US Wins Math Olympiad For First Time In 21 Years

Events like the Math Olympiad are at least a partial solution to the inequality between recognizing academic and athletic excellence that I’ve pointed out before, but still falls short since I literally forgot about its existence since the last time it was news, which was when I was still in high school.

Japan's Creep toward the Right

The Japanese election results were worrisome. Turnout was poor, which reflected both the apathy of the public, and the short lead-up to the elections. The one bright note was that a few right-wingers like Ishihara lost their seats. However, Abe will be continuing in his position as Prime Minister and because of that, Japan will keep steadily shuffling toward rightist nationalism.

It remains to be seen how successful his economic policies will be, but we already know how Abe’s right-leaning orientation has affected the political sphere in Japan and Japan’s relations with the rest of Asia. In an article from 2012, “Abe sticks to 1995 statement on WWII apologies, may review ‘comfort women’ acknowledgements”, Abe and his cabinet did not go so far as to retract acknowledgement for Japan’s responsibility for all of its wartime acts, but he did say that he doubted some of the claims of Japanese war crimes; specifically the forced abduction of women from invaded territories for military brothels. Since then, he has reiterated that position and provided tacit support for conservative groups who are even more outspoken in their denialist beliefs.

In US-centric terms, having Abe in office as prime minister is like having a president who has expressed Holocaust denial beliefs in public and meets with KKK-friendly politicians. A guy like that wouldn’t come right out and say that the thing with the Jews [1] was just a big misunderstanding, but he just can’t believe that all of the camps were death camps. Some of them were just work camps, and heck, the kapos were even volunteers(!) so how bad could it have been?

This is why, despite multiple apologies over the decades, many Asians from countries that Japan invaded during WWII — particularly Koreans and Chinese — have been consistently critical of Japan. Official acknowledgements of responsibility for Japanese actions during the War have been consistently inconsistent. In contrast to the German approach in educating its youth about the Holocaust and Naziism, Japan wavers between glossing over and completely ignoring its misdeeds. Overall, Japanese education tends to emphasize Japan’s status as the victim of the atomic bombs that led to Japan’s eventual surrender.

I’ve written about some of these issues before, most extensively in a post about “comfort women”, and briefly concering texbook references to one of the disputed island territories about a month before that.

In the Japanese middle school and high school textbooks I’ve seen, the Nanking Massacre (more luridly, The Rape of Nanking) — or as it’s often bloodlessly known in Japanese, 南京事件, the “Nanking Incident” — is relegated to nearly footnote status — if it’s included at all — and the language is riddled with weasel-words. If you read Japanese, you can pick up a handful of history texts from the library or a bookstore to verify this. If you don’t read Japanese, you still don’t have to take just my word for it; the Japanese author of a BBC article talked about her experience of the education system’s lies of omission in “What Japanese history lessons leave out” published last year.

Japanese history texts are shallow on all topics. The layout of the texts that I’ve seen is similar to a magazine, with the exception that there simply are no in-depth multi-page pieces. Everything, everything is broken up into 200–500 word articles organized around a larger topic, covering perhaps a total of one page for each major topic. The whole of WWII — and I’m being generous by including the 1931 invasion of Manchuria as the beginning point — is covered in 14-and-a-half pages of the more extensive of the two texts I have at home. There is no room for analysis in the text, and there is very little (if any) analysis or explanation that takes place in class either. In context with history texts as a whole, the short blurb on Nanking is not atypical, it’s depressingly normal.

Contrast that shallow gloss with the full-chapter excerpt of tear-jerking pathos from “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes” that I have seen in nearly every middle-school English textbook from the major publishers. Sadako’s story is so well-known that folding paper cranes became The Thing to Do when someone is in the hospital (I received a set in my first year in Japan when I was in the hospital due to an injury incurred at a school) and has made it into, of all things, an English-language Bathroom Reader.

In brief, this is how the Japanese education system addresses these three topics:

  • Girl dying of leukemia: a full chapter with 3–5 class hours dedicated to studying it in English over the course of a week or more, plus an extensive treatment of the atom bombings and aftermath in every history book I’ve ever seen.

  • Hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians shot and bayonetted to death, women gang-raped, children butchered: a 250 word blurb with non-committal language buried at the bottom of a page in only some history text books, that might be briefly mentioned in class, if the teacher isn’t too uncomfortable and doesn’t just ignore it.

