Written Japanese outdated and redundant

With more than 40,000 characters, Japanese should be simplified.

TOKYO – For my column this week, I was originally going to do a humorous list of 10 completely trivial complaints about Japan, but then I got into the Japanese writing system and realized it’s not funny – it’s frustrating.

To functionally read, write and understand Japanese – but by no means completely – you are supposed to learn more than 2,000 characters. Compare that to the American use of the Latin alphabet, where you only need to know approximately 100 characters.
Lee Miller/Scene and Heard in Tokyo
You hear people singing the praises of only needing to know 26 letters in the English alphabet, but think about it: There are four forms for each letter, and numbers or non-syllabic symbols, such as math-related ones, must also be understood to be literate in America.

There are three alphabets in Japan that are used side-by-side – the Katakana and Hiragana alphabets and the Kanji. There are currently 46 characters of both Katakana and Hiragana in modern usages.

My problem with these alphabets is they are exactly the same as one another. The characters look different, but in speech, they’re pronounced the same. It’s 100 percent redundant.

Katakana is used to transcribe foreign words – frequently to the point that the words are indecipherable to the native speaker of the word – onomatopoeias and technical terms. Hiragana is used for everything else.

cokebottle
The sheer number of Japanese symbols, like those on this Coca-Cola bottle, can make simple reading a challenge. LEE MILLER TTN

However, before World War II official documents were written in Katakana and, further back in time, alongside Kanji, Katakana was used for everything. Katakana should be completely discarded at this point.

I can deal with 92 characters of Hiragana and Katakana. There aren’t any capitals or cursive scripts you have to know; however, there is Kanji.

I’ll confess the amount of Kanji I know is minimal, but if I knew the entire alphabet, I still wouldn’t be a fan.

In Japan, you learn 2,159 Kanji characters before college, and that’s generally considered literate – the absolute highest level of Japanese testing requires students to read about 6,000 – but there are actually more than 40,000 Kanji that someone might see in a lifetime, some with more than 40 different strokes.

Since Kanji is a symbol with a meaning and is not syllabic, if you don’t know the symbol and can’t hazard a guess in context, then tough luck.

If you learned 20 characters a week, it would take you 50 years to be able to read all the symbols that can possibly show up in Japanese print, although not all of them make an appearance. To help this problem, there’s a system called “Furigana,” in which tiny Hiragana are sometimes placed above the Kanji so that you can actually read them.

This isn’t used anywhere nearly as often as it should be – you’d think advertisements, catalogs and menus would be made as accessible as possible – but when it is, it can definitely be interpreted as a sign that whoever wrote it admits Kanji isn’t perfect.

There has been movement to get rid of Kanji that stretches back into the 1800s, but nationalism and empire-building of the past seems to have killed that, as Kanji is one of those things Japanese people tend to be proud of.

Take karaoke machines for example. They display a lot of words up in Kanji. Even if someone knows every single Kanji character, this is ridiculous because part of the point of having the words on screen is so the karaoke-singer can sing the right syllables at the right times.

But how can one do that when there are two characters on screen that could conceivably represent four or five syllables? They don’t always even include Furigana. Logic says you put it all in Hiragana, but this is not the case.

Of course, it’s worse for anyone trying to learn Japanese as a second language. For those born here, getting through 12th grade usually results in learning the most-needed Kanji.

In the meantime, your family and teachers are filling out your important documents – medical and government forms, et cetera – so you can get by without knowing everything. For an adult coming here for the first time, though, there’s a lot to learn and not much time to do so.

Japan has recently tried to have foreign nurses come from Southeast Asia to fill in a shortage, but they’ve run into a problem when most of them can’t learn the medical Kanji fast enough.

It’s a major problem for a country with a declining population when it considers turning to immigrants to fill positions. A major language reform might have to happen sometime in the future.

Lee Miller can be reached at lee.miller0001@temple.edu.

