiteracy
Back when I was at that college with the otherwise intelligent professor with the lively disdain for Chinese civilization, the local town public library was having an adult literacy initiative. I had heard about it once or twice before, but it shocked me to see it in real life. It turns out that many in the US, you know, the wealthiest most powerful country in the world, cannot read at all, or cannot read well enough to complete simple daily tasks such as filling in forms or travelling using street signs. This is despite free, universal, compulsory schooling (it’s a bit of a stretch to call it “education”). You can find out more about it here:
- Living in the Shadows: Illiteracy in America
- Illiterate in America
- Conquering Illiteracy: One Man’s Fight
- Adult Illiteracy in Canada
If ABC News is to be believed, then something on the order of 10% of the American population is no-can-reedy, i.e. more than one in ten adults in the United States are driving through life with their phasers set to “stunningly ignorant” What happened to the beautiful simplicity and obviousness of alphabets? What happened to that? Where’s the…where’s…I thought the memo said…(???)
The US is not alone. In other (poorer) countries, using an alphabet and even completely phonetic spelling, illiteracy is rampant. What the frekkin heck is going on?
My college town public library’s initiative came at a time when I was attempting to become literate in Chinese/Japanese. I was haltingly, stumblingly beginning to use my literacy in English to become literate in other languages — and economically valuable ones, at that. Literacy was giving birth to more literacy, knowledge to more knowledge.
Back then, I was also an avid comic reader, and I mean avid, I went through hundreds of pages a day. And it shocked me that there were people in my very own college town, that were not enjoying the power of the written word to inform, entertain and enrich. I resolved to help people share the joy, the power, the magic.
My college was big on volunteering, and I had always felt guilty that I had never helped in any of the service projects. I guess none of them had ever struck me as being truly meaningful or effective — just empty hype. But this was different; this, I could sink my teeth into. I, Khatz, was going to help people, and I proudly announced this to one of my service-active friends [she knows who she is].
But, then I realized that the illiterate townspeople didn’t need my help. Or, they did, but they weren’t going to get it. Not just because I was a busy (poorly self-managed?) college student, but because I realized that I needed my help. Because, folks, as it turns out…despite being a college student, I was illiterate. Yes, I could not read…Chinese or Japanese.
Just as Malcolm X once reframed the US “civil” rights issue as a misnamed human rights problem, so I reframed my linguistic issue. I came to the following realization:
“You do not have a foreign language problem; you have an adult illiteracy problem. You are not a foreigner learning a foreign language; you are an illiterate adult learning your own language“
The problem of adult illiteracy, in cause, symptom and solution, is exactly the same as that of illiteracy for learners of a foreign language. If you look at the statistics ABC News brought up, kids who grow into adults are illiterate not because they’re stupid, but merely because they have not logged the hours with text.
Literacy is directly proportional to time spent with text. When no time is spent with text, no literacy develops. When insufficient time is spent with text, insufficient literacy develops. One is pure illiteracy, the other is functional illiteracy. Take your pick.
Time spent with text is a function of (1) time to spend and (2) access to text in large quantity and wide variety. Both are necessary. [People in poverty tend to lack at least one of these, so poverty and illiteracy tend to accompany each other; illiteracy in Mainland China fits under this rubric].
Do you need a diagram?
Most learners of a foreign language — any foreign language — remain, like a novice skater to the wall of the rink, glued to their textbooks: a boring, sanitized, artificial, mutant subset of their target language. As a result, if they get good at anything at all, they get good at handling a boring, sanitized, artificial, mutant subset of…you get the picture. Their exposure to native materials is insufficient at best if not non-existent. And their language skills suffer accordingly. So it shall be written, so it shall be done. Pre-Internet, lack of access to native texts was a natural consequence of physical constraints involved in moving glued-together strips of dead tree. Now, at least for us who have Internet access, this is much less of an issue.
To repeat, the adult illiteracy problem is not limited to Chinese and Japanese; learners of all languages experience it all the time — perhaps worse so, because they often remain oblivious to it. Next time you meet someone who claims to know or be studying some French or Spanish, show them a newspaper/newsmagazine or the manual for their microwave. Can they read it without a dictionary? If not, then they are functionally illiterate. It doesn’t matter jack that they can perhaps sound it out (and even then, how well?); if they cannot read and comprehend without undue reliance on reference materials and within a reasonable amount of time, then they are illiterate.
