Handwriting culture close to crossing Rubicon
In a newspaper story about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's comment that he was willing to "put his job on the line," I came across an expression that I hadn't seen for a long time. I am referring to the comment "The prime minister crossed the Rubicon," made by a high-ranking government official. I went over past articles and found that the word appears roughly three to four times a year on average, more often than I thought.
The Rubicon is a river in northern Italy that Julius Caesar crossed to attack Rome in violation of a law imposed by the Roman Senate. The expression came to be used as an idiom meaning "to go past the point of no return." But it is rarely used in everyday conversation.
According to a public opinion survey on the Japanese language conducted by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, 24 percent of respondents to the survey were mistakenly using the expression "So wa Tonya ga Yurusanai" (literally, the wholesaler would not tolerate it). To begin with, it seems fewer people nowadays know the role of wholesalers. The correct idiom is not "Yurusanai" but "Orosanai" (would not sell it wholesale).
But with revolutionary advances in the distribution industry, wholesalers are now in a weaker position. If they don't sell goods wholesale, all retailers have to do is to negotiate with makers and production centers to have them sell their goods direct.
In the survey, 19 percent were using the expression "Deru Kugi wa Utareru" (nails that stick out are ready to be hammered). Correctly, it is not "Kugi" (nails) but "Kui" (stakes). But how many people have actually seen stakes? When fewer people recognize the original historical events or things from which allegories and idioms are derived, it becomes increasingly difficult to use them. Any words or phrases, even when they are used wrongly, are given life when they are used in everyday conversation. We also say "A hoe in use shines."
In the same survey, people were asked how they look up kanji Chinese character they cannot write. The second most common answer after "paper dictionaries" was "cellphones" that allow users to convert kana characters into kanji. It was the most common means among people in their 30s or younger. In fact, 80 percent of people in their 20s said they depended on cellphones to look up kanji.
Even if people are not familiar with idioms, they can team up with machines to freely use words written in difficult kanji such as Yuutsu (melancholy) and Bara (rose). Thanks to modern conveniences, difficult kanji can also survive.
Writer Tatsuro Dekune says, "The ability to correctly write kanji may not be very important in the future." As people move from writing to typing, Japanese handwriting culture seems to be getting closer to crossing the Rubicon.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 12(IHT/Asahi: September 13,2007)