A person I follow on twitter (Gaijin Otousan) asked a very good question recently. Why use Kanji in 2023? Why multiple character sets? Why no spaces between words?
As a person who has done pretty intensive studies in learning Kanji (with a focus on learning them very quickly) I thought i’d give my two cents. I’m going to go at it from a few perspectives, relative to each major pillar.
To be clear: I’m ignoring a lot of etymological references and obvious historical stuff. I’m just waxing a bit here, not writing a research paper. Just my thoughts as a person who taught myself to read and write Japanese in 3 or so months, and learned to read very quickly after another 2 or so.
There are only two perspectives on a topic like this I’ve found:
One: — from the standpoint of an absolute beginner or a learner stuck behind a perceptual wall. A person in this position may believe the language to be too hard or complex, and therefore do not progress much , yet are acutely aware of colleagues (non-Japanese) who have successfully acquired the same skills they see as either ‘too difficult’ or ‘impossible’.
Two: — from the standpoint of someone who has invested significant time and resources into the process, who has crossed “the perceptual Japanese wall”, made gains in the language understands how all the data (Kanji, hiragana, katakana) integrates. As a person able to read Japanese, I would personally never ask this question, but completely understand why someone would ask this which I why I will attempt to answer it from my perspective.
I believe the only type of answers that make sense are from people who actually learned the processes that raise the question, so I hope my answer can provide some benefit 🙂
Why No Spaces
I think the first one i’ll tackle is the idea of “no spaces”. All of us have a “native language convention” bias. For the young man who posed this question, as an English speaker, used to spaces and a single character set of 26 letters, he could not “understand” the need for multiple characters sets to communicate. This is what I call inherent bias. It is something we all have when comparing what we know, to what we don’t know. For example in German, all nouns are always written with a capital letter at the front irregardless of sentence position. So a word like ‘dog’ is ‘der Hund’. So when you are reading German sentences as a native English speaker, it looks VERY strange at first because we are used to using capitals under specific circumstances, but in German capitals are everywhere. In this example, our visual sense of “convention” or “perceptual bias” is quickly challenged. The sentences look ‘funny’, something feels ‘off’. This is because for the most part we are seeing English words (with the same alphabet) but witnessing an entirely different convention of usage. Also, what’s more fun, in German there are verbs which “split”, meaning depending on the conjugation the front of the verb goes the to very end of the sentence! When I first learned this, I said “what kind of voodoo madness is this?” But to a native German, this is completely normal. It would never be an issue that someone in a German speaking country would question, because that is all they’ve ever known. Likewise with the Japanese, having no spaces isn’t ‘odd’ or ‘strange’. If you grew up never using spaces between words, reading English at first would probably feel quite bizarre!
So as a convention no spaces isn’t strange for this reason. From a pictographic standpoint, the way Japanese is written, nouns, verbs adjectives reveals themselves quite clearly (most of the time) and is quite logical to grasp after learning the Kanji. The main (perceptual) limitation of most people who ask questions like Gaijin Otousan are simply that. Perceptual. A Japanese child doesn’t wail and moan about multiple character sets or learning Kanji. Nor does a German child pull their hair out trying to figure out why they have verbs that split. Everyone they have ever known or will know learns the way they learn and it for them, is completely normal. Japanese sentences rarely have spaces, and books are read from right to left (backways to us)! Fun!
However, the better you get at reading Japanese, the spaces “reveal themselves”, because your ability to differentiate between verbs, adjectives, nouns and so on, gets to such a level that “spaces” as a concept changes in your mind. Also having no spaces is can be perceived as quite efficient, as you are able to read more in less space, but that’s a whole other discussion. I’m never surprised when the people who pose these types of questions basically say they have very low reading ability, because from a perceptual standpoint, if one cannot see the value in these character systems, what then would be the value in learning or mastering them? But that is also another discussion lol.
