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December 26, 2006

Kanji culture

When I studied Chinese characters (kanji) my teacher strongly advised me to practice by writing them. Only after you remembered the strokes with your pen (or pencil or writing brush), he said, could you also remember them with your eyes. I was reminded of my kanji practice of more than thirty years ago by the recent spate of books in Japan on penmanship.

Just like us, the Japanese now all day sit typing behind their computers, converting the text into kanji by a push of the button. It not only means their handwriting is deteriorating, they are also forgetting their kanji.

Even Basho has been called into action to stem this ugly tide. Since the beginning of this year more than 900,000 copies have been sold of a book called Enpitsu de Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road by Pencil). In this book, readers have to trace the lightly printed gray characters of Basho's text by tracing them with a pencil, in fact the same technique as when copying Buddhist sutras.

Even such an easy practice helps people remember the kanji. This would not be Japan if a booming trend had not been born. You can now exercise your penmanship by copying heaps of prepared classical texts and also by buying special drill books where you have to fill in characters from memory.

Remembering kanji is not the only reason for this return to handwriting. "Slow life" in the form of conscious nostalgia also plays a role, as is demonstrated by the 15% rise in sales of fountainpens this year.

A third and perhaps most important reason for penmanship is that writing by hand stimulates the brain. And "brain training" happens to be another important trend in this age of aging populations, as you will see again when you enter any given bookshop. The shelves are not only loaded with brain-practice books, but also games that are supposed to help you exercise your gray matter. So kanji practice packs a double punch and no wonder that it has exploded on the scene like it did in 2006.