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I'm trying to understand the implications of the jōyō list. From the wikipedia page, I understand that it's an "official" list in the sense that it is:

  • maintained by the Ministry of Education
  • an exclusive list of kanji available for official government documents
  • a list of mandatory kanji to be taught in school

Looking over the history of changes and the latest batch of 196 new kanji from 2010 I was surprised that, even with my little knowledge, I could recognize three:

  • 呂 as in "風呂" (bath)
  • 椅 as in "椅子" (chair)
  • 阪 as in "大阪" (Osaka)

Does that mean that, prior to 2010, school children were not necessarily taught how to write the words for "chair" and "bath"; or that official govt. documents could not reference Osaka? Were kana/other kanjis used?

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    These kanji were definitely taught. I have an elementary school kanji dictionary published in 1990. It lists all three of the kanji in question. They're listed in the back of the dictionary as important kanji "outside" of Joyo-kanji that one encounters in textbooks and everyday life. I don't know about things now or how usual this was, but amongst my friends in Japan, they told me how their folks gave them lists of kanji to memorize beyond what was being taught in school. Or how just walking down the street, their parents would quiz them on the spot to read signs and such. – A.Ellett Apr 10 at 16:19
  • @A.Ellett, might I suggest that you convert your comment into an answer post? :D – Eiríkr Útlendi Apr 13 at 17:33
  • gnarrithas, I'd like to point out that the kanji themselves are not new at all. It sounds like you're saying the kanji are new, but I think you just mean that they are newly added to the Jōyō list. Would you mind editing the title of your post? – Eiríkr Útlendi Apr 13 at 17:35
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    @EiríkrÚtlendi I wouldn't mind doing that. I held off since I've never gone to school in Japan and felt that I might be missing something. All I know is what's in my dictionaries and anecdotal stories of friends from decades ago. – A.Ellett Apr 13 at 17:36
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    @EiríkrÚtlendi I'm aware the kanji themselves are not new; in the title I was referring to their jōyō-ness. I'll edit the title to make it clearer. – gnarrithas Apr 14 at 18:19
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These kanji are definitely taught. One way or another. I did not go through the education system in Japan so I cannot directly speak to what happens in the classroom. But I have several textbooks and references used in elementary school and high school.

All these resources present these kanji and the textbooks (like books on culture and geography, for example) definitely presume the reader (the student) knows how to read words like 風呂 and 大阪. The younger the age of the student the book is being written for, the more frequently you'll see furigana. The approach/philosophy taken seems to be that through frequent reading you learn to recognize words and learn how to read those words, later on you learn more specifically what the kanji mean. I have books on Japanese, Chinese, and East Asian history targeting high school students: these books present names of numerous historical figures and cities and towns frequently enough without even the aid of furigana--some of these names definitely use kanji outside of the Joyo Kanji list.

I have several elementary school kanji dictionary the oldest of which was published in 1990. They all list all three of the kanji in question. They're usually listed in the back of the dictionary as important kanji "outside" of Joyo-kanji. They are listed there specifically because they are encountered in textbooks and everyday life (taking a bus across town or a train to a different town/city). And though now-a-days I'm aware that often there are furigana, when I was in Japan in the late 80's there were rarely such aids on public transit. Yet me, a mere foreigner with very little kanji knowledge at the time, I still managed to figure out how to get to where I wanted as I headed out on my own to explore and learn something about the history, geography, and culture of the region. Worst case-scenario, you ask someone. But the point is, in this process, you learn a lot.

I don't know about things now or how usual this was, but amongst my friends in Japan, they told me how their folks gave them lists of kanji to memorize beyond what was being taught in school. (Though it's slightly off topic, my friends from Hong Kong and Taiwan tell me stories of being expected by their parents to memorize a hundred new characters every day.)

A number of my Japanese friends told me about how just walking down the street, their parents would quiz them on the spot to read signs and such. In fact, when I was staying with a family in Fukuoka when I first started learning Japanese, they would do this with me too ask me to read signs on shops and street signs all as a way of practicing reading kanji. It was challenging, but once you knew what the signs said, every time you walked by it, it was like a reminder, "Oh yeah, that says ...."

Responding to Comments

I wouldn't say the Joyo list is arbitrary at all. The list was created to facilitate high literacy across the population. There are many historical factors behind the creation of this list.

Regarding place names and personal names, there are lists of additional kanji (notably Jinmeiyo Kanji) that may be used for these purposes and these lists were created at the same time as the Joyo kanji list.

This is something some times frustrating for parents who wish to use a particular kanji for their child's name (if it's not on the list, the registry will not accept it as a legal name).

In particular, Joyo Kanji are do not target personal names and place names: 現行の常用漢字表は、人名や地名など主に固有名詞だけに使われる漢字を対象外としている。

Regarding kanji that don't appear (or formerly didn't appear) on these lists, like 岡 (for the city [福岡]{ふくおか}), all I can say is that on my registration card--and other official government documents (including documents issued to me by the post office) from when I arrived in Fukuoka in the late 80's--福岡 appears on all of them. And, in the late 80's 岡 was not on any of these lists as best I can tell.

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  • Thank you very much for the answer; so the jōyō list is somewhat arbitrary, with many common-place but non-jōyō kanji still being taught. I'm also curious about the second part of the question: while educationally, the list seems to be a recommendation, the wikipedia page claims that for govt. documents it is mandatory. Is that inaccurate or how did the govt refer to Osaka prior to 2010? – gnarrithas Apr 15 at 16:01

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