September 1, 2010

Two Misconceptions About Japan and the Japanese

Once you come to Japan, you very quickly realize that you didn't know much about the country before you arrived.   Even the most diligent internet researcher will likely be in for a surprise or two.  This week I came across two interesting articles that shed some light on aspects of the country often over looked by western media.  The first article deals with the stark difference between Japan's high-tech image and the low-tech reality that pervades businesses and civil services where much of the work is still done on paper ala the 1960's:
Police stations without computers, 30-year-old "on hold" tapes grinding out tinny renditions of Greensleeves, ATMs that close when the bank does, suspect car engineering, and kerosene heaters but no central heating.

A dystopian vision of a nation with technology stuck in an Orwellian time warp? Not at all. These are aspects of contemporary, low-tech Japan that most visitors miss as they look around the hi-tech nation that its government, electronics industry and tourism board are keen to promote.
 The second article might provide some relief to all those just starting or thinking about study Japanese.  It highlights the fact that with the introduction of word-processors and cellphones into mainstream society people in Japan and China have steadily lost the ability to recall and handwrite even simple characters (kanji):
Like every Chinese child, Li Hanwei spent her schooldays memorising thousands of the intricate characters that make up the Chinese writing system.

Yet aged just 21 and now a university student in Hong Kong, Li already finds that when she picks up a pen to write, the characters for words as simple as "embarrassed" have slipped from her mind.

 "We rely too much on the conversion function on our phones and PCs," said Ayumi Kawamoto, 23, shopping in Tokyo's upscale Ginza district.

"I've mostly forgotten characters I learned in middle and high school and I tend to forget the characters I only occasionally use."
 Please click on the quotes to enjoy the full articles from the BBC and AFP, respectively.

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