  • Women from invaded territories captured and forced to whore for the military: whiplash-inducing statements from politicians over the decades, with “more study necessary” being the perennial favorite, as the numbers of the surviving women dwindle from old age and they still wait for unambiguous acknowledgement from Japan of what was done to them when they were still barely older than the girls who doubtlessly shed many tears over the plight of Sadako during their English class studies.

Expect Japan under Abe to move further right, even though some far-right members of minority opposition parties lost their seats. The overall tone of Japanese politics has already been shifting to the right (the increasing number of visits to Yasukuni shrine by politicians are an indication of this) and Abe provides an aegis for more open nationalism. Earlier last year, his cabinet already effectively abrogated the constitutional provision against war, Article 9.

You can expect an official-official, un-retracted acknowledgement of full responsibility for ianfu around the time the last of the grandkids (or maybe the great-grandkids) of the afflicted women’s generation die off. In other words, you’ll probably die of old age yourself before that happens. Assuming there isn’t another war with Japan in the meantime.


  1. … and the homosexuals, and the disabled, and the Roma, and the other estimated 5-million-plus “undesirables” who seem to get left out in the holocaust count.

Bandwidth Wants to Be Used

Along with “information wants to be free”, the phrase, “higher bandwidth wants to be used” should enter the popular lexicon. Over the last several years I’ve noticed an increasing prevalence of video and audio tutorials that would probably be much better and more succinct if they were text, with illustrations or pictures.

This growth is definitely not in my imagination. Dan Frommer published a chart that graphically demonstrates this shift, probably because it made other headlines around the same time. This was made possible by widespread access to broadband and the popularity of video services in North America[1].

I read normally for enjoyment at about 700 words a minute[2], but upwards of 1,000 wpm when I’m skimming to extract information. Complex text might slow me down to a bit under my pleasure-reading speed for some sections, but my overall average for informational reading is about the same as my normal reading speed since I speed up between those sections. I know I’m an outlier, but even an average reading speed of 250–300 wpm is faster than audio/visual presentation since it is not limited to linear access.

Narrative speech is about 150–160 wpm. Presentation-style speech is typically slower, about 100–130 wpm, to allow the audience to process denser material and parse any visually presented information. I listen to, at present, 20 different podcasts for both entertainment and informational purposes. Depending on the type of podcast and the speaker, I listen at 1.7 to 2x speed.

Speech is processed differently from written material. While I can read really quickly, I can’t comfortably listen to and comprehend speech faster than double-speed most of the time, which means that the fastest I can get information from audio is less than half of my “leisurely” normal reading speed, much less my fast reading speed.

I have become frustrated with learning many things online, since nearly any project seems to turn up a page of videos, and only a handful of written articles — and most of those are multi-page slideshows. I find it hard to believe that I’m the only person who would prefer to read than view a video, but I guess usage and popularity statistics prove me to be a vanishingly small minority.

I will admit that there are some things that video is much better suited for teaching. When I wanted to use some left-over leather, that I’d bought for a costume, in a more extensive project, I looked at videos by Ian Atkinson and Nigel Armitage to learn how to sew a saddle stitch by hand, and a few minutes of demonstration was more helpful than the several descriptions and handful of drawings I’d managed to find elsewhere.

The actual sewing demonstrations in those videos is only a few minutes of the total. While most of that extra time is not “wasted” — Atkinson talks about many other related topics and organizes them well, and Armitage talks about common problems while demonstrating proper technique — many amateur videographers are not so conscientious.

It’s now easy and cheap to record video, but it has always been much more difficult to edit, and even more difficult to edit well. In an age of more restricted bandwidth, or more expensive recording equipment and storage mediums, the extra effort was worth it even for an amateur, but now anyone can throw the whole video up on YouTube and put the burden of finding the best bits on the viewer.


  1. As this article in The Verge explains, streaming video isn’t a thing in Japan, so while nearly half of all bandwidth in the US is chewed up by YouTube and Netflix, internet video is barely getting started here, and may be acquired into an early death by hidebound incumbents.  ↩

  2. I don’t use speed-reading techniques; I’m a naturally fast reader. In fact, I audited a speed-reading presentation at university and found that some of what they were teaching actually slowed me down since I was thinking about the process instead of just getting a visual info-dump into my head, the way normal reading felt to me. I never thought I was “fast” as a kid because my grandmother read ridiculously fast, like Reid in Criminal Minds fast. When I asked her to proofread school assignments, she’d find mistakes at the bottom of the page seconds after I handed the paper to her.  ↩

Can the Lessons from Finnish Schools Be Applied Elsewhere?

