Mobile phones killing written word in Japan

Japanese phones are useful tools for displaying complex Chinese characters.

Mobile phones have been blamed for a multitude of ills from unbearable train rides to brain tumours, but none can be as surprising as the Japanese government's discovery that they are changing the way its citizens view their own complex writing system.

According to a survey by the Agency for Cultural Affairs there, the predictive text system used in Japanese phones is rapidly taking over from dictionaries when it comes to finding out how to write difficult Chinese characters.

Ludicrously complex

Kanji, as they're known in Japan, range from the very simple with just a few elements to the ludicrously complex with over 30 strokes in a single character. The agency found that when people can't recall one of the tougher symbols, they increasingly whip out their phones to see what the built-in dictionaries say.

As the predictive system means it's sufficient to know just how to say a word, it's a simple matter to find the correct way of writing even the most difficult kanji, with the result that more of them are being used in text messages and emails than in handwriting these days.

Young in the vanguard

Naturally, the most interesting results are in the under-30 age group, where almost 80 per cent of respondents prefer checking characters on their phones to looking them up in paper or electronic dictionaries.

While the technology-driven linguistic transformation may seem merely an interesting footnote to non-speakers of Japanese, the written form of the language is a closely guarded cultural asset there that impacts on government education policy.

As one of the report's authors comments, "For young people, kanji is something they type, rather than write with their hands ...The ability to write correct kanji may be considered inconsequential someday."

J Mark Lytle was an International Editor for TechRadar, based out of Tokyo, who now works as a Script Editor, Consultant at NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. Writer, multi-platform journalist, all-round editorial and PR consultant with many years' experience as a professional writer, their bylines include CNN, Snap Media and IDG.