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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.