Finland’s education expert Pasi Sahlberg, author of “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland?” addressing the focus on teacher effectiveness in the US:

What if Finland’s Great Teachers Taught in US Schools?

To finish up, let’s do one theoretical experiment. We transport highly trained Finnish teachers to work in, say, Indiana in the United States (and Indiana teachers would go to Finland). After five years—assuming that the Finnish teachers showed up fluent in English and that education policies in Indiana would continue as planned—we would check whether these teachers have been able to improve test scores in state-mandated student assessments.

I argue that if there were any gains in student achievement they would be marginal. Why? Education policies in Indiana and many other states in the United States create a context for teaching that limits (Finnish) teachers to use their skills, wisdom and shared knowledge for the good of their students’ learning. Actually, I have met some experienced Finnish-trained teachers in the United States who confirm this hypothesis. Based on what I have heard from them, it is also probable that many of those transported Finnish teachers would be already doing something else than teach by the end of their fifth year - quite like their American peers.

In other words, the problems are systemic. While better teacher education and training might help a bit, the quality of individual teachers is not the main problem in the US. It’s not surprising that performance-based incentive programs for teaching are currently forcing out good teachers and rewarding ones who game the system. The remnants of “No Child Left Behind” — which focused on tests to the exclusion of actual learning — have undermined what few tendrils of actual education theory have managed to insinuate their way into the system. Everyone agrees that something is wrong. No one makes positive systemic changes.

Japan also has endemic problems with their education system. The relatively high standardized test scores mostly mask these problems from the outside, but they’re obvious given any level of privy access. The secondary school system reflects the same problems, which is probably why Todai (Tokyo Daigaku, or Tokyo University), the top university in Japan, isn’t even in the top 30 universities in the world, and is ranked only 9th in Asia.

Teachers are respected and have comparable working conditions to other professions requiring a similar amount of education. Teaching is a relatively attractive choice for a career still, despite a declining fertility rate which limits the potential for career growth. In contrast to the US, attracting young people who aspire to be good teachers is generally not a problem in Japan. There is better job security, and pay is decent compared to the business sector.

The main problem is the way things are taught. The teachers are a product of the education system, they are taught to teach within that system, and the system fails abjectly at nearly every metric — with the sole exception of standardized test scores. Nearly everything in the education system is geared toward passive learning and memorization, both of which test very well.

Japanese students have very little training in critical thinking, because virtually no curriculum time is devoted to production. They very rarely write essays or reports; they don’t do projects either. They don’t practice giving speeches (outside of the handful who participate in English speech competitions) and they don’t have debates or discussions. Questions asked in class are meant to elicit a factual response based solely on the class materials. Virtually nothing in the way of interpretation or opinion is required, and is discouraged by many teachers because it takes time away from covering the official curriculum.

I have been living in Japan for over a decade, and very little in the education system has changed in that time. According to people I met in the first few years here, who were involved in the education system, almost nothing had changed in the previous decade or more. The few positive changes I’ve seen, like the abolition of Saturday classes in public schools in order to give students time to study and have some creative free time, have been subject to regression, mostly because of pressure from the education ministry.

But there are still occasional articles that point to Japan as having a better school system. Believe me, they don’t. Nothing could be better for Japan than a top-to-bottom reform of the education system (preferably starting by throwing out the old buggers who keep approving biased textbooks).

If American schools or Japanese schools want to enact a Finnish-style system, they will have to gut the entire mess and start fresh. Established systems resist change in much the same way bodies react to foreign objects. They absorb, encapsulate, reject, or outright destroy new ways of doing things.

You’ve probably experienced this first-hand if you work in a big company. There have been a few high-profile examples recently. Ballmer got the axe, probably for daring to make a bold belated gesture toward systemic reform at Microsoft, and Ron Johnson got shitcanned by JC Penney even though he was starting to have moderate success with his boutique shop approach in the short time he was allowed free rein there.

