A Possible Reason for High Japanese Literacy Rates

June 1st, 2009

Japan has a remarkably high literacy rate, which sometimes seems confounding, due to the complexity of the written language.  Sure, it’s not as hard as Chinese, but it’s pretty high up there on the difficulty ladder.  This is usually explained by the rigorousness of the educational system, which I’m sure is very important, but I think I have stumbled on another factor: it’s much easier than English, at the start, to pick up.

My son just turned 3 a few months ago, and is starting to learn to read.  He learned his English alphabet first, before any Japanese, but, while he knows the alphabet well, the only word that he can spell (to my knowledge) is his own name, Alex.  On the Japanese side, though, he can read a fair amount.  This greatly surprised my parents, but what also surprised them is how excited he was about reading, and how much he read of his own volition.  This reaction, in turn, surprised me, because, from what I’ve seen, his attitude towards reading is pretty much the standard attitude of kids in Japan.

What it comes down to, I believe, is just that his basic knowledge of hiragana has enabled him to read far more than his basic knowledge of the English alphabet.

Japanese (for those not already in the know) uses three basic forms of writing (four, if you consider the fact that Japanese all know the alphabet and can read things written in the alphabet, though not necessarily non-Japanese words written in the alphabet).  There is kanji, which are the originally Chinese ideogram characters.  There is katakana, which is a phonetic syllabary (not an alphabet) used primarily to represent originally non-Japanese words.  And there is hiragana, which is a phonetic syllabary used to represent originally Japanese words.

Alex has no knowledge of kanji or katakana yet, so in a practical sense, he cannot read.  That is, he can’t pick up a newspaper or book and read aloud (unlike, say, a child in Korea, who would have the ability to read most things, while not having the vocabulary to actually understand what they are reading).  However, he can read a tremendous amount of things, and, if one were to write a book entirely in hiragana, he could read much of it, while understanding little to none.

Kanji is commonly held (correctly, in my opinion) to be much harder than English spelling, due to its ideogrammatic nature.  What gets overlooked, though, is that hiragana and katakana are far simpler than English spelling.  For example, “sushi”, written in hiragana, is すし.  The first character is called “su”, and is pronounced…”su”.  The second is “shi”, and is pronounced…”shi”.  So “sushi” is formed by the characters representing the sounds “su” and “shi”.  Compare this to English, where “sushi” is written with “es”, pronounced “s”, “yu”, pronounced “u”, “es”, not actually pronounced like anything by itself, but, when paired with “aich”, pronounced “sh”, and “ai”, pronounced “i”.

There are exceptions in Japanese, but minimal.  An “i” sound, after an “e” sound, just makes a longer “e” sound.  An “u” sound, after an “o” sound, just makes a longer “o” sound.  And a small “tsu” isn’t pronounced, but makes the consonant that follows it stronger.  But that’s about it.

So once you know the hiragana syllabary, you can just read out each letter, and you will have read the words.

Compare this to English:

“Cat” is pronounced…well, “cat” (since I don’t know the international phonetic alphabet).  It starts with “c”, which can be pronounced “k” or “s”, according to complex rules (usually a “k” at the start of a word, unless followed by a “y”, and either a “k” or “s” in the middle of the word, or both (such as the word “accent”, where the first “c” is pronounced like “k”, and the second like “s”).  It ends with a “t”, which is pronounced like a “t”.  But the “a”?  Well, that has a crazy number of possibilities:

1) “a” as in “about”
2) “a” as in “car”
3) “a” as in “at”
4) “a” as in “ape”
5) “a” as in “bare”

So, with two possible pronunciations of “c”, 5 of “a”, and one of “t”, you’re looking at 10 possible ways to pronounce “cat”, only one of which is correct.  Versus, in Japanese, “ねこ”, which can only be pronounced one way.  In longer words, with more vowels, this becomes even more pronounced.  The name “adam” could be pronounced one of 25 ways, while “あだむ” can be pronounced one way.  And that doesn’t even consider words like “table”, where one of the choices is to not pronounce one of the vowels at all.  Sure, after years of learning English, you get an intuitive grasp of the rules of pronunciation, which enables you to pronounce words you’ve never read before, but the number of pronunciation rules is vast, and far beyond the grasp of a 3 year old.

So you have a three year old, who has finally learned a syllabary, and is immediately granted the ability to look at signs or words all around him and actually read them out loud, whereas his English alphabet knowledge basically just gives him the ability to say the names of the letters in the signs or words around him, but not to actually read them.

In a sense, a child learning to read English is somewhat like a child learning to read kanji.  The alphabet gives a guide, but the only real way, at first, to learn how to read “cat” or “car” or “care” or “cape” (all of which have different pronunciations of “a”) is to rote memorize them.  Little surprise, then, that kids are not as enthusiastic about reading the words around them immediately after learning the alphabet.

Perhaps (and this is the point of this blog entry) it is the generally positive experience that Japanese kids have with reading at a very early age that sets them on the right path for reading.  Their first experience comes with learning a syllabary, which immediately opens up doors to understanding, while an English speaking kid has to struggle with each word, even after learning the alphabet.

4 Responses to “A Possible Reason for High Japanese Literacy Rates”

  1. shane Says:

    Kai being the same age as Alex, this hit me recently as well.
    If it weren’t for kanji/katakana, they would only need to learn vocab.

    In comparison, English is way too difficult to learn to read.
    I wonder if any practical reform will ever take place.


  2. Hannah Kim Says:

    But not all Japanese students actually study. There used to be a little boy from Japan at my school–he has dark brown hair, black eyes, dark skin, and he didn’t do so well academically. He is one of the Japanese students that will not study no matter how hard you push them.
    You cannot trust Wikipedia. You need to know that just because Japan’s literacy rate is high doesn’t mean that all of them study.
    Obviously, does Japan have lots and lots of people who study? No. There was a student from Japan at my school, with dark brown curly hair, almond-shaped black eyes, dark skin, and really low grades.

  3. Hannah Kim Says:

    This article is not wrong, Shane, but this is not an accurate article. While Japan does have a significantly better literacy rate than the U.S., there are some Japanese students that just watch TV and play GameCube. Yes, I did have a Japanese classmate once–the boy with the dark brown hair, the black eyes, and the dark skin. He loved sports, but he was one of those teenagers that never studied. That’s why he got significantly worse grades than I ever had, to prove to you, Shane, NOT ALL JAPANESE STUDY!!!!!!

  4. bugbread Says:


    Did you actually read the article? It says nothing about whether or not Japanese students all study. It’s about how the language happens to be easier to pick up for toddlers. Which specific sentence did you find inaccurate?

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