5 Comments

  1. Hye Lee,
    In this article, you make it look as if Japan is “responsable” for those thousands and thousands of kanji: well, I bet you know they aren’t: it’s the Chinese, from loooong ago.
    Moreover, you’re exaggerating enormously the numbers of both kana and kanji the Japanese have to learn: the basic chart has 1.945 kanji, not 2.159; and certainly not 60.000! That’s CHINA, Lee… in order to read a newspaper, your average Chinese needs to know at least about 4.000 characters. A Japanese, 1.945.
    But nobody has ever known ALL the kanji (in fact, they are called hanzi: Han-writing) that ever existed. Many characters have dissapeared over the millenia, many have comme up, many have changed meaning, and recently China has “modernised” the usual ones, which makes them look like they are easier to learn, but in reality it makes them harder, since the simplified ones are much less iconographical. Look at a Japanese kanji for “uma”, horse, and a simplified Chinese hanzi for horse, and you will see what I mean: in the old kanji, one can still see the horse, its waving mane and tail, its galloping hooves. In the simplified one you can’t see squat: it’s a pure memory job. No graphic hint.

    Now for katakana and hiragana: they have been created a while AFTER the Japanese scholars had introduced the Chinese writing into Japan, because the Japanese language has a much different structure than the Chinese: for instance, Chinese don’t conjugate. Past tense, present tense, conditional, connais pas. Japanese do conjugate; plus, they make a big difference between polite and familiar, the way the Latin languages do: the verb changes according to whom you’re speaking. You can’t write proper Japanese verbs with nothing but one single character, which purely stands for the action itself: the kanji for to go, (iku) only means “the activity of putting one foot before the other and this way, advancing”. Nobody knows who’s going, when the going is being done, nothing.
    So, after kana had been composed, the agreement was that with verbs the kanji was used to write the stem, and hiragana for the output. That was handy. Also, all these little things that don’t exist in Chinese but do in Japanese, like the particles ni, wo, ga, he, etcetera: they tell you the function of the word in front of them in the sentence. Those had to be written in kana as well.
    And on top of that, you can teach children to read and write from an early age, teaching them only the kana, which allowes them to start reading books a lot earlier than say Chinese children, who have to master hundreds of basic hanzi (and thus being much older) before they can start to decipher a simple children’s book. That gives Japanese kids an intellectual headstart in life.

    All this was done in a time, when we in Europe had nothing at all: the only Europeans who had a writing were the Greek and the Romans. So, we took over the Roman alphabet, and frankly, (I live in Belgium and we speak Dutch),our use of the Latin 26 letters requires even less than 100 characters, since English has a totally weird and illogical orthography compared to the rest of the world.
    But we took over the alphabet of our conquerors, the Romans. We were given no choice.
    in the East, there were two civilisations that had a writing system: India had Sanskrit and China had hanzi. The countries around India took over Sanskrit, those neighboring China took over hanzi. And encountered numerous problems because of it; this way, at a certain point the Koreans created themselves an alphabet of their own and Vietnam took over the Roman alphabet and added a lot of accents.
    Japan had to invent and add a phonetic alphabet. In two versions.
    With nothing but kanji, you can’t write Japanese, unless you use the kanji in a significative and a phonetic way alternately, which makes it monstrously difficult to read. Since the invention of the kana alphabets, nobody does that anymore.
    Indeed, the Japanese are proud of their kanji, and I can see why, since they are beautiful and calligraphy is an ancient and much loved artform. That is however not the reason why making it an Antique Science (the way the Latin and Ancient Greek languages are considered here, that you can study if you want but don’t need in everyday life), has never been decided in Japan; no, that is NOT why.
    If you were to write a whole Japanese text in nothing but kana, (and I’m not talking about a children’s book) you would soon find out why: Japanese has so many homonyms you can’t manage to make clear what you mean with nothing but phonetical characters. If you write “dai” in kana, who’s to say you are meaning either large, or the counter for big machines, or the prefix that serves to say “the first” …or the second, or third, or whatever? All three sound “dai”. Written in kanji, however, you CAN tell, since they each have their own kanji. Written in kana, all you see is dai. Which dai? No idea.

