If you are like most people who didn’t grow up speaking and reading Japanese, at some point seeing Japanese writing has likely made you simply stare in awe and wonder about what exactly is going on in a Japanese sentence.
It is not surprising considering the relatively ridiculous complexity involved in the written Japanese language. Let’s take a look at how it got to be that way and also how to make some sense of it all. Don’t worry; it’s not quite as complex as it may seem at first. It still could be much simpler though.
There’s 3 types of Japanese characters: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji.
Hiragana is a set of 46 phonetic symbols that are Japanese in origin and can actually be used to write the entire Japanese language. This would be relatively simple, even though it is almost double the number of letters in the English alphabet. Hiragana is instead used in conjunction with Kanji to write the entire Japanese language.
Katakana is another set of 46 phonetic symbols that are also of Japanese origin. Katakana is written in order to represent non-Japanese import words using essentially the same sounds as Hiragana. This is why native Japanese speakers sometimes have a very heavy Japanese accent when speaking English. There are many English words commonly used in Japan, but they are written in Katakana. To understand a little better, in Katakana there is no “L” sound so “R” is used as a replacer.
Okay, those were pretty easy, right? Thankfully there are only 46 different symbols for a person to remember for each set of Hiragana and Katakana.
Sadly we now add approximately another 2000 symbols to remember for the reading of a basic Japanese newspaper. These are the 2000 common characters from literally thousands more that are available.
These characters are primarily used in written Japanese for nouns, verb stems, adjective stems, and proper nouns. Where do these characters come from and why (Oh why?!) are they a part of the written Japanese language today?
Kanji Was Imported From China
Like many aspects of historical Japanese culture imported from China and given a Japanese treatment, the traditional Chinese pictographic symbols used for the entirety of the Chinese language were imported and adapted to the Japanese language.
Historically it is believed that Japan had no written language of its own and thus simply imported the Chinese characters to use as written Japanese. Since it wasn’t the most perfect fit, later on Hiragana was added to fill in where necessary.
Katakana came even later on. The major issue with the Chinese imported characters is not even that there are 2000 or so characters to learn. In the Chinese language, each of the characters would have a single sound associated with them. In Japanese, there are often more than 2 sounds per character.
This is not exactly an efficient or intelligent design. It certainly appears so prior to learning of its underlying ridiculousness though.
Why Is Japanese Still Written With Kanji?
You may be wondering why (Oh why?!) the Japanese language is still written with Kanji when the entire language can be written with the 46 Hiragana symbols. Many people studying the Japanese language around the world are also likely wondering this right now.
The shortest answer is “short (and pretty) sentences”. One character of Kanji can be equivalent to many Hiragana characters. This saves a lot of space, paper, ink, and energy.
There are also no spaces in Japanese writing, so imagine trying to read English sentences with no spaces between the words.
Does The Japanese Writing System Need An Overhaul?
Basically, the written Japanese language needs an overhaul, and never got it. Korean did and the written Korean, known as “Hangul”, is considered by many to be the world’s most advanced written language. It also no longer uses Chinese characters.
While the spoken Japanese and Korean languages are similar in many ways, and Hangul is phonetic, there is no easy way to suggest that Japan adopt Hangul as its written language. What should happen is a switch to a modified form of Hiragana. It would certainly save years of repetitive drilling for Japanese school children and allow them to study something more globally important.