WRITTEN Japanese is full of “kanji”, or Chinese characters, and being able to read them correctly often distinguishes the well-educated from the less so.
That said, even the average college student or salaryman may occasionally be stumped by the odd character.
But when Prime Minister Taro Aso was caught red-handed several times in the past few weeks mangling quite a few of his kanji, the Japanese were not amused.
Last week, for instance, when addressing a Japan-China student exchange event at his alma mater, Gakushuin University, he read the word “mizou” (meaning “unprecedented”) as “mizoyu”.
It was only a small error in the last syllable no doubt, but the gaffe apparently shocked quite a few people in the audience.
After all, Gakushuin is also the alma mater of Japan’s royal family and many of the country’s elite.
In the same speech at the university, Mr Aso also described exchanges between China and Japan as “hanzatsu” (“troublesome”) when he was supposed to have said “hinpan” (“frequent”).
Mr Aso had also caused a stir in parliament recently when he was heard several times mispronouncing the word “toshu” (“follow”) as “fushu” (“awful smell”).
One opposition lawmaker was disturbed enough to stand up and demand that “someone should tell the Prime Minister that it is pronounced ‘toshu’”.
Some of Mr Aso’s party colleagues have tried to defend him, saying that perhaps the long-sighted premier needs a good pair of glasses.
Mr Aso sometimes uses reading glasses, but does not wear glasses when speaking in public.
In fact, Mr Aso had reportedly been misreading his kanji even when he was foreign minister.
In the past, however, the media had let it go.
After all, no one is infallible and mispronouncing a kanji or two is not all that uncommon in Japanese society.
Why, even some prime ministers in the past had murdered their fair share of kanji when making speeches.
But now that Mr Aso is prime minister, his all too frequent kanji problems have come under greater scrutiny.
The Japanese leader himself however does not seem terribly perturbed. Or maybe he was just trying to pretend it never happened.
When reporters pointed out to him that he was misreading kanji rather too often these days, Mr Aso, looking somewhat miffed, said nonchalantly: “Oh really? It was just a simple mistake.”
His detractors however think they know the reason why Mr Aso cannot pronounce his kanji correctly – reading too much manga and not enough books.
Indeed, Mr Aso seizes every opportunity to tell people how much he loves manga.
Busy as he is, he still finds time to devour them, for instance when travelling in his official car.
But one good thing has probably come out of this latest hoo-hah over Mr Aso’s kanji-reading ability.
From now on, his minders are likely to make sure that he is thoroughly rehearsed before letting him appear in public.
And whenever Mr Aso gets up to speak, he can also be sure that the press will be hanging on to every word.