    As for katakana being redundant, well, I don’t agree there either. True, they are ugly, especially compared to hiragana and kanji; and when they are being used to write English words, it is quite hard to figure out which English word they might possibly mean to write. I bet mrs. Barbra Streisand must have smiled the first time she heard a Japanese person call her Barubara Sutoreisando. 😀 But that is not the Japanese’s fault, it’s the English’s! After all, katakana was never meant to write English, it was meant to write Japanese, and in Japananese, there simply are no consonants following eachother without a vowel in between. And all Japanese words end in vowels, never on consonants, except for the n; so there was no need for letters symbolising solitary consonants- except for the n, of course.
    That’s why there are no single consonants available in katakana, and if our languages do have lots of consonant-compounds, that’s our problem, not theirs. They simply leave those unavoidable vowels in between, and just don’t pronounce them. We are used to pronounce everything we see written, so the English words written in katakana drive us crazy. But you get used to it, trust me.
    The fact that katakana nowadays are purely used for foreign words, and not for (almost) anything else, is also very handy, by the way: since they are so spikey and angulous, compared to the curvey hiragana and graceful kanji, they tend to be conspicuous. You can see them coming from miles away, in a text, and you know straight away: here comes a foreign word, I’m going to have to switch to leaving-out-a-lot-of-vowels-mode.
    So, they’re not outdated nor are they redundant. That is just one of those reactions from westerners, and specifically American anglosaxons, who seem to think the whole world was destined to speak English and if it doesn’t seem to fit English, it must be wrong and has to be altered…

    I don’t know if you are living in Japan or observing it from afar. Considering you put down such a self-assured opinion, and seem to know so well what the Japanese “should” do, in order to accomodate you and the other Americans (why don’t you try and accomodate other people, for a change?), I can tell you have looked at the Japanases writing system and formed that opinion, after a few minutes. Or maybe days. At most.
    Well, it takes a lot longer to really know what you’re talking about, where old civilisations are concerned.
    Sou desu ne!

  2. Hye Lee,
    In this article, you make it look as if Japan is “responsable” for those thousands and thousands of kanji: well, I bet you know they aren’t: it’s the Chinese, from loooong ago.
    Moreover, you’re exaggerating enormously the numbers of both kana and kanji the Japanese have to learn: the basic chart has 1.945 kanji, not 2.159; and certainly not 60.000! That’s CHINA, Lee… in order to read a newspaper, your average Chinese needs to know at least about 4.000 characters. A Japanese, 1.945.
    But nobody has ever known ALL the kanji (in fact, they are called hanzi: Han-writing) that ever existed. Many characters have dissapeared over the millenia, many have come up, many have changed meaning, and recently China has “modernised” the usual ones, which makes them look like they are easier to learn, but in reality it makes them harder, since the simplified ones are much less iconographical. Look at a Japanese kanji for “uma”, horse, and a simplified Chinese hanzi for horse, and you will see what I mean: in the old kanji, one can still see the horse, its waving mane and tail, its galloping hooves. In the simplified one you can’t see squat: it’s a pure memory job. No graphic hint.

    Now for katakana and hiragana: they have been created a while AFTER the Japanese scholars had introduced the Chinese writing into Japan, because the Japanese language has a much different structure than the Chinese: for instance, Chinese don’t conjugate. Past tense, present tense, conditional, connais pas. Japanese do conjugate; plus, they make a big difference between polite and familiar, the way the Latin languages do: the verb changes according to whom you’re speaking. You can’t write proper Japanese verbs with nothing but one single character, which purely stands for the action itself: the kanji for to go, (iku) only means “the activity of putting one foot before the other and this way, advancing”. Nobody knows who’s going, when the going is being done, nothing.
    So, after kana had been composed, the agreement was that with verbs the kanji was used to write the stem, and hiragana for the output. That was handy. Also, all these little things that don’t exist in Chinese but do in Japanese, like the particles ni, wo, ga, he, etcetera: they tell you the function of the word in front of them in the sentence. Those had to be written in kana as well.
    And on top of that, you can teach children to read and write from an early age, teaching them only the kana, which allowes them to start reading books a lot earlier than say Chinese children, who have to master hundreds of basic hanzi (and thus being much older) before they can start to decipher a simple children’s book. That gives Japanese kids an intellectual headstart in life.