I’ve certainly experienced it in my time here in Japan. Every time I have been asked to create something new, I have subsequently been “strongly requested” (read: ordered, nicely) to change a few things…and then a few more, until the results are nearly indistinguishable from what was in place before. I was requested to enact change, then required to negate that change, so in the end, nothing changed. Welcome to Japan.

Why Chinese Is [Not] so Damn Hard

David Moser:

… But I still feel reasonably confident in asserting that, for an average American, Chinese is significantly harder to learn than any of the other thirty or so major world languages that are usually studied formally at the university level (though Japanese in many ways comes close).

[Footnote] 3. Incidentally, I’m aware that much of what I’ve said above applies to Japanese as well, but it seems clear that the burden placed on a learner of Japanese is much lighter because (a) the number of Chinese characters used in Japanese is “only” about 2,000 – fewer by a factor of two or three compared to the number needed by the average literate Chinese reader; and (b) the Japanese have phonetic syllabaries (the hiragana and katakana characters), which are nearly 100% phonetically reliable and are in many ways easier to master than chaotic English orthography is.

I understand where Moser is coming from. I took Spanish for one year in middle school, and two in high school. Even with my total indifference to academic achievement at the time, the frankly terrible teaching style (one teacher had us repitan en Español for most of the period nearly every day), and no previous experience in learning a foreign language, I reached a basic level of conversational ability that was occasionally useful living in California. Nearly a decade later, I went to Spain for a 10 day vacation (with my then-girlfriend, now-wife) and found I’d retained enough to follow the plotline of TV dramas, get the gist of overheard conversations, and ask simple questions and understand the answers.

It took me over 3 years of constant studying and immersion on my own — following a combined year of university instruction — before I reached that level of competence in Japanese. That’s just the spoken part. In reading and writing, since I’ve had to learn mostly on the job and have rarely had much time for real study past those first few years, I still don’t function at a particularly high level. I can effectively read for content, but most nuance is beyond me, and since I came to it so late, I’ll probably never progress to where I can dispense with references when reading or writing.

I occasionally joke to my wife that my next language will be something easy, like Arabic. If I’d been studying virtually any Indo-European language for this length of time, I’d probably be both fluent and literate by now. I would probably have had time to acquire two or three languages at a decent level of ability given the same time investment.

Most of what I know about Chinese, outside of some material covered in university linguistics classes, is in connection to Japanese. Chinese had a huge influence on the way Japanese has developed since at least the first wave of adoption of Chinese writing. Around 60% of the words in a modern Japanese dictionary and nearly 20% of the spoken vocabulary are kango (漢語); words either borrowed directly or derived from Chinese. That means that Chinese had roughly the same influence on Japanese that Latin had on English.

Moser asserts that Chinese is possibly the hardest language to acquire, and in the two parts I quoted above, he directly compares the difficulty of Chinese to Japanese. I think he’s wrong. Japanese is even more difficult than Chinese. Everything he complains about in regards to Chinese is even more difficult and complicated in Japanese.

Readings

No matter how bad the sound-symbol complexity is in Chinese, it’s worse in Japanese. There are multiple readings for the same character, some of them only occurring in a single context. Japanese didn’t borrow Chinese characters just once, there were a few waves of importation over the course of centuries. The mixture of existing native Sino-Japanese words mixed with the imported Chinese ones led to some characters having a painfully large number of readings.

Virtually every kanji has at least two readings. Then there are the combinations. Which reading do you use in combination with other kanji, in which context? There are kunyomi (Sino-Japanese), on’yomi (Chinese derived), and mixtures, along with “difficult” readings that even native Japanese speakers can’t reliably produce without special study or a dictionary for reference. And this is completely ignoring the euphonic changes in reading which happen in combination with preceding or following sounds that are just a small part of what makes even simple counting such an utter bitch.

According to anything I can find, Chinese characters have a single reading in a dialect with some fairly predictable variations. Compare that to bastards like 生 in Japanese, which might (who the #^¢* knows?) have 150 readings in Japanese. Even Japanese don’t know all these readings without intensive study, which is why particularly difficult kanji or unusual readings will sometimes have furigana pronunciation guides above them. Notice that I said “sometimes.” Place names are often idiosyncratic, which makes getting directions very interesting sometimes, like when even Japanese who aren’t from that particular area don’t know the proper reading for a sign or landmark name.

