Kanji amnesia of the week

« previous post | next post »

Tokyo crime beat:

"Arrest for fraud follows man’s failure to fulfill writing request", by Tokyo Reporter Staff (7/24/20)

TOKYO (TR) – With personal computers, smartphones and tablets now more common than ever, many may consider the actual writing of kanji characters to be of diminished importance.

But for one man, now in custody for fraud, he learned that is not the case, as TBS News (July 23) reports.

On July 7, Hayato Tsuboi, of no known occupation, posed [as] a police officer upon his arrival at the residence of a man in his 90s in Fuchu City.

After collecting five bank cards from the man, Tsuboi withdrew 2 million yen in cash in defrauding him.

Tsuboi’s undoing came during his visit to the man’s residence. Upon his arrival, he claimed to be a detective from a division specializing in tokushu sagi*, in which victims are targeted over the telephone.

*[特殊詐欺 ("special fraud / scam / swindle")]

When the man asked that Tsuboi write down his contact information on a memo pad, the suspect incorrectly wrote the kanji characters for detective (keiji*). He also could only muster one of the two characters for fraud (sagi).


Sensing something was wrong, the man contacted police the next day, which led to Tsuboi’s arrest.

He should have used kana or romaji.


Selected readings

[h.t. Mark Swofford]


  1. Xan said,

    July 25, 2020 @ 10:50 am

    I'm not convinced romaji would have necessarily helped


  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 25, 2020 @ 10:59 am


    But no, he got it right in the end. And even if he had written another "F" before the "E", everybody would still have understood. Not so in the kanji case, as we've demonstrated countless times on Language Log, perhaps most powerfully in the famous "dumpling ingredients" post.

  3. David Moser said,

    July 25, 2020 @ 2:37 pm

    A few years ago I moved to a new apartment in Beijing. In filling out various forms to update my temporary residence card at the local police station, I found myself struggling to remember how to write some of the characters. The police officer watching me struggle, laughed and said "Is this really your address? It's against the law to provide fraudulent information on a police registration form."

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 25, 2020 @ 3:13 pm

    From Bob Ramsey:

    Haha. Well, Victor, I suspect an actual detective might have made the same mistakes…

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 25, 2020 @ 3:13 pm

    touché, Bob

    me too!

  6. Jim Unger said,

    July 26, 2020 @ 8:15 am

    This reminds me of a funny story I read in a Japanese newspaper long ago. A man moving furniture had dropped a heavy chest of drawers (tansu 箪笥) on his foot. The nurse at the clinic he visited incorrectly wrote 子 (as in yōsu ‘appearance’ 様子) for the uncommon last character. When the doctor saw her notes, he misread 箪子 as dango 団子, and exclaimed, “That must have been one enormous dumpling!”

  7. Twill said,

    July 26, 2020 @ 8:38 am

    An actual detective would perhaps be excused for forgetting how to write 詐欺, which is a word I've often seen written in kana, but certainly not for 刑事, which many who are not employed as such would be embarrassed to admit having trouble writing. The Latin script is almost never used for actually writing Japanese, a language that has not one but two perfectly adequate native scripts, and would've stood out more than infelicitous kanji errors.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    July 26, 2020 @ 9:05 am

    Jim, thank you so much for your note that "[the doctor] misread 箪子 as dango 団子". Ever since learning the game of Go some 40 years+ ago, I have wondered what 'dango's [1] originally were, and at last I know !
    [1] (to the tune of "My favourite things") — # Ko fights and sekis and big clumpy dangos …

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 26, 2020 @ 10:51 am


    Rōmaji may be used in any context where Japanese text is targeted at non-Japanese speakers who cannot read kanji or kana, such as for names on street signs and passports, and in dictionaries and textbooks for foreign learners of the language. It is also used to transliterate Japanese terms in text written in English (or other languages that use the Latin script) on topics related to Japan, such as linguistics, literature, history, and culture. Rōmaji is the most common way to input Japanese into word processors and computers, and may also be used to display Japanese on devices that do not support the display of Japanese characters.

    All Japanese who have attended elementary school since World War II have been taught to read and write romanized Japanese. Therefore, almost all Japanese are able to read and write Japanese using rōmaji, although it is extremely rare in Japan to use this method to write Japanese (except as an input tool on a computer or for special purposes like in some logo design), and most Japanese are more comfortable reading kanji and kana.



    I have seen rōmaji on the doorplates of people's residences, in advertisements, on signs and labels, in literary texts, and in countless other applications that were not intended solely or primarily for foreigners.

  10. Josh R said,

    July 26, 2020 @ 7:47 pm

    I found the original TBS News article:

    According to the article, he wrote 形 (kei, katachi, "shape, form") instead of 刑 (kei, shioki, "penalty").

    Interestingly, what got him on 詐欺 (sagi) was that he couldn't remember the right hand part of 詐 (sa, "lie, cheat").

    I think it does show how the mind of someone who's grown up reading writing character tends to work, in that rather than awareness of the meaning or origins of the kanji's constituent parts, the parts and their placement are remembered not unlike the letters of an alphabetic language.

    Something else that may or may not be significant is that both 刑 and 詐 are generally only seen in compounds, and their ostensible kun-yomi (native Japanese readings) are considered unofficial. While, the second part of 詐欺, 欺 (gi, azamuku, "deceive"), has an official kun-yomi for a verb.

  11. Terpomo said,

    July 27, 2020 @ 6:49 am

    Xan, you say romaji wouldn't help and give an example in English, but most languages written in the Roman alphabet don't have nearly such complicated and irregular spelling systems as English. Specifically in this case, the proposed Romanization systems for Japanese are generally quite phonemic.

RSS feed for comments on this post