With the popularity of Japanese anime, manga, and pop culture, there has been a rise in Japanese language learners internationally. For these learners, one of the major difficulties in learning the Japanese language is its writing systems, three of them to be exact: katakana, hiragana, and kanji.
Having three systems can complicate things for language learners and as a localization studio, we have to make sure that the right character set is used.
For native English speakers, the phonetic systems of katakana and hiragana are relatively simple, but then there’s kanji. Kanji, Chinese characters used in Japanese, has over 2,000 commonly used characters. A frustrated language learner may ask: why does Japanese, a language completely different from Chinese, use Chinese characters?
In this blog, we will discuss the historical origins of Japanese writing, an overview of the three writing systems, and arguments for and against kanji.
[Average read time: 5 minutes]
It’s theorized that the direct ancestor of modern spoken Japanese arrived to the island around 2nd century B.C.E. Around 3rd century C.E., the ruling Yamato state of Japan (250–710 C.E.) established relations with the Han Dynasty in China. This lead to 600 years of heavy Chinese influence on Japanese culture ranging from the structure of the imperial court and religion to the writing system. Prior to contact, Japan did not have a written language.
During the 5th-6th century C.E., Japan adopted Chinese characters as its official writing system, known as kanbun (Old Japanese). Great, right? Well, there is just one issue, Japanese is a COMPLETELY different language than Chinese as any Japanese or Chinese speaker will tell you.
Chinese is a tonal language, meaning that pronouncing a character with a different tone or pitch can completely change the meaning of a word; whereas Japanese is not, even though it does have syllable stresses. The sentence structures are also completely different: Chinese generally follows a subject verb object (SVO) structure, e.g., “She speaks Japanese.” (她說日語); whereas Japanese has a subject object verb (SOV) structure: “She Japanese speaks.” (彼女は日本語を話します)
That’s just the tip of the linguistic iceberg with differences in the use of particles (grammatical words similar to prepositions, common in Japanese), inflection (key feature of Chinese), verb tense (not present in Chinese, present in Japanese), honorific speech (respectful speech towards an elder in age or in a school/work setting, common in Japanese), and more. Trying to fit Japanese into Chinese writing was like trying to fit a square block into a circular hole. So what did the Japanese do to adapt Chinese writing to their language?
Looking at a Chinese character, there is no way to tell how it is pronounced in Japanese. Also, a Chinese character has multiple pronunciations (even five or more) in Japanese that changes based on the context. This caused a headache for Japanese readers, so phonetic symbols, kana, were developed to annotate the kanji for readers to know the correct pronunciation. This was known as “furigana”, see below:
The word for “furigana” written with furigana. (source WIKIMEDIA)
Katakana, developed around the 9th century C.E., were Chinese characters simplified to just a few strokes and each character represented a sound (like the English alphabet). An example of a word written in katakana: アイスクリーム.
Japanese court women, who were forbidden to write kanji at the time, developed their own writing system called hiragana shortly after the development of katakana. Hiragana has the same sounds and number of characters as katakana, but has more round, curvy strokes. An example of hiragana: ありがとうございました (arigatō gozaīmashita = thank you very much).
Hiragana eventually became the main phonetic writing system and is the first system taught to children in Japan and Japanese language learners. Katakana, especially after 1853 C.E., became the writing system mainly for Western loan words: the katakana word above, アイスクリーム, aisukurīmu, means “ice cream”. See the similarity?
All Japanese can be written in hiragana and is much simpler to learn than kanji. So why did it not replace kanji (漢字) outright?
Let us look at this sentence written in only hiragana (with the main sentence elements color coded) – “I love red bean ice cream” (azuki aisukurīmu ga daisukidesu, where ga is a “particle” or grammatical connector not present in the English):
Let us compare it to how it would be written in modern Japanese using all three systems of kanji, hiragana, and katakana:
Which one looks more readable? Since Japanese does not have spaces, the use of kanji and katakana help break up the sentence. Here, kanji denotes the main noun and verb forms, katakana the loan word (ice cream), and hiragana the grammatical elements.
The first sentence makes sense, but a native Japanese reader would find it harder to read and would think it was written by a child. Thus the three systems make Japanese more professional and readable, which is a must when reading something quickly like movie subtitles.
Another issue is homonyms. There are many same sounding words in Japanese, for example: 漢字 and 感じ are both pronounced kanji, but the first one means “Chinese characters” and the second means “feeling”. Since they’re written differently despite sounding the same, a Japanese speaker is able to differentiate the meaning by the Chinese characters.
However, some may argue that kanji is still not the best solution: Why not just introduce spaces into Japanese to help break up the sentence, katakana for loan words, and the reader can derive the meaning of the homonyms based on context?
Actually, early Japanese video games, which could not support kanji, did just that while also throwing in some English letters as well. Japanese players were able to follow the dialogue and the story of the games without much difficulty.
Throughout history, there have been attempts to replace kanji with just hiragana and katakana (Japanese intellectuals in 1881) or the English alphabet (John C. Pelzel, in post-WW2 Japan). So why the persistence of kanji?
One reason could be the long history that Japan has with kanji. For those that want to study older, historical Japanese documents, they are all written in classical Chinese characters. Also, there is the deep cultural significance that each kanji carries, each character has it’s own story and history of adaptation.
Also, many will agree that kanji is beautiful to look at, which has led to a number of people getting Chinese tattoos. Kanji was adapted from traditional Chinese characters from the 5th century C.E., which some may argue are more aesthetically pleasing than modern simplified Chinese, albeit more complicated.
If you ask a Japanese person today about abolishing the kanji writing system, the general response will be an emphatic “no”. However, many will agree that, especially with computers, forgetting how to write kanji by hand has become increasingly common.
As popular Japanese youtuber Yuta ponders, maybe the real reason that the Japanese use Chinese characters is because of attachment. Having learned a writing system for so long, there’s a deep emotional connection that has been built with it. To discard kanji for something more efficient would be cutting that cultural, historical, and emotional thread. And that act might be more painful than learning kanji.
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