The video pictured above was posted on YouTube about five years ago and resulted in several comments wondering what the woman was scribbling onto papers at a furious rate. Some suspected it might have been Arabic or really sloppy Japanese when actually it was a demonstration of Waseda shorthand.

Even with English’s relatively simple letters, shorthand was in big demand before the digital era in order to take down information quickly. It shouldn’t be a big leap to assume Japanese with multiple character sets and kanji would welcome a faster writing system. Thus several styles of Japanese shorthand were developed over the 20th century. Let’s take a look at a few.

■ Writing really fast
Some people might confuse shorthand with simply writing very quickly and roughly like your doctor might do in stereotypically hard-to-read cursive on your prescription.

▼ I’ll always remember what my doctor told me:  “Germs . Al die Mo 20 lybotomly aga 1.2 Al ent rc S.12w rojanlwww”

Image: WHO

Japanese has that as well, derived from the Chinese style of writing kanji characters fast. In essence it’s like cursive script in English but allows people to write more complex kanji quickly and in continuous strokes. Unfortunately it also often resembles the Ebola virus.

Image: Wikipedia – Dong Qichang

You can still see it in places like restaurant signs and elements of it are still common in people’s hand writing. Much like how in English you’ll see some people merge cursive and block print, people in Japan might mingle carefully crafted kanji with something a little more scribbly.

▼ The Japanese word for “Stasi” (国家保安省) written both at a casual pace (top) and very quickly (bottom). “Stasi” was accidentally chosen at random in case you were wondering.

Image: RocketNews24

Although this speed things up considerably, handwriting will generally get speeds of around 30 words per minute, which isn’t nearly enough to take casually dictated English at around 100 wpm. The situation in Japanese is similar with about 100 spoken wpm and 25 wpm in handwriting. These are very rough figures mind you, but they clearly indicate a huge gap.

But with shorthand we can achieve this, and then some. Back in 1922 Nathan Behrin, the sternographer for the Supreme Court, managed to jot down speaking at a blazing 350 wpm. That’s about the speed of a professional policy debater. A little faster than these guys who are in training.

■ Western Invasion
Shorthand made its way to Japan during the Edo period when many other foreign trends were getting big like handlebar mustaches and bicycles. The writing style had a lot of support and writers quickly began to adapt it to the Japanese language in 1875. By 1881 shorthand was officially being used for imperial court transcriptions.

One year later, a newspaper by the name of Jijishinpo began teaching a method of Japanese short hand called Tagusari, which was based on the Graham style. This method uses a combination of lines and arcs to represent consonant sounds, while small marks like dots signify vowel sounds. Other sounds like double, soft and hard consonants are achieved by adding hooks and loops or by making bold and light pencil strokes.

▼ Tagusari notation samples

Image: 2-chan

When Japan’s Diet met for the very first time in 1890, Tagusari shorthand was used to keep the minutes. A few years later, a British teacher in Tokyo named Edward Gauntlett engineered a more suitable shorthand system for the Japanese language which he called Gauntlett shorthand. With a cool surname like that who could blame him.

▼ Gauntlett style was based on English’s Pitman shorthand

Image: OCN – Sokkidou

The Gauntlett system was established in the House of Representatives and shook things up with the realizations that improvements could be made. As such over the years further styles were developed from Tagusari such as Nakane and Ishimua shorthands.

Throughout this time all shorthand work was done solely in the government but after a few decades other people such as journalists were looking to utilize the technique as well. So, in 1942, government stenographers began instructing the public on how to use the more refined Shugin-shiki Hyojun Fugo (House of Representatives Style Standard Code).

▼ House of Representatives style with regular Japanese writing above

Image: Wikipedia

With shorthand entered into the masses, further developments occurred including the Waseda method, which the woman in the following video is using.

It’s difficult to understand how Waseda works just by that video, although it appears whenever a verb ends in “-masu” she draws a long horizontal line and when a verb ends in “-te” she draws an upward diagonal stroke. Whatever she’s doing, it’s pretty fast and several times she seems to be ahead of the speaker.

■ The End of Shorthand in Japan?
Seeing as we live in a time where almost everyone is walking around with a digital recorder in their pockets, it’s hard to find the necessity for shorthand, which requires considerable training. As of 2004, the Japanese Diet officially stopped accepting new people to train in House of Representatives shorthand.

On the other hand, a simple search online for Waseda shorthand reveals that many courses to learn it can be found, which seem particularly catered to people entering the medical field. A market still exists, but for how long?

Probably whatever happens, for all languages they exist in, shorthand writing will live on for quite some time as hobbies, fun party tricks, and ways to freak young people out.

Source: Agohige Kaizokudan, Waseda Sokki, Yahoo! Japan Answers, OK Wave (Japanese), California Digital Library, New York Times (English)
Video: YouTube – Sean Lewis, wasedasokki