Kanji as commodity

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On Friday, April 27, I participated in "Seeking a Future for East Asia’s Past:  A Workshop on Sinographic Sphere Studies" at Boston University.  Among the participants was Terry Kawashima who talked about the commodification and fetishization of kanji.  The following paragraphs are a revised version of a portion of her remarks:

There is something called the 日本漢字能力検定協会, or the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Public Interest Foundation, which sponsors a number of high-profile, popular events and activities in Japan.  The 日本漢字能力検定試験 (Japan Kanji Aptitude Test) is administered several times a year; test-takers pay to take these tests, ranked from level 10 (first grade level) all the way up to level 1 (for lack of a better description: kanji otaku level).  Although the fees are not extremely high (ranging from $15 to $50 per test according to level), there are over 2 million test-takers per year, so the profit is not insubstantial; indeed, this has led to criminal charges of embezzlement and misappropriation of funds on the part of its original founders, who were arrested in 2009 and convicted in 2014.  The same organization runs the 漢字ミュージアム (Kanji Museum, established in 2016 in the highly toured Gion district of Kyoto), and sponsors the 今年の漢字 (“kanji of the year,” which is chosen from among nominations with most votes conducted nationally, announced in December, and ceremoniously written by the head of the Foundation on a large sheet of paper at Kiyomizu temple).

The Kanji Aptitude Test phenomenon seems to be a perfect illustration of the Sinograph as an industry: value is given to specific modes of mastery of the Sinograph, test-takers acquire certificates of kanji knowledge which they can highlight on their resume or school report, and the test-administering organization reaps significant profits from this enterprise.  In other words, the Sinograph is ascribed an explicit value that can be purchased (through effort and a little cash) and traded (as markers of qualification).  And this industry is possible specifically in the Japanese context: unlike in China, for instance, where one cannot not know hanzi to be literate at all, the knowledge of kanji in Japan is always a proof of advancedness (as opposed to the knowledge of hiragana or katakana, which are too basic to test).  Thus the Sinograph in contemporary Japan represents an excess of graphic capital that is nonetheless essential to one’s success as a student or a 社会人 (worker in a labor market).  This phenomenon made me wonder about how it might help us think analogously about the role of the Sinograph in premodern Japan, as well as in premodern Korea and Vietnam, as a form of currency or capital.

Ross King, who was also present at the BU workshop, said that there is a similar aptitude test for hanja in Korea, despite their starkly diminished role in contemporary Korean writing.

All of this reminds me of a superb paper on the economics of hanzi by Rick Harbaugh that was delivered before a conference on the computer inputting of sinographs that I convened at Penn in 1990.  Much to my regret, to the best of my knowledge Harbaugh's paper has never appeared in print, even though I offered to publish it in the proceedings of the 1990 Penn conference:

Victor H. Mair and Yongquan Liu, eds., Characters and Computers (Amsterdam, Oxford, Washington, Tokyo:  IOS, 1991), which is based on the 1990 Penn conference


"Kanji of the Year: the tie that binds" (12/26/11)

"Kanji of the year 2014" (12/20/14)

"Kanji of the year 2015" (12/16/15)

"Using Sinitic characters in Korea" (7/3/15)

"Teaching Chinese characters in Korea" (1/3/17)

"Promoting Chinese characters in Korea" (9/20/15)

"The economics of Chinese character usage" (9/2/11)

It is noteworthy that the strongest advocates of "reading the classics" (dújīng 读经) and traditional calligraphy in China are Buddhists. Compare the close connection between the Kanji of the Year ceremony and Buddhism mentioned above. I surmise that this is due to the fact that their scriptures are written in Sinographs and the recitation of the character texts occupies such a central role in Buddhist devotional practices.


  1. Jim Breen said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 5:55 pm

    When I saw the reference to the 漢字ミュージアム I wondered why a kanjphile outfit didn't call it the 漢字博物館 instead of using a dreaded 外来語.

    When I looked up their website I saw that in fact they use both. The site has:

    漢検 漢字博物館・図書館
    Japan Kanji Museum & Library

    I see they also host a 漢字ペディア website. Clearly few kanji stones are left unturned, however they do have a "kanji cafe" (subtitled 漢字カフェ).

  2. Victor Mair said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 10:37 pm

    From Bob Ramsey:

    Ross is certainly right, Victor. Moreover, the teaching of hanja in hagwon and/or by private tutors is a very lucrative industry in Korea. Small fortunes have been made that way!

    [VHM: Hagwon (Korean pronunciation: [hagwʌn]) is the Korean-language word for a for-profit private institute, academy or cram school prevalent in South Korea.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hagwon ]

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 10:38 pm

    From Nathan Hopson:

    I think this is a fine example of the larger trend toward the preservation of cultural heritage in a capitalist system.

  4. Giodisseo said,

    May 6, 2018 @ 5:15 pm

    If PRC influence continues apace, traditional characters in Hong Kong and Taiwan might wind up warranting a 繁体字能力检定试验 of their own in a few generations' time.

    But even today and even in mainland China, TV programmes like 汉字英雄 (Hanzi Hero) could be argued to be tapping on similar hanzi commodification trends. The industry may not be quite as ripe as in Japan but the market space, as it were, is there for the taking. It's true that "one cannot not know hanzi to be literate" in China, but "knowing hanzi", as all readers of Language Log know, comes in a very wide spectrum – often self-consciously so. One needn't even bother with obscure hanzi from poetry, botany or chemistry: there's plenty "excess of graphic capital" even in everyday language, e.g. 善 shan4 ("be good at") and 擅 shan4 ("be good at"), that could make for excellent test material.

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