French and Spanish are supposed to be “easy”; they are the present default foreign languages for English speakers. France and Spain and even Turkey are supposed to be “easy” to travel through, unlike Japan and China where you get “owned” by kanji. Closer examination reveals this to be hogwash.
On the one hand, it’s probably the case that alphabetic writing systems will give you an early feeling of “ah can rayd, Momma!”, that is, until you hit upon the problem that you actually have to learn all the words separately and there’s very little re-use going on. A learner of Japanese, knowing 豚/”pig” and 肉/”meat”, now knows the correct word for 豚肉/”pork”, as well as half of 牛肉/”beef” and indeed any other animal meet (hmmm? Not so phonetic, are we?), as well as “肉体”/”physical/of the flesh” as in “肉体関係”/”sexual relationship”/”relationship of the flesh”. A learner of English has to learn these things separately. And that’s only the beginning.
Take me. Really, all of me. Take me as I am…OK, no. Anyway, I took three years of German while at high school in England. I went on two exchange trips to Germany. I got the highest grade possible (A*: pronounced “A-star”) in both written and oral sections of the national examination for German proficiency. Yet I had never read a German newspaper, geeky publication or even a youth magazine. Nor could I. But supposedly I knew German. The process said so. The school said so. The British gubmit said so.
I could not freely conduct or comprehend written communication in the German language. No excuses need be made for this. I was illiterate. Plain and simple. This is German, folks. The orthography is all nice and regular. Plus, it’s very closely related to this English of ours, both linguistically and ethnically. And it’s the good old Roman alphabet: God’s language. Why don’t I hear people talkin’ smack about how the Roman alphabet is fundamentally broken and inferior and it’s all apples and oranges and Goebbels wore Gucci underwear and the Germans are this and that?
Yeah…I wonder why.
Part 3: Extensive Reading Will Make All Your Dreams Come True…Also Your Adult Illiteracy Problems Will Be Solved
Want to get good at reading and writing in any language? Then read more. A lot more. A lot. You need to become baptized in the Church of Text. No, screw that, baptism is only once — you need to drink the Holy Text Water for breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, midnight snack and everything in between. There’s you, there’s text. You and the written word in your target language are going to be buddies from now on. You’re going to be so tight, your wife will be all: “Ah know yew don’t goh up theah da fish!!” That means a book in your bag, a book by your bedside, books in the toilet, and L2 text on your computer screen. And yes, for Japanese learners, it even means less reading of this site, unless it’s the Japanese sections(?), which I intend to start expanding soon enough.
And, I think you will find that not only will you become literate in Chinese/Japanese, but you will find them easier than phonetic writing systems. Not just because of the visual power of the characters, but also because of the amazing ability to create compound words, making even the most apparently complex of concepts, the most expert of expert vocabulary, fully comprehensible to the layman (the 明治時代/Meiji Era mass translation of Western scientific literature and vocabulary into kanji often receives credit for turning the already highly-literate Japanese population into a highly-well-informed juggernaut).
With kanji, it’s like the veil of jargon is never allowed to fall; there is no iron curtain of terminology; everything is transparent. Assuming that you, like me, have no specialist medical knowledge, do you know what an “idiopathic ischemic infarction” is? Me neither; I had to look it up in kanji: 特發虚血性梗塞…looking at the kanji, I at least know that blood gets blocked from going somewhere suddenly and for an unknown reason. Do you know what it means to “sinter” something? I didn’t; but the kanji are so clear: 焼結 “burn+ join”.
I’m reminded of this anecdote from a Japanese professor, related on page 14 of the book 知の収穫/An Intellectual Harvest by 呉智英/KURE Tomofusa and originally taken from 鈴木孝夫/SUZUKI Takao’s言葉の社會學/The Sociology of Language:
Summary: “Pithecanthrope”, a word incomprehensible to the group of Yale professors that Suzuki was meeting at a conference of some kind, would be accessible to an elementary schooler in Japan, thanks to the power of kanji.
