Introduction: We investigated the neural processing of reading Japanese Kanji characters, which involves unique hierarchical visual processing, including the recognition of visual components specific to Kanji, such as "radicals."
Methods: We performed functional MRI to measure brain activity in response to hierarchical visual stimuli containing (1) real Kanji characters (complete structure with semantic information), (2) pseudo Kanji characters (subcomponents without complete character structure), (3) artificial characters (character fragments), and (4) checkerboard (simple photic stimuli).
Results: As we expected, the peaks of the activation in response to different stimulus types were aligned within the left occipitotemporal visual region along the posterior-anterior axis in order of the structural complexity of the stimuli, from fragments (3) to complete characters (1). Moreover, only the real Kanji characters produced functional connectivity between the left inferotemporal area and the language area (left inferior frontal triangularis), while pseudo Kanji characters induced connectivity between the left inferotemporal area and the bilateral cerebellum and left putamen.
Conclusions: Visual processing of Japanese Kanji takes place in the left occipitotemporal cortex, with a clear hierarchy within the region such that the neural activation differentiates the elements in Kanji characters' fragments, subcomponents, and semantics, with different patterns of connectivity to remote regions among the elements.
Keywords: Hierarchical coding; Japanese logographic Kanji; Kanji radical; Left occipitotemporal cortex; visual character form.