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The Jôyô (general use) Kanji is a set of 1,945 Chinese characters authorized by Japan's Ministry of Education in 1981. The Joyo Kanji are the only characters that are supposed to be used in periodical literature and government publications without an accompanying pronunciation guide (furigana). The idea is to simplify the Japanese writing system by keeping the vast majority of Chinese characters (over fifty thousand) out of daily use. Japanese students are supposed to have learned all of the Joyo Kanji by the time they complete the ninth grade (the end of compulsory education). In practice, many Japanese people have difficulty remembering all of them, and very few can write all of them properly from memory.

The idea goes back to the Meiji era. In the late 1800's, historian Shigeno Yasutsugu made a reader that included 5,610 "Joyo Kanji" grouped by theme (cardinal directions, numbers, animals, etc).

The real movement for kanji reform, however, didn't begin until World War II. At the time, the Imperial government and military used a flavor of Japanese that was very difficult to read and write because of the huge number of Chinese characters it utilized (see Imperial Rescript on Education for a sample). Intellectuals noticed this, and wanted to do something about it. In 1938, Okazaki Tsunetaro counted the kanji appearing in sixty days' worth of newspapers, and discovered that a group of 500 kanji accounted for over eighty percent of their content. Two years later, Matsusaka Tadanori wrote a novel, Hi no Sekijuji, that only used Okazaki's 500 characters: it won the Naoki Prize for popular literature.

When Japan lost the war, its remaining liberal leaders were willing to reform anything and everything that could be perceived as detrimental to the state, and so they turned to the clunky writing system once more. Some scholars were in favor of replacing kanji with kana: others wanted to use the Latin alphabet, and some radicals wanted to phase out the Japanese language entirely. Finally, in November of 1947, the Education Ministry decided on 1,850 Tôyô Kanji ("provisional characters"). This list was expanded in 1981 and renamed "Joyo Kanji."

In addition to the Joyo list, there is also a Jinmeiyô Kanji list that recommends an additional 284 characters for use in Japanese names.

While this sort of reform may seem drastic, it is only slight compared to the reforms that occurred in other East Asian countries. The People's Republic of China dramatically simplified the designs of their characters. North Korea abandoned them entirely in favor of Hangul, and Vietnam abandoned them for the Latin-style Quoc Ngu system! So the Joyo change was relatively minor, although many Japanese literary figures were (and still are) up in arms about it.

Anyway, if you're trying to learn Japanese, having a book or chart of the Joyo Kanji is an excellent idea, and learning the entire set will make you look like a genius. Hop to it.

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