The syllabaries are (mostly) unambiguous to sound out, but virtually useless for determining meaning. Moser mentioned the difficulty he had in figuring out where the word boundaries are in Chinese. If you encounter a passage written in hiragana, which is also written with no spaces between words, it will also be stripped of all the useful context provided by kanji. Here is just a taste of why the large number of homophones in Japanese make the “friendly” regularity of the katakana and hiragana syllabaries meaningless.

In addition, there are a growing number of loan words that are often — but not always — rendered in katakana. Trying to learn them as cognates, thinking that you can guess from the root language (if you can even recognize the original word) is just asking for trouble. Sticking just with a couple of English examples, a manshon in Japan is about 50 m2 and maika is not my car. One truism of Japanese loan words is that the meaning has no more than a passing connection with whatever fragment of vocabulary someone latched onto and twisted into Japanese form.

Tones

I’ll give him half of a point on this one, since Chinese tones are more complicated than Japanese. Mandarin has 4 (plus a “neutral” flat tone), and Cantonese has 6 or 7, depending on dialect. But Japanese also has pitch accent patterns somewhat similar to tones, and some of the variations produce a different meaning if you screw up, not just a muddled accent. The relative paucity of sound combinations means that there are a large number of homophones that have to be parsed according to context. It might actually be helpful if Japanese had more tones. Japanese is probably the only language to rely heavily on writing for oral communication. Japanese people will sometimes draw kanji on their hands with their finger to disambiguate identical-sounding words. May the gods help you if you don’t know the distinguishing character.

Japanese has a complexity that is not a significant factor in either major dialect of Chinese: vowel length matters. The sound units of Japanese are morae, so each mora (or what would be roughly termed a syllable in English) gets a beat. English is a stress-timed language. For an English speaker, vowel length between stress points is mostly disregarded, while the length of time between stress points is seen as important. An English speaker’s tendency to elide vowels, disregard their absence in listening for meaning, and create diphthongs sometimes leads to serious difficulties in understanding and communicating verbally in Japanese.

I still can’t reliably distinguish 病院 (byouin, hospital) and 美容院 (biyouin, beauty parlor) without a decent amount of context to help me guess, and I’m told I have a really good ear for sounds compared to most non-native speakers. Even the more simple distinction of vowel length trips me up sometimes, particularly when I’m transcribing unfamiliar vocabulary encountered in meetings or conversations for later study.

Romanization

There are two major, and three minor romanization systems, as well as wapuro character input methods for computers that differ in some ways from both. The least ambiguous for non-Japanese speakers is the Hepburn system, or Hebon-shiki in Japanese.

As you can tell from the name, Hebon-shiki was designed by a non-Japanese. Revised versions of the original are the most widespread forms of romanization outside Japan, but the home-grown Kunreisiki currently has official standing in the education ministry and most of the other government bureaus. Kunreisiki makes learning English spelling even more difficult for this generation of kids because the Hepburn system that was taught to at least the previous two generations post-War maps much better to English spelling. Kunreisiki also confuses the crap out of nearly anyone whose native language uses a roman-based alphabet and doesn’t know much about Japanese — like any non-native learner. It’s basically a romanization system created by Japanese, for Japanese, which is the epitome of uselessness in my not-so-humble opinion.

To make things more confusing, various bureaus use different systems. Road signs, passports, and rail stations all use different variations on Hepburn, while other official documents typically use Nihonsiki or Kunreisiki, depending on the bureau or department.

I’ve also encountered very different ways of rendering things into romaji, or roman letters. Some sources combine the particles with the preceding word, some combine any connecting particles into one big mess, while the clearest and least ambiguous offset the particle from the lexical component. The original title of the film translated as Spirited Away in English could be rendered as Sento Chihirono Kamikakushi, Sentoshihironokamikakushi, or Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, respectively. Note that these were all written in bog-standard Hepburn romanization. Using a different flavor of Hepburn, or the Nihonsiki or Kunreisiki systems would produce even more variations.

(By the way, the title 千と千尋の神隠し is a clever kanji wordplay related to the storyline of the movie. The girl Chihiro [千尋] has part of her name stolen by the witch, Yubaba [湯婆婆, lit: bath witch] leaving her with only the 千 character, which can be read as sen or chi.)

