Prescriptive Kanji Simplification

Twenty years ago this month, in May of 1994, I successfully defended my PhD dissertation, entitled Prescriptive Kanji Simplification, which concluded my graduate studies at The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Linguistics. Madison is located approximately 20 miles from where I grew up (Mount Horeb, Wisconsin).

Below is the title and abstract page from my dissertation, which summarizes what it entailed:


Ken Roger Lunde

Under the supervision of Professor Andrew Sihler at the University of Wisconsin-Madison


The simplification of Chinese characters (kanji) is a recognized historical process. Normally such a simplification grows spontaneously out of the demands of everyday use, but simplification by fiat is at least a theoretical possibility. Such a round of simplification by fiat, here called ‘prescriptive simplification,’ seems to have taken place in the PRC in 1977. What has gone unrecognized is that simplification by fiat was also attempted in Japan in 1983, albeit on a much smaller scale, and emanating from the government-controlled organ called the Japanese Standards Association. In this dissertation I marshal evidence to show that prescriptive kanji simplification has occurred in Japan, and discuss its consequences.

Keywords: character sets, China, Japan, Japanese, kanji, kanji simplification

A lot has changed in the twenty years that followed, such as a new JIS standard (JIS X 0213:2004) and a new version of Jōyō Kanji (常用漢字).

In fact, one could easily argue that some things have come full circle. Hint, hint…

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