Why Hiragana & Katakana
An interesting fact to note is that as a native English speaker we already have knowledge of thousands of French and German words. This is due to migration patterns of people over the years in Europe etc. So anything in English ending in “ent” or “ant” is basically the same in French. Many English speakers do not know this. Why do we not know this? Because for us, fortunately, we all have the same alphabet. We are not given an extra set of characters to learn to recognize French (in English) unless we are studying French itself. As we know German and French will have a few extra characters like ö or é but we are still able to read and recognize them. So everything we can construct is from our 26 letters. In Japanese, which does not use any form Roman alphabet, there really was no way to say foreign words other than to represent them phonetically. So “Rome” would be written in katakana ロマ because it is the really it is the sound you are conveying. But if I was to type ろま (written in hiragana), in the middle of a sentence I might not know they are referring to “ROME” the city. This would cause incredible problems in general reading, as even for a native speaker, differentiation would be too difficult. Because the Japanese have no way to use Roman words, Katakana provides that access point. It is actually quite useful, because once you encounter a Katakana word (most of the time) what you are reading is a foreign word so your brain circuits prime up to see what it is saying in English or whatever language the word is taken from. Solid blocks of raw characters make the process of what is called ‘differentiation’ far more difficult, but with Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji, once learned, the usage is obvious. In English we can use our own consonants and vowels to say Japanese words, with Romaji. Japanese could not do the same without Katakana.
Hiragana (in this context to me) is a gateway to overall Japanese as an entry level set of characters. I takes Japanese children about 12 years to learn their first 1200-1800 Kanji and to me it is logical that they must have a way to function in the meantime. In the context of this question posed, it bridges that early gap. Hiragana is also the ‘central’ phonetic base of Japanese. Especially since the majority of Kanji is learned through Rote processes (which takes a lot of time and trial and error) there must be a way for kids to read in the meantime! We English speakers have it quite easy. Once we learn our 26 letters, there is nothing else we need to learn beyond that as characters to advance in the language. I am not saying Hiragana was created for children, I am just saying that Hiragana and Katakana are the two bridges that lead to reading Kanji, which then leads to full literacy in the language. So just thinking logically, Hiragana serves that purpose. Babies learn letters then words then sentences. Japanese kids learn the phoenetic groups, then words, then sentences. Same order of acquisition, just a different initial set. More importantly, like learning the English alphabet, learning these characters doesn’t take much time at all.
A quick look at my blog posts will answer that question for you lol. I will attempt to be brief here.
WORDS AS SHAPES
Words and pictures represent a sound… that is how the object is pronounced. Romance languages have scripts that pronounce what an object or concept is, and character based languages has sounds mapped to an object, which can represent an image or a concept.
I personally don’t see this as good or bad, it just is what it is. If show a picture of a dog to a young English speaking child, they will say “DOG!” because the image represents the word (sound) of dog. If I show a young Japanese child a picture of a dog, they will say 犬！ INU! Because the image represents the word(sound) of dog. With one difference: It represents the word, and also the Kanji. Same image, just more data.
The two types of readings for Kanji (Onyomi – from China ) versus (Kunyomi – from Japan) again, allows for differentiation with meanings and reading. But instead of thinking from an English perspective, think from a more pictographic perspective.
家 house 我が家 house 家族 household/family
いえ わがや かぞく
IE WAGAYA KAZOKU
We see that the character 家 appears in multiple readings.
In English, each word to us, represents either something physical, or abstract. In Japanese, both the physical and abstract are represented by pictures. The main difference is that the reading is “mapped” onto an image, whereas the English is designed to pronounce the image.
To oversimplify a bit, as children, we read “picture books” to help us with word associations, and in Japanese, thinking along these lines, is a very organized system of scripts and pictographs as an entire communication system. This is what give you the sheer thrill of making a breakthrough in Japanese. It feels quite complex at first, but becomes more and more logical, until you don’t even see what the big deal was in the first place! (at least to me).
You can read any of my bazillion posts to dive deeper into my thoughts on learning systems and the language on a whole, but to sum this up, if an entire nation uses a languAge to function normally, it is normal to THEM. English is just as difficult perhaps even more so for a Japanese speaker.
I believe the main conundrum here for my colleague Gaijin Otousan, is a perceptual one. It is a similar battle I faced myself until I shifted how I looked at language learning on a whole. In the beginning, thinking of having to learn 150 character for Hiragana and Katakana, then having to learn up to 2,500 characters just to be able to read a the instructions to operate your teapot feels like madness! But only because for most people, they see this as a process that would take forever because the data feels ‘large’. But let’s say you could learn all the hiragana, Katakana, and base 2,136 Kanji in 3 months? What if you knew in 6-8 months you could be comfortably reading Japanese? Would these things be a concern?
The answer is no.
Once I figured out how to tackle the data quickly , everything else was just a matter of revision, putting in reading time and getting exposure. Remember, Japanese native speakers (like Native English speakers) do not walk around with dictionaries. They do no concern themselves about using an ATM, reading the paper, or double checking a receipt to make sure they were charged properly. They just live an exist in the system they grew up in. Because it was all they knew.
So why Kanji in 2023? Because….
Why not? 🙂