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Japan Enters the Typewriter Race


The mustachioed romanizers of the Meiji period — from the Roman Character Association (羅馬字会) and their 1885 pamphlet “How to write Japanese in Roman characters” to Mori “Let’s just all speak English” Arinori — were the first to seriously make the argument that Japan’s writing system would be better abandoned than reformed. The idea was influential for the better part of a century among certain circles of Japanese society, and there’s still a Nihon Rōmaji Kyōkai (“Society for the Romanization of the Japanese Alphabet”, 日本ローマ字協会) in operation today. Shiga Naoya’s famous 1946 “Let’s all just speak French” proposal, however, was essentially the movement’s last hurrah.

1946, after all, was the year that the Ministry of Education announced gendai kanazukai (modern[ized] kana usage) and the tōyō (“general-purpose”) list of simplified kanji. These two changes swept away the most egregious archaisms and inconsistencies of written Japanese, depriving the Indo-Europhiles of the orthographic horror stories they were forced to fight against in the past. With only cerebral arguments on general principles left, groups opposing the kana-kanji-kana orthography faded into irrelevance as the Japanese economic miracle progressed.

But romanizers and modernizers were not the only ones who wanted to rebuild Japanese in the Imperial years. The Kanamojikai (カナモジカイ, “Kana Character Society”), founded in 1920 and still active, were inspired by the same issues — our children waste too much time learning kanji, our writing system doesn’t fit properly down linotype wires, etc. — but had, in a way, a more radical program than other groups worrying about these issues.

(There were no doubt many practical considerations behind the decision to spell “Rōmaji kyōkai” with as many kanji as possible — 羅馬字会 — not least the lack of public understanding at the time of how to read Roman characters, but dog food is dog food and someone has to take the first bite.)

The Kanamojikai’s aim was to convert the katakana syllabary into a form that that would let readers recognize words as gestalts, like readers of English and other alphabetic languages can. Kanji and hiragana were to be locked in the basement and never spoken of again.

In practice, this meant:

  • Horizontal writing from left to right
  • Spaces between words
  • Careful word choice to avoid homonym problems
  • New letterforms

The first three ideas are nothing special and are actually working out quite well in modern Korean. To propose new letterforms, however, takes chutzpah.

Fortunately, the founder of the Kanamojikai, Yamashita Yoshitarō, had plenty of chutzpah. He’d been working on this idea since 1914, when he made his first attempt at a more legible katakana syllabary. In subsequent years he commissioned typefaces from Hirao Zenji and Cabinet printing office staff member Saruhashi Fukutarō, and the results were used in the first issue of the Kanamojikai’s newsletter Kana no hikari (“Kana-light” — like, sunlight), published in 1922.

Kana no Hikari, issue 1'

The article in the right column at the above link is set in one of Saruhashi’s typefaces, and though the content is predictable (kanji are a “heavy, heavy burden” “borrowed” from China which should be “returned”) the visual effect is marvelous. If romanization can be likened to requiring that everyone abandon their wardrobes in favor of standard-issue gray overalls, the Kanamojikai were urging everyone to adopt a new one-size-fits-all art-deco kimono. I am particularly partial to the zig-zag treatment of the dots in シ (shi) and similar characters.

The most important difference between these characters and the “standard” way of writing kana is the abandonment of the one-size-fits-any-character “imaginary box” concept in favor of a Roman-inspired “character body + protrusions” approach. For example, the last three words on the first line are “オモイ オモイ ニモツ” (“heavy, heavy burden”); notice that all these characters share the same baseline and x-height, with the top of the イ and オ protruding above the meanline to reach the capline.

Heavy, heavy burden

Now compare this with the katakana rendered by your browser in this paragraph — unless your settings are quite idiosyncratic, each one should be spreading to share an identically-sized square, with no equivalent vertical or horizontal alignment.

In other words, while Saruhashi’s typeface is clearly recognizable as katakana, it also represents a replacement of the thousand-year-old organizing principles of Japanese script with new ideas straight out of Europe. Stylish handwriting reproduced by woodblock printing, perfectly square grid layouts — all this was to be abandoned in favor of the post-Gutenberg European tradition of type, miniature skylines of letters clumped in words spread out on lines proceeding from left to right.

For Yamashita did not see language as something separate from the world it described. He understood it as part of a feedback system, inseparable from the technology and progress it enabled. Why settle for mere compatibility with the major European colonial languages and their technologies for communication when Japanese could simply strip their alphabets for parts and then blaze far, far ahead? Like the Meiji thinkers a generation before him, Yamashita wanted to be proactive rather than reactive.

So the next thing he did was travel to America and collaborate with Underwood Typewriter Company employee Burnham C. Stickney on the first kana typewriter. Yamashita’s name isn’t actually on the patent, but his agenda is clearly visible: “Katakana is usually written downwardly in vertical lines; but an object of the invention is to give added impetus to the movement which has progressed for many years in Japan, to introduce horizontal writing from left to right,” etc. More to the point, the typeface is unmistakeably Yamashitate.