What makes Japanese harder than Chinese

In addition to all of the writing complexity of Chinese, plus the extra readings I’ve already talked about, there are made-in-Japan kanji and specialty characters to spackle over the cracks left by jamming a non-native writing system into Japanese. The syllabaries are used in addition to kanji, not instead of kanji. Hiragana are used for okurigana, to add inflections and other grammatical information that couldn’t be adequately expressed with the Chinese system alone. Okurigana also often provide some indication of which of the possible readings is intended. When you read or write something in Japanese, you have to use at least 2 or 3 writing systems (sometimes up to 4, counting romanization and foreign terms) simultaneously.

The older forms of Japanese kanji are usually identical to the older forms of Chinese characters, but both Japan and China simplified their characters in different ways after the War. Japanese literary history is intimately connected to Chinese, so Japanese study classical Chinese texts (漢文, Kanbun) as well as Japanese (国語, Kokugo) ones. All the complaints he has about learning the ancient incomprehensible texts in classical Chinese along with modern forms is multiplied in Japanese. There are specialized dictionaries for studying 古語 (kogo, ancient words) or classical Japanese, as well as references for ancient Chinese literature.

Every complaint he has about Chinese calligraphic poetry is worse in Japanese, since the literary elite in Japan developed their own distinctive styles of calligraphy, and have both ancient Chinese texts and Japanese texts with which to make obscure allusions. Haiku and tanka seem simple until you learn that there are layers of meaning attached to each and every character choice and nuance of writing. And no, most Japanese people don’t understand all of it either.

The 2,000 characters often cited as necessary for Japanese is inadequate for full literacy. The recently revised list of 常用漢字 (Jouyou Kanji) currently taught in schools consists of 2,136 characters (with a combined 4,388音訓 on-kun readings: 2352 Chinese-derived・2036 Sino-Japanese), but most educated adults are probably familiar with between 2 and 3 times that number. Even native speakers may not be able to read aloud those that they either recognize from context, or understand the meaning of, however.

There is a standardized test, the 漢字検定 (Kanji Kentei), which tests comprehensive knowledge of meaning, usage, and readings of kanji. Level 1 (the highest level) covers 6,355 kanji, and reportedly only has about a 2% pass rate. Let me be clear: this test is meant for native Japanese speakers, and 98% of those who take it fail. For a frame of reference, about 80–85% of Navy personnel who make it to BUD/S wash out. Someone with a Level 1 Kan-ken certification is the kanji reading-writing equivalent of a high-rank Navy SEAL.

The 大漢和辞典 (Dai Kan-Wa Jiten) is cited as being the most comprehensive Japanese kanji dictionary, and has over 50,000 head entries. It’s a multi-volume set, not a single book. I mentioned this dictionary at the end of my earlier piece on a TED Talk about a method for learning to read Chinese. So, again, any complaint he has about Chinese is expanded for Japanese learners because they’re essentially compelled to learn two difficult languages — both Chinese and Japanese.

The grammar is ass-backwards from an English-speaker’s perspective. Japanese is an SOV language, while both Chinese and English are SVO. Japanese word order is so fluid that subjects can occur at the end of a sentence, and are often completely left out, usually being implied by context and/or the verb. Big deal, Spanish drops subjects too, right? How bad could it be? I’ve overheard conversations where native Japanese speakers lose track of what the hell they’re talking about.

I mentioned counting complexity earlier. In my early basic dictionary (which, contrary to what they say on their site, is nowhere near comprehensive) there are over 120 different counters for various objects. There are exceptions to the patterns in many of the counting sets, and the domains of some counters overlap. When ordering something, it’s common for the person to repeat your order using a different — but also appropriate — counter to confirm the number of items. Just giving a date in Japanese means navigating a minefield of two different number systems, plus counter words, plus exceptions and special readings for certain days.

Quick, how do you count rabbits? Like animals (匹) right? Nope, like birds. How do you count squid? The same way you count cups of saké, of course! 杯 (Wait … what?) Here’s a decent starting guide and a large compendium of counters, if you feel like diving down that particular pit of despair.

There are also a large number of words, 擬音語 (gion’go) and 擬態語 (gitaigo), that function basically like adverbs. I’ve found entries for so few of these in any bilingual dictionary that I’ve actually thought about compiling one of my own, but I’d probably blow my own brains out from frustration long before I finished the damn thing. (Well, maybe not, since guns are so hard to come by in Japan.)

