Feature: KANJI War


Feature: KANJI War

Kanji as Cultural Mechanism

SUZUKI Takao and KATSURA Eishi

Kanji as Written Japanese, and the Character Code Problem

KATSURA--The Library of Babel, the exhibition currently running at the ICC [an art exhibition featuring XU Bing, YAMAGUCHI Katsuhiro, KOHMURA Masao and SUZUKI Ryoji, which ran from September 18th to October 25th, 1998--ed.] features a lot of work dealing with issues of Chinese characters in both informatics and written Chinese and Japanese, and in this context, I'd like to ask you, Professor SUZUKI, about your own research into the relationship between Chinese characters and the Japanese language. As for myself, until now, I've done a bit of reflection myself on the role of kanji within the context of both libraries and computers. I'd like to begin our discussion on the subject of kanji data exchange; and approach this linguistic issue from an information processing technology standpoint.

SUZUKI--What do you mean when you say "data exchange"?

KATSURA-- Simply put, that in order to display Chinese characters on the computer screen, different people have different ideas about which magnitude of data is appropriate to properly express the written Chinese script, and that there is some negotiation among the various interests involved right now. The strictly technical issue of standardizing these data exchange protocols has taken on the character of a political issue.

SUZUKI-- Because somebody has to concede...

KATSURA-- Precisely. But it is already a matter of international standardization. On the east coast of the United States, for example, there is a very large library dedicated to Asian Studies. They are obviously collecting a lot of materials, for which they need to produce an inventory. They need to corroborate their files with those of other libraries, such as the National Diet Library here in Japan. But if their respective kanji code architecture is different, then the sharing or transfer of data becomes meaningless, to the detriment of both sides. This problem is commonly called the kanji code problem. My position has long been that this was something to be worked out between the various scientific and technical organizations.

The problem is that the influence of the software industry, and companies like Microsoft, is sufficient to create de facto standards. The result of this is "unicode," an industry standard for kanji code architecture. And we see things like the Chinese letter for one "-" [a single horizontal bar which extends across one full character's space--trans.], and the character used for extending a vowel in the katakana syllabary "-" [a single horizontal bar which extends across one half of one character's space] could be regarded as one and the same in their engineers' position. Of course if you want to call it a violence to the language you are certainly justified in doing so, though seen from an engineering perspective of popularizing global information processing standards, and the according establishment of rational devices for expressing Chinese character sets (including kanji) in information processing, it seems one of a set of naturally occurring issues, just, as I mentioned before, when trying to realize electronic libraries capable of providing and exchanging comprehensive records of various texts. The kanji code issues must normally face the dissecting block. In this sense, these new "global" commercial influences provide an excellent opportunity to discuss this relationship between differing standards for encrypting kanji.

What we are finding instead are things like the event "Save Kanji! A Symposium to Consider Kanji Code Issues" held in 1997 by the Japan Writers' Association chaired by ETOH Jun. What we saw at that time were professional wordsmiths who are obliged to use kanji offering a declaration of their position on the matter of digital confinement of their expressions when faced with a future of providing or exchanging their works through the Internet or electronic libraries. Of course, such declarations are not the problem. The problem is the content of their grievance. Their first missive was a reactive claim to "Save the Language!" rather than laying the foundations for a rational discussion on how kanji data should be exchanged. They were interested in creating a campaign for the preservation of written Japanese in absolutist terms.

SUZUKI-- They are more concerned with the fact of Japanese being at the mercy of the global deluge of English?

KATSURA-- Their argument was that computer languages (Operating Systems and their related machine languages) were written to process data within the 26 letters of the English alphabet. Now I'm not saying that this is mistaken, but rather that now, with computers this influential in all matters of science and economy, they are apprehensive about their powers of expression being confined through this technology

SUZUKI-- What exactly do you think they meant by "confined?"

KATSURA-- For example, when an author writes his manuscript by hand, they might want to use kanji not included in the JIS Standard or Unicode databases. Common examples include the (oh) in the famous Meiji Era author MORI Ohgai's name, or the (ken) in the author UCHIDA Hyakken's name. Their concern is that the confines of kanji available to the computer user will become the confines of the author's linguistic palette. My objection to this is the logic which equates the kanji code issue with the expressive potential of the Japanese language. The potential for symbolic representation within Japanese language as a whole, versus the potential for symbolic representation of kanji alone are, while related, entirely different issues which, I feel, warrant entirely different discussions. And I find a discussion, by those who are using the Japanese language for artistic expression, which identifies itself solely on the role of kanji, to be a bit impoverished.

SUZUKI-- Throughout the world, there are any number of writing systems besides the Roman script. Chinese (including kanji), Cyrillic, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew and Greek, to name only a few. And while Cyrillic and Arabic script can be classified with kanji in that they are not Roman script, their essential character is not lost in conversion to Roman script. On the other hand, some scripts, including Japanese, gain a great level of anomaly in the transfer to Roman script. I'm continually doubtful as to whether there is anyone out there with a real grasp of this issue, actually discussing it.