Typewriter kana font'

He was clearly still searching, as there are innovations here unseen in his earlier attempts: the rethought descenders, for example, and the teardrop terminals. This was partly driven by necessity — the terminal on ニ and ミ help distinguish those characters from the kanji 二 and 三, for example — but the language of the patent has plenty to say about aesthetics. Yamashita’s changes “bring [the text] into harmony and enhance the elegance of the typed page”; his characters are “trim and elegant” without lacking “squareness and substantiality.” Having taken it upon himself to forge a new script for a new age, the man did not intend to settle for utility alone.

Sadly, the kana typewriter turned out to be Yamashita’s last swing at the piñata. By the time he returned to Japan in early 1923, he was already dying of stomach cancer. In April of that year, he finally succumbed. “Nothing is more urgently required right now for the development of our nation’s culture than the reform of our national writing system,” he wrote in his final testament. Maybe, with the first kana typewriters scheduled to arrive in Japan a month after writing those words, he even believed it would happen.

Yamashita Yoshitaro's final testament'

February 21, 2008

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

25 Responses

  1. alin Says:

    fascinating stuff.

    speaking of gestalt though nothing beats kanji. can’t prove it but i have enough reason to believe japanese speed readers are significantly faster then their alphabet fellows.

    there was that time in the 2nd half of the 90s when everything seemed to be icons and rather kanji-like (in the ezra pound-ish sort of way). who would have guessed then that the internet will and up as the endless columns of linear text it is now.

  2. Daniel Says:

    Yeah, I also feel like kanji are faster. I mean, the first few years you study Japanese, everyone just wishes everything was in hiragana, but once you’ve gotten used to kanji and have practiced reading, an endless string of hiragana is just a huge pain in the ass. Try loading up Super Paper Mario or some other RPG…I often wish there was a kanji setting for games.

  3. M-Bone Says:

    I feel Daniel’s pain.

    My least favorite Japanese reading experience has to be manga robots. Some mangaka (notably Tezuka Osamu) have some robots speak entirely in katakana. I’d rather have kanbun.

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    Yes, the flaws of using only katakana become very clear when you start playing Japanese games.

    I too like kanji in that I can speed read through books to find what I am interested in, although you can also do this in English.

  5. Matt Says:

    Yeah, I like the tripartate system too, and the pre-standardization version is much more fun and expressive.
    I’m with you on the pro-kanji arguments (although I only have my subjective experience to back it up), but not your anti-kana ones, at least in this context. Relative difficulty of reading kana was exactly what Yamasita was trying to eliminate. You can’t judge how well his worked based on how had it is to read the very katakana forms he had targeted for replacement with easier ones. Would that have been enough to make katakana quick-readable? We won’t know until someone puts together and runs the right experiment.

    (I don’t personally believe that his new katakana would be adequate compensation for the loss of hiragana and kanji, mind you, but his proposal deserves to be considered on its merits as a coherent whole.)

  6. Matt Says:

    So just pretend I didn’t make all those typos. Japanese mobile phones are enough to make a man swear off romanization for life.

  7. W. David MARX Says:

    I am unclear whether my mobile phone has the internet on it, but that’s probably why I only pay 3000 a month.

  8. Daniel Says:

    Yeah, I totally see what you’re saying. I mean, if there was only katakana from the beginning and they were spaced out just like English words, who’s to say it wouldn’t be easier. Very interesting article.

    Why wouldn’t the new katakana be enough? No variation in “spelling” for homonyms?

  9. Daniel Says:

    By beginning I was thinking subjectively and meant the beginning of my own study.

  10. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Well, the Kanamojikai are pretty frank about people just having to get used to working around homonyms. I think the issue would be resolved pretty quickly, to be honest, by writing styles gradually coming closer to speech (which after all works fine without kanji). Korea seem to be doing fine with just hangul, although I don’t know if their situation was exactly analogous.

    But when I talk about inadequate compensation, I’m speaking as someone who climbed up the rope ladder as an adult and has decided that it was worth it. Sure, there are people in Japan who can speak Japanese but can’t read kanji (and not only non-nationals); it’s a problem, they have difficulties with government documents etc. But in 2008, with cheap design/printing/distribution via computers and the internet, I just think it makes more sense to accommodate them with all-kana editions, better furigana, etc., than to abandon kanji altogether.

    (Also on a purely practical level, unless you somehow outlawed kanji entirely, you know that well-off parents would send their children to kanji juku and that this would reinforce class divides and make access to written language [and presumably certain areas of employment, etc.] more unequal.)

  11. Mark S. Says:

    Matt, I’m in awe of your production lately. I put out two measly lines, and you respond with a whole page of interesting material. And then this one.