Unless I’m missing several somethings in regard to Chinese study that push the degree of difficulty way beyond anything presented in Moser’s diatribe, from my own admittedly tangential knowledge of the subject I’m pretty comfortable saying that Japanese is substantially more difficult than Chinese. In order to learn Japanese even at a non-comprehensive, non-academic level, you have to learn the major part of the Chinese writing system, and then you still have to tackle Japanese.

Chineasy Book Project on Kickstarter

Chineasy is now a project on Kickstarter. At this writing, they've got 31 hours to go, and have already blown past their initial funding goal. I wrote about this previously after watching the TED Talk by ShaoLan where she outlined her approach to teaching Chinese characters.

I like the bold design elements, but I'm not so sure it will be useful for learning to actually read Chinese. It'll make a great coffee-table book though, and it might just introduce some people to the characters who would have had a much more shallow interaction without it. If you'd like a cool-looking book featuring 200 basic Chinese characters, it might be worth it to snag a copy before their campaign closes.

Brains vs. Brawn

Why is academic performance under-acknowledged compared to athletic performance? In Japanese schools, at every assembly the principal announces awards and certificates for athletic meets. Academic awards are presented once, at the end of the year. Some exceptional students are given academic awards at graduation, alongside the students who had perfect attendance. In the US, you might have a graduation speech given by a valedictorian and salutatorian…and that's about it.

Unless you have the potential to be a professional athlete — one of a few tens of thousands of people out of hundreds of millions — high school, and just maybe college will be the last time you get any official recognition for athletics. It doesn't have any impact on the rest of your professional life. That might be one reason for acknowledging athletic performance when young.

But I think the main reason academic performance is not celebrated more is that most people aren't capable of appreciating excellence. Almost anyone can see when an athlete is performing better than others. In most Olympic events, performance is explicitly objective. If your time is faster, if the distance you cover is greater, you're the best. Most normal people can see and interpret performance of this type on their own. In team events and other scored performances, it's easy to tell who is winning and losing, and again it's usually easy for normal people to see which team or individual is performing better.

In academics, often only those who are capable of understanding the problem are capable of appreciating a good solution. Depending on the field of study, that might be a very small number of people. For example, I was classified as a “gifted” student in school. I consistently scored more than 2 standard deviations out from the norm on IQ tests, which means I'm in the top 1–2 percent of the population. And there are entire fields of study in academics that I don't understand. At all. There are far more things I am incapable of understanding than those I can comprehend.

So, if even smart people are incapable of appreciating excellence, what chance do “normal” people have? I think that's the core of the problem.

Academic achievement by children is often ignored because there aren't many people who can even assess that achievement. Unless you've got exceptionally bright teachers and administrators, the kid might be the smartest person in the room at an average school. Grades and tests are a way to attempt to measure performance, but, aside from continuing controversy over whether those tests actually measure any real intelligence, the fact is that we just don't give out awards for getting high scores on IQ tests, passing an AP exam, or skipping a grade. In fact, you're more likely to face opposition, frustration, and even criticism if you're smart than if you're average.

In the two cultures I'm familiar with — Japan and the US — acknowledgment of intelligence generally marks you for derision, not admiration. No one tries to beat up the fastest runner in school because he or she is too fast, but being obviously smart is enough to make someone a target for bullies who want to prove they're superior to them in at least one way. Ironically, this is true even if you're good at athletics, especially if you participate in the “wrong kind” of athletics, i.e. any non-team sport.

Academic achievement is held in slightly higher regard in Japan, but the acknowledgement is just as scanty as in the US. Compounding the lack of recognition is the fact that the classroom model of education is terrible for dealing with exceptional students. This is true for both countries. Classrooms are fairly bad even for “average” kids. Smart kids who succeed later in life often do so in spite of the education system, not because of it.

This is a particular problem in Japan where 「出る釘は打たれる」 (deru kugi ha utareru; “the nail that sticks up gets pounded down”) is the rule. It's hard to learn to think when academic achievement equals memorizing and regurgitating information on tests, you are discouraged from asking questions, and conformity is paramount.