The national language researchers seem unaware of it, and the general linguists are not interested in writing systems. As you know, linguists consider writing systems like one might think of apparel: the "no matter what you wear, the body inside is the same" approach. "Language is who we find beneath the clothing... " The world of Japanese language studies are ruled by such modern linguistic methodologies--the result is that graphemes (elements of writing systems) are not considered language itself, but externals. I have been saying all along that the Romanization of Japanese changes its very character. Their response is that it is actually an external element, but, like ill-fitting shoes that cut into one's foot, it incrementally influences the form of the wearer. I will concede that their origins may have been external, but given that Japanese has been using the graphemes of kanji for over a thousand years, we must consider that the application of an entirely different graphemic structure (Roman script) opens up a completely different world of linguistic issues. Whether these issues are a distraction or not can be discussed separately, but I do believe that we should begin from a recognition that they are indeed different.

KATSURA-- The Japan Writers' Association's discussions were unable to focus on the fact that Japanese is a language composed of kanji, katakana and hiragana. It was this point that I found shocking. The sense of discontinuity inherent in a text with several coexistent writing systems is an essential feature of Japanese, with such ruptures in any given sentence. Writing in Japanese inside of wordprocessing software, the fact that one is required to hit the character conversion key, (typically the "space bar" which pulls up a submenu of kanji choices for the phoneticized Roman-based keyboard input) is a physical recognition of the language's discontinuity. It is a form of discontinuity distinct from simply partitioning words with spaces or collecting scattered syllables to make word compounds. As long as our use of the language is predicated on the use of several coexistent writing systems, all of it, including authors' names should be considered "Japanese" script.

SUZUKI-- Making kanji alone into an issue, you soon find people wringing their hands because it was originally Chinese. I, however, am always proclaiming before the National Language Council that the two are completely unrelated. For over thirty years now! (Laughs) Back in those days, MAO Zedong was proposing that the People's Republic of China abandon the use of Chinese characters, and I was asserting that the relationship between Chinese and kanji were a separate issue from the relationship between Japanese and kanji. Kanji, because it is employed along with hiragana and katakana, simply exhibits complex effects in Japanese unthinkable in other languages--whether in its interrelations between constituent elements which can not be dissected in the same manner as European languages, or in being used for punctuation in ways that Chinese is not

It is common for the Japanese to describe their language in terms of its extraordinary peculiarities. Even when mapping linguistic families to say that it is isolated, but this is just another Japanese pathology to describe that they feel isolated from those languages which are presently leading the world--to once again decry their sense of inferiority towards Europe and North America in this "international" era. This is ludicrous. Look at Hebrew. It was dead for two thousand years until after WWII, when it was specially resuscitated. Now there's a language whose peculiar script has no international currency whatsoever. If we want to be able to debate the functions and effects of Japanese writing systems, we must first separate them from this invariable global status pathology. In this sense, I'm in favor of non-linguists like yourself, Mr. KATSURA, helping to organize issues of international linguistic exchange.

KATSURA-- Well, whether I'm capable of organizing issues of international linguistic exchange or not, my affiliation with kanji to present includes a relationship with an international movement towards a framework for "international cooperation" between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean's use of Chinese characters, and it is something which I am quite uncomfortable with. The means and applications by which kanji acts as a symbolic representation of the Japanese language is, or has a history which must be entirely distinct than that of the very same or similar Chinese characters' functioning within the Chinese and Korean languages, and it is my opinion that only through an understanding of these very indigenous idiosyncracies that we can come to a realistic apprehension of what kanji is. And in order to begin to gain such an apprehension, it is absolutely essential that we first have a clear understanding of the nature of Japanese's coexistent writing systems, and to the extent that we rigidly confine our discussions of our written language to the origins or shapes of specific written characters of only one of these, outside of this essential cultural context, we are, in effect, prohibiting ourselves from having meaningful discussions about the means and applications of written Japanese as a whole. Studying the Japanese written language according to cause and effect, it seems, is considered rather unorthodox though....

SUZUKI-- My comments at the National Language Council that I just don't want to hear testimony from famous specialists in Chinese characters are regularly, how shall I say, frowned upon. (Laughs) I am just tired of listening to them tell us about how things are done in China, really. The British don't ask specialists in ancient Greek or Latin to their discussions about the spelling of modern English, after all . . . even should the word in question use Latin spellings . . . but when it comes to discussing written Japanese, the issue of Chinese characters shows up, and things get lost in intractable discussions of the ancients . . . and this is why I proposed that we just begin with the supposition that there is no other people on earth using Chinese characters as the Japanese do, and that we just let ourselves worry about ourselves. Let's discuss how the language functions as a whole, I said, whether it is efficient or not, and what those who live in the language are dissatisfied with, and not whether it measures up to some European language or another. Then someone pipes up with another chorus of "let's abandon kanji because it's uneconomical," that old tune from the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century when Japan first opened it's doors to the west. Well, that very uneconomical kanji, is an essential part of the very same writing system that Japan used to leap from being a decimated nation to being one of the world's leading economic and technological leaders in the space of a few short decades. It's a dim craftsman that blames his tools.

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