I guess you could always rub salt in the old Sokal wound and claim that sociology professors are dumb, but…that would be mean.
The end. Sorry for the long post! It’s goofy that a group of people should have to defend their own written language from illiterate foreigners, but…there you go. I wanted to leave out the history part, but I left it in because it’s relevant in terms of the whining people do. Take-home lesson here: get used to text.
Next time you think kanji or French conjugations or German cases are the problem, realize it’s just you not spending enough time with real text. I know how you feel. “It’s so slow”, “It’s this”, “It’s that”. Just keep finding something fun; it doesn’t have to look good or academic or serious or cool — it just has to be in the language in question. Even reading movie titles counts!
Today, after playing a video log of my computer activity this past week, I noticed that I had been avoiding reading Chinese in favor of Japanese, because, well, I can read Japanese faster. Then again, after hundreds of thousands of Japanese SRS repetitions, anyone could.
No one is born knowing how to read. In every language we know, we were all slow once. It’s OK to suck. Just to find something fun and keep at it, but whatever you do don’t run away from your target language — this will only hurt you. Stay. Read. You’ll get better.
 Japan and China had strong B.S. radar, and made proselyting, indeed, the mind control method itself, an illegal or highly restricted activity. It probably helped that Japan’s leaders at the time caught wind of at least one ill-timed, open admission of the true purpose of missionary activities:
“…the Spanish design for world conquest. An indispensible part of that design…was a fifth column of Spanish friars, sent ahead of military forces to Christianize the people of a country so that the land could then be easily taken over.” [Source]
 See Australia as penal colony for an example.
 See just about any book about non-Europeans pre-1960s for details.
 Just shut up and PRETEND NOTHING HAPPENED.
 It’s still OK — all you have to do is be more oblique about it — just ask the New York Times: According to whom them Chahnaze ain’t nothin’ but “a top-down memorization-based elite” who couldn’t “organize a flexible, innovative information economy” if their little jet-black heads depended on it, “no matter how brilliant” they may be. Gee willickers, NYT — thanks for letting us know that them thar Yeller Peril be upon us!!! Where’s my victory garden…
 Simple divide-and-conquer. It’ll break up a band (“You don’t need these guys! You make this band!”), and it’ll break up a country (“You Manchurians are different! You’re better! You don’t need those guys!”)
 I used to try to learn hanzi by writing each one out fifty times. My form (shape balance and prettiness) improved, but I didn’t remember a single one. Is it the fault of hanzi? Or is it my fault for using the wrong tools for the job? Am I at fault if I try to use fax machine paper in the toilet and it doesn’t flush? Or is it those durn Japanese fax machine companies?
 We often call this “being a gentleman”.
 This appeal to universality still has many Africans and people of African descent fooled to this day. Outside of the stereotypical American Bible Belt, they are the last major group of “true believers”. Left holding the baby, they honestly think Christianity is relevant to them. This is not at all to say that Christianity is “bad” or anything silly like that. Christianity is not bad. It’s just bad for Africans. My point is, ice-cream is tasty. Kittens!
 Because of?
 Taiwan and HK don’t do limiting…
 This is easily the most condescending two-word combination I have ever written.
 While we’re on the subject, let’s just get this off my chest. (1) Jianti sucks. (2) Tibet is part of China. (3) Marvel is better than DC, but Superman gets tradition points. (4) Everyone who wants to write comics in English should first be required to get training or permission from Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Craig Thompson. (5) Tibet is still part of China.
 Or shall it?
 Which begs the question…who the frock died and made them Gott of German? What’s even funnier is that a philosopher might tell you that that’s not the “correct” way to use “beg the question”. You like these footnotes, don’t you? I tried adding footnotes to footnotes but it wouldn’t let me. I wanted to realize that Matthew Perry joke from Almost Heroes.
 In a van down by the river!
 Mmmm…perhaps less tight.
 That eventually juggernauted all the way to China, somewhat…ehhh…uninvited. And…without knocking first. But a juggernaut nonetheless.
 A look back at my logs shows that I’ve been avoiding using Chinese in favor of Japanese, for speed reasons.