In response to “Handmade” (Vol. 3, No. 3).

To the editors:

I am honored to be invited to respond to Vivian Cook’s critical review of the paper by Pagliarini et al. In his review, Cook cautiously argues against the conclusions drawn from a childhood handwriting experiment in Italy, and its implications for children as a whole. Cook emphasizes the need for further research before any conclusions regarding innateness can be formulated. He also highlights some methodological issues in the study, such as the suitability of the word chosen by the researchers, the differences between individuals in the way alphabetic letters are written, and the type of instructions provided as children are taught handwriting.

I am in agreement with Cook’s insistence on the need for further research. It should be noted, however, that the study in question is confined to alphabetic writing. Any attempt to determine whether handwriting is governed by innate constraints must include an examination of other systems. Such a study should include Japanese children because our writing system is fundamentally different.

The process of teaching Japanese children to write starts at elementary school. The national curriculum teaches students that the stroke order in Japanese handwriting is rational, and that it has been conventionalized. Stroke order proceeds from top to bottom, from left to right, and from horizontal to vertical.

Stroke order is important because the Hira-gana and Kata-kana systems were originally developed from Kanji, when kanji was written using connected strokes. Consider ‘あ’ (the first letter of Hira-gana Japanese and pronounced /α/) from the kanji ‘安’ (/αn/), which is written in six connected strokes.

Figure 1.

  • Figure 1.

The development of Hira-gana (far right, ‘あ’) from Kanji (far left, ‘安’).

In Figure 1., each of the six numbers in ‘安’ denotes the starting point for a stroke. The pen moves vertically from points 1 and 2, and horizontally from left to right for points 3 and 6. The remaining two strokes beginning at points 4 and 5 are written in a single stroke with a ninety degree turn in the middle, like the English uppercase letter ‘L’, or curving slightly to the left. In moving from left to right in Figure 1, the total number of strokes decreases as each subsequent letterform becomes both simpler and more cursive. This fixed-order system eventually produced Hira-gana, which allows for faster and more elegant handwriting. If the stroke order had not been fixed in the original kanji, the cursive letterform might have been very different. As a result, the Hira-gana and Kata-kana systems in use today would not have emerged.

The national curriculum specifies that Japanese children must learn four different writing systems: Kanji, Hira-gana, Kata-kana, and Roma-ji. Consider the following example, a rather complicated sentence that includes the four different types of letters:

  • 私は ‘Miyazaki’ というレストランで働いています
    (I work for a restaurant named Miyazaki.)

The letters are mixed as follows:

  • 私 (kanji)
  • は (hira-gana)
  • Miyazaki (roma-ji)
  • という (hira-gana)
  • レストラン (kata-kana)
  • で (hira-gana)
  • 働 (kanji)
  • いています (hira-gana)

Unlike a sentence written using the Roman alphabet, counting the number of letters used in this example is not straightforward. More than one kanji can be combined to form a complex kanji, which can, in turn, be joined with another kanji to form a word. The word ‘趣 味’ (‘hobby’) is comprised of two kanji characters, ‘趣’ (15 strokes) and ‘味’ (8 strokes), each of which has two sub-units: ‘走’ (7 strokes) and ‘取’ for ‘趣’; and ‘口’ (3 strokes) and ‘未’ (5 strokes) for ‘味’. The sub-unit ‘取’ also contains two more characters, ‘耳’ (6 strokes) and ‘又’ (2 strokes). The word ‘趣 味’ thus contains two characters with five sub-units and is comprised of 23 strokes. The composite process is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2.

  • Figure 1.

The analytical process of a kanji word ‘趣味’ (‘hobby’).

The six sub-units in the word ‘趣味’ cannot be broken down into smaller units. Each sub-unit (走 耳 又 口 未) can be regarded as a single letter, like an alphabetic letter such as [b u r l e] in the Italian word ‘burle’ (‘jokes’), although it should be noted that there is a blank space between the two characters ‘趣’ and ‘味’.

Furthermore, a word, phrase, or sentence can be written in any of the four writing systems, or a mixture of all four. A single kanji character can also be comprised of more than one subunit.

In relation to the Japanese writing system, the following research questions could prove valuable when attempting to find further evidence to support or overturn the argument made by Pagliarini et al.

  1. Do Japanese children handwrite a particular word or phrase in a similar rhythmic manner to children from an alphabetic writing background?
  2. Do Japanese children handwrite a phrase or sentence in a predictable way using all four of the writing systems?

The study by Pagliarini et al. is significant because it was the first to investigate handwriting  from a developmental perspective in terms of universal principles and to examine possible biologically and culturally constrained dispositions. It is my hope that seeking answers to questions proposed here will be helpful in determining whether the conclusions drawn by Pagliarini et al. are applicable to Italian children, as Cook suggests, rather than children in general.

Goro Murahata

Goro Murahata is Professor of Applied English Linguistics at the University of Miyazaki in Japan.