[Top]  Last updated: 2000-08-09

Chinese characters, literacy, and the Japanese model

The complexity of Chinese characters is often singled out as the reason for China's low literacy rate. In response, some people point out that Japan uses Chinese characters too, and yet has attained a very high literacy rate; ergo, the Chinese characters themselves can't be the reason. This essay attempts to show why the Japanese writing system can't be used in defense of the Chinese one.

"Japan uses Chinese characters too!"

Recently, one of the regulars on the sci.lang newsgroup wrote:

    It should also be noted that although Japanese using a mixed system of
    characters  and  syllabaries (hence  even  more  complicated than  the
    Chinese  writing system),  Japan also  have  a literacy  rate of  99%.
    Another counter-evidence of "Chinese characters cause illiteracy".

(Please excuse the slightly odd grammar; English is not his native tongue.)

Yes indeed, the Japanese writing system does make heavy use of kanji, or Chinese characters, in addition to an indigenous syllabary[*] called kana (actually, two sets of them: hiragana and katakana). It's probably one of the most horrendously complicated systems in the world, if not the most complicated. And yet, Japan's literacy rate is reputed to be one the highest in the world. This surely means that Chinese characters can't be the reason for China's low literacy rates, doesn't it?

Well, unfortunately, it doesn't. I'm not saying that Chinese characters (or hanzi, as the Chinese call them) are the reason for illiteracy, but you can't use the Japanese example to prove that they're not.

[* Syllabary refers to a character set where one letter corresponds to one syllable. An alphabet, by contrast, refers to a system where one letter corresponds to one phoneme (a distinct sound of the language).]

The Japanese writing system

The Japanese writing system regularly uses three different character sets:

Here's a sample, using all three scripts:

a typical Japanese sentence

(The characters that aren't underlined are hiragana.) This isn't a contrived example, by the way, but a typical, everyday sentence; it simply means "I bought a TV set yesterday".

So, yes, the Japanese writing system is complicated, forcing its users to know three different sets of characters totaling over 2,000 in number, and to use them each in their proper roles. And yet 99% of the Japanese manage to avoid illiteracy. Surely, the mere fact that there are a great number of kanji (Chinese characters) are no hindrance to literacy. Or are they?

Where does the "99%" come from, and what does it mean?

Japan's literacy rate is often referred to as "99%", but a browse through the Ministry of Education's Web site produced no such number. (Yes, I looked through the White Papers. Tedious stuff.) Of course, it's possible that I overlooked a relevant document, but even if the government does indeed claim 99% literacy, there's another problem: what is the Japanese government's definition of literacy? Does it mean an ability to handle all 2,000+ characters learned in school? Or does it mean something else?

Here's a quote from The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy by John DeFrancis (p.216):

Research by a German scholar into prewar Japanese literacy noted that the requirements for graduation after six years of schooling, which was all the education received by most Japanese, included the ability to read and write 1,360 kanji and to recognize another 1,020, a total of 2,380 in all. Tests on military recruits a few years after graduation disclosed that youths with public school education remembered how to write an average of only 500 or 600 characters and still recognized only 1,000 of the 2,380 they had once learned (Scharschmidt 1924:183-187).

And yet those recruits were definitely not illiterate, or they would have been unusable as soldiers in a modern army. There were reasons why those recruits could read and write:

furigana and kana-only

Another quote from DeFrancis (p.217):

More recently Sato Hideo, head of the Research Section for Historical Documents, National Institute for Educational Research in the Japanese Ministry of Education, has estimated that public school graduates, who now receive nine years of compulsory schooling, retain a recognition knowledge of the 1,945 kanji but soon forget how to write all but 500 or so (1980: personal communication).

I recently (1999?) heard from an officer in the military that textbooks for enlisted men learning how to drive were supplied with furigana on every single kanji in the text. According to the officer, this was because a number of soldiers would otherwise be unable to read them.

In summary:

The Chinese writing system

The Chinese writing system consists of only one set of characters: the hanzi (so-called "Chinese characters"). Superficially, the system is far simpler than the Japanese system, which makes use of no less than three sets. However, this also means that the Chinese system has no method for writing phonetically.

This does make a difference. A Chinese who forgot the character for a particular word would have basically no way to write it down. As an example, suppose someone had to leave a memo asking his or her spouse to buy cucumbers, but forgot the hanzi. They would have no way to write it down, except perhaps by explanation ("green, elongated vegetable"). In constrast, a Japanese who forgot the kanji for "cucumbers" can simply use hiragana or katakana instead.

There is a possible way out, though; pinyin. Pinyin is an official system of phonetically transcribing the Chinese language using the Latin alphabet, with additional diacritical marks to indicate tones (which play a crucial role in the Chinese language). Pinyin is not widely used today except in study material etc. targeted to foreigners. If the use of pinyin could be expanded to fill the role played by kana in Japanese, it could be a boon for people whose hanzi abilities are lacking.

To sum up, pointing to the Japanese system and saying, "Look! They use the same characters as we do, and they've got 99% literacy!" is stretching things a bit too far. Even though the two systems may look similar to the casual observer, there's a crucial difference. A closer analogy would be Chinese written with both hanzi and pinyin, with hanzi restricted in number to 2,000 or so, and with pinyin furigana next to the more obscure hanzi.


It seems safe to say that the "99%" figure so often quoted for Japan's literacy rate includes a fair number of people who have no functional literacy in kanji. The reason they are not considered illiterate is because the Japanese writing system offers a fallback for people who forget their kanji: the phonetic kana characters. If the system consisted solely of kanji, these people would be illiterate.

In contrast, the current Chinese system uses only hanzi and offers no method of writing phonetically. Therefore, pointing to the Japanese writing system as a supporting case just doesn't work; the two systems are simply too different.

As to whether or not the current writing system is the chief cause of the high rate of illiteracy in mainland China, I can't say. There's no doubt that the current high rate is partly due to economic factors. However, the Japanese case seems to suggest that no matter how affluent China becomes, it will always have a number of people who simply cannot read or write in hanzi. How to deal with this problem is, of course, something that the Chinese have to decide for themselves.


DeFrancis, John. 1984. The Chinese Language. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

Hirofumi Nagamura <nagamura@kh.rim.or.jp>