What is the role of 空書{くうしょ} in modern Japanese?

空書 is tracing characters in the air with your finger (or on a flat surface), a phenomenon which apparently develops only in users of Chinese characters. It's something I've found myself doing, as well. (My self-study has a heavy emphasis on writing by hand.)

I've read that 空書 functions as a memory aid for kanji, allowing you to recall characters via kinetic memory. Personally, I often find it's easier to trace a character than to picture it in my mind. It also seems to help me remember readings when I trace a vaguely familiar kanji, though I'm not sure whether that's confirmation bias--did I remember because of kinetic memory, or because I spent extra time focusing on the character in question? I'm not sure I should trust my own judgment.

With that said, the research I found on 空書 does seem to be a bit dated, and I've also read about the development of character amnesia, which makes me wonder if what I read is still valid. I'm curious if 空書 continues to play a role in modern Japanese, with the advent of typing replacing writing by hand. Are people losing the ability to access characters by kinetic memory? Is 空書 disappearing?

If it still does play a role, what is that role? Is it useful when typing? Reading? Communicating kanji in speech? No longer useful at all?

  • Users of Japanese Sign Language draw kanji too. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_Sign_Language BTW, is "character amnesia" a term in Japanese? The Wikipedia article seems to mention it as a concept in China. If it's a term in Japanese, how common is it compared to wapuro baka (ワープロ馬鹿 IIRC)? – Andrew Grimm Oct 4 '12 at 21:00
  • The translation of the term is 漢字健忘症, I think, but it doesn't seem to be very common. – snailboat Nov 25 '13 at 11:03
up vote 19 down vote accepted

I see it all the time, e.g. when

  • people are reading (on the train for example) and they are looking closer at a character, which seems unfamiliar to them. While examining the character, they (sometimes unconsciously) draw the character on their hand.

  • people are talking and their conversation partner doesn't know which homophone the speaker means. The explanation is usually verbal (季刊 > "季節のキに刊行のカン"), but often accompanied by (again mostly unconscious) drawing the character on their hand.

  • people are trying to remember a character which has escaped their memory. Before writing it on the page, the character is written several times on their hand to get into the flow.

I would agree that I don't see it as much on young people. (Their kinetic memory may be more related to the input system of the iPhone.) In general, in school the character is taught by repeated writing, though, and most people are able to recall a character when they start writing it (and that includes writing it with their finger on their hand).

Communicating kanji in speech is usually done verbally. The order of the frequency by which this happens, I judge to be as follows:

  1. Picking apart the compound and using its parts in different compounds. (Which I found the least useful as a learner.)

  2. Description by radicals. (Very useful when you remember all the radicals. But then, the Japanese usually don't distinguish between the ウかんむり and the ワかんむり.)

  3. Written on paper.

  4. Written in the air, at least A3 size.

There's another time I see Japanese write kanji on air: when they say someone name, and want the other person to write it down, but the other person doesn't know which kanji is used in the name, they write it on the air, and the other nods "I got it." .

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