    Great post, though the argument in your most recent comment that eliminating kanji would reinforce class divides is … unusual.

    I won’t bother to elaborate, though, since your spam checker probably still hates me and will eat this.

  12. M-Bone Says:

    “Korea seem to be doing fine with just hangul”

    I’m not sure that Korea is doing so fine.

    Example – Korea has serious beefs with its two closest (normal) neighbors – China and Japan. While the neighbors are not blameless, a major cause of tension has to do with points of historical interpretation.

    Popular Korean claims to Confucius, ancient Chinese culture on various levels, Judo, samurai, kenjutsu, sushi, (Jesus?), etc. (forget about territory) are being made in the context of a population that cannot read their society’s historical documents. When (often dodgey or self-serving) translations become a society’s only access to its entire early modern and pre-modern history, there are bound to be examples of things not going so fine.

    For Japan, getting rid of the kanji would, at the very least, be like ripping the heart out of the Japanese literary tradition. If people in the English speaking sphere suddenly switched to a kanji-like system, I doubt, after a generation or two, that many people would “get” what is special about a Joyce or a Steinbeck or a Cormack McCarthy.

  13. Aceface Says:

    There is a revival of Kanji in Korea recently so I don’t think they are satisfied just with “the most efficient alphabets in the world”.

    “Popular Korean claims to Confucius, ancient Chinese culture on various levels, Judo, samurai, kenjutsu, sushi, (Jesus?), etc”

    I’m not so sure how much of the population actually believe all these.
    They certainly do not with Confucius Samurai,Sushi and Judo.
    The whacky academics and media articles claiming “everything is originated from Korea”are taken by Koreans with grains of salt.There are certainly those who do take these arguments seriously,but I wouldn’t consider them as majority.

    Kendo was mostly started by police officers after Meiji restoration in Japan and introduced in Korea by those who served the office of government general during colonial years.Many Koreans who were hired as police officers spread Kendo everywhere in the colony.
    But that part of history is forbidden nowadays,so they come up with new historical interpretation that sword fighting was established in Korea before it went to Japan thus the origin of Kendo is in the peninsula.
    So those whacky ethno-centric historical interpretation is more to do with politics,and has nothing to do with lack of Kanji skills.

  14. M-Bone Says:

    “So those whacky ethno-centric historical interpretation is more to do with politics,and has nothing to do with lack of Kanji skills.”

    You are correct – many Koreans don’t buy all of this stuff but the fact that they also can’t check the sources if they want to is a big problem. There is a big disconnect between contemporary Korea and the Korean past and I can’t help but think of the language gap as being a notable part of that.

  15. alin Says:

    the (lack of, or rather the small and even) spacing in japanese writing is simply another aspect of say the way say urban , and rural for that matter, space is organized ,, and also of more abstract patterns like conversation dynamics etc. when all of tokyo 23-ku look like marunouchi then we might see spaces between words.

  16. Heraclitean Fire — Links Says:

    […] Néojaponisme » Japan Enters the Typewriter Race The story of one Japanese spelling reformer’s plan to ditch kanji and redesign katakana for better legibility. (tags: Japan Japanese katakana typewriters interesting) […]

  17. W. David MARX Says:

    I think the issue would be resolved pretty quickly, to be honest, by writing styles gradually coming closer to speech

    I think it’s interesting how a certain sound – say せいこう – can be the onyomi for 12-15 different words, but in speech, is pretty much limited to being “success” (成功). You’d have to really nail the context to get it to signal “sexual intercourse” (性交). 精巧 – exquisite – works because it’s a na-adjective. All the other homophones are so clunky to use that most people learn naturally to ignore them if they can. (Maybe the same reason we generally avoid saying “niggardly”…)

  18. Christopher Says:

    Isn’t this issue with the homonyms because of the way the words (or pieces of words, anyway) were taken from Chinese? In Chinese I imagine (I don’t know any Chinese) they don’t have this same problem because the tones distinguish words that sound the same in Japanese.
    When I first started learning Japanese, I hated kanji and appreciated the simple pronunciation, but these days I find the written language both more expressive and easier to understand than the spoken.

  19. W. David MARX Says:

    Yes, the problem was erasing the tones – which were crucial for differentiation.

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    […] Japan Enters the Typewriter Race Fascinating article! Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

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  22. Anymouse Says:

    But they can differentiate some of them with pitch accent, can’t they?

  23. W. David MARX Says:

    Those are only yamato kotoba homonyms, right? Are there pitch accent differences for imported Chinese words?

  24. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Some, but not all. All of the seikos are the same, for example. The fact is that they don’t really need to differentiate between them because (as noted above) in the vast majority of spoken situations, context supplies all the information people need. I’m not convinced that holds in the case of writing, because of the differences between writing and speech.

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