Learn to Read Chinese with Ease (TED Talk)

 古代文字ゲーム kanji game screenshot

古代文字ゲーム kanji game screenshot

There probably were many people in the audience who didn’t know anything about Chinese writing, and so this talk was a brief introduction that went a long way toward demystifying kanji / hanzi for them. However, ShaoLan is not even close to the first person to introduce this concept. Kanji Pict-O-Graphix (1992) did a fantastic job of creating memorable and coherent pictures to match the core meaning of the characters, and even won awards for its graphic design. Even earlier, Heisig published Remembering the Kanji in 1977. Both Rowley and Heisig built on older etymological systems already in place in Japan and China.

The constituent elements are usually called radicals in English (部首; bushu in Japanese) and there’s a decent online introduction at About.com including the traditional patterns used for dividing the characters. (Incidentally, radicals are how you can explain exactly which character you mean when there might be dozens of characters with the same phonetic reading. This is similar to how we disambiguate letter sounds by saying “M as in Mike” in English.) Heisig called these “primitives” instead, but that’s just terminology. There are various methods for dividing and categorizing characters for use in dictionaries, but the most straightforward system for non-native learners is probably the newly-developed SKIP system used in the Kanji Learner’s Dictionary.

Chinese characters originally started as pictograms (representing the thing directly) and were soon adapted into ideograms (representing an associated or more abstract idea). Their meanings have sometimes mutated a bit from the earliest usages, and the forms have changed — sometimes drastically — since then. I have an iPhone game that can give even someone completely unfamiliar with the kanji a taste of how the characters have mutated from ancient Chinese to modern Japanese.

There is some instruction given in Japanese schools about combinations of the early characters. ShaoLan’s eight examples are among the first taught, since they are so easy to grasp. But oddly enough, once the basic concept of radical combinations is introduced children aren’t given explicit instruction in using the radical characters as a tool for guessing at the meaning of unfamiliar characters, or to enhance the retention of new characters. Most instruction heavily features lists and repetitive writing exercises, nothing more sophisticated than brute-force memorization. My wife (who is Japanese) was fascinated when I told her how I studied kanji. She’d never thought of learning characters through mnemonic stories. Instead, everyone just learned writing patterns and practiced the strokes, over and over and over.

In looking for links for this article, I ran across an excerpt on a blog called Nihongocentral that explains the traditional thinking pretty well.

Kanji textbooks for foreigners are based on Japanese books that use the following logic:

The smallest orthographic units in Chinese are strokes. There are six basic strokes, a dot (丶), a horizontal line (一), a vertical line (丨), a diagonal line falling from right to left (丿), a diagonal line falling from left to right ( ), and stroke with a change in direction (乚). These basic strokes have varied formats, such as different dots (e.g. in 氵, 丷, and 灬), different diagonal lines, (e.g. in 爪, 彡), lines with different curves (e.g. in 乙, 阝), and lines with hooks in different positions (e.g. in 乛, 勹).… [Et cetera, ad nauseum.]

Japanese children must learn the Jôyô Kanji, a list of (currently) 2,136 characters, by the end of high school. Roughly half of this number (1,006) are introduced gradually throughout elementary school, but the bulk of them are learned in middle school, with another few hundred and supplemental characters in high school. That means that it takes 9–12 years with the traditional approach to attain normal basic literacy. In contrast, I know non-native Japanese learners who were able to memorize around 1000 characters in just a couple of years using mnemonic approaches. When I was studying regularly, I would learn about 15–20 a day in an hour of dedicated study, though I would of course have to reinforce that study with associated vocabulary and reading practice if I wanted to retain what I’d learned for more than a few days to a week or so.

If Japanese literacy instruction was reformed to use mnemonic storytelling techniques, I think the time spent learning kanji could be considerably reduced. After all, non-native speakers have to learn a large amount of vocabulary and seemingly arbitrary readings along with the core concepts of the characters, while native Japanese kids already know the spoken language. All they need to learn is the idea, not the readings. If a dedicated non-native learner can achieve basic literacy in about 3–5 years, then native speakers should be able to use those techniques to achieve that level of reading ability even faster.

For those who are inclined to learn everything about a subject, I’d advise against “mastering” the writing systems of China or Japan. Kanji/Hanzi are a nearly bottomless black hole of study. I’ve personally seen a set of kanji dictionaries with about 50,000 entries. Yes, that’s a five followed by four zeroes — as in fifty-thousand — not a mistyping of five-thousand. There are an additional 30,000 or more characters that have been found in various ancient Chinese writings, many of which are one-off personal or place names.