    All this was done in a time, when we in Europe had nothing at all: the only Europeans who had a writing were the Greek and the Romans. So, we took over the Roman alphabet, and frankly, (I live in Belgium and we speak Dutch),our use of the Latin 26 letters requires even less than 100 characters, since English has a totally weird and illogical orthography compared to the rest of the world.
    But we took over the alphabet of our conquerors, the Romans. We were given no choice.
    in the East, there were two civilisations that had a writing system: India had Sanskrit and China had hanzi. The countries around India took over Sanskrit, those neighboring China took over hanzi. And encountered numerous problems because of it; this way, at a certain point the Koreans created themselves an alphabet of their own and Vietnam took over the Roman alphabet and added a lot of accents.
    Japan had to invent and add a phonetic alphabet. In two versions.
    With nothing but kanji, you can’t write Japanese, unless you use the kanji in a significative and a phonetic way alternately, which makes it monstrously difficult to read. Since the invention of the kana alphabets, nobody does that anymore.
    Indeed, the Japanese are proud of their kanji, and I can see why, since they are beautiful and calligraphy is an ancient and much loved artform. That is however not the reason why making it an Antique Science (the way the Latin and Ancient Greek languages are considered here, that you can study if you want but don’t need in everyday life), has never been decided in Japan; no, that is NOT why.
    If you were to write a whole Japanese text in nothing but kana, (and I’m not talking about a children’s book) you would soon find out why: Japanese has so many homonyms you can’t manage to make clear what you mean with nothing but phonetical characters. If you write “dai” in kana, who’s to say you are meaning either large, or the counter for big machines, or the prefix that serves to say “the first” …or the second, or third, or whatever? All three sound “dai”. Written in kanji, however, you CAN tell, since they each have their own kanji. Written in kana, all you see is dai. Which dai? No idea.

    As for katakana being redundant, well, I don’t agree there either. True, they are ugly, especially compared to hiragana and kanji; and when they are being used to write English words, it is quite hard to figure out which English word they might possibly mean to write. I bet mrs. Barbra Streisand must have smiled the first time she heard a Japanese person call her Barubara Sutoreisando. 😀 But that is not the Japanese’s fault, it’s the English’s! After all, katakana was never meant to write English, it was meant to write Japanese, and in Japananese, there simply are no consonants following eachother without a vowel in between. And all Japanese words end in vowels, never on consonants, except for the n; so there was no need for letters symbolising solitary consonants- except for the n, of course.
    That’s why there are no single consonants available in katakana, and if our languages do have lots of consonant-compounds, that’s our problem, not theirs. They simply leave those unavoidable vowels in between, and just don’t pronounce them. We are used to pronounce everything we see written, so the English words written in katakana drive us crazy. But you get used to it, trust me.
    The fact that katakana nowadays are purely used for foreign words, and not for (almost) anything else, is also very handy, by the way: since they are so spikey and angulous, compared to the curvey hiragana and graceful kanji, they tend to be conspicuous. You can see them coming from miles away, in a text, and you know straight away: here comes a foreign word, I’m going to have to switch to leaving-out-a-lot-of-vowels-mode.
    So, they’re not outdated nor are they redundant. That is just one of those reactions from westerners, and specifically American anglosaxons, who seem to think the whole world was destined to speak English and if it doesn’t seem to fit English, it must be wrong and has to be altered…

    I don’t know if you are living in Japan or observing it from afar. Considering you put down such a self-assured opinion, and seem to know so well what the Japanese “should” do, in order to accomodate you and the other Americans (why don’t you try and accomodate other people, for a change?), I can tell you have looked at the Japanases writing system and formed that opinion, after a few minutes. Or maybe days. At most.
    Well, it takes a lot longer to really know what you’re talking about, where old civilisations are concerned.
    Sou desu ne!

  3. Hi Lee, I hope you found the strength to continue your Japanese journey. If you have since changed your mind on this matter, then consider this comment directed at future readers.

    Just like the redundancy of English is about 50%, most languages are very redundant in some way. There are many advantages to this (see the below research articles) and it is a very interesting subject. One benefit of kanji is also described here (reading speed): https://www.quora.com/Is-reading-Chinese-more-efficient-than-reading-English-An-individual-Chinese-character-hanzi-typically-will-pack-far-more-information-than-an-English-character-Does-that-mean-a-typical-Chinese-reader-will-out-pace-an-English-reader

    http://www.math.rug.nl/~ernst/linguistics/redundancy3.pdf
    https://www.chineseboost.com/blog/redundancy-good-language-learning/
    https://www.uni-due.de/~bj0063/doc/shannon_redundancy.pdf

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