Will everyday Japanese writing eventually stop using using kanji?

Inspired in part by the “Is Japanese really the hardest to learn E.Asian language, and Vietnamese the easiest?” thread.

Disclaimer: I know absolutely nothing about the Japanese language except for what I’ve read on Wikipedia and the web generally, so this question (and the assumptions behind it) may be totally off the wall.

If I understand it correctly, written Japanese uses both ideograms (kanji, derived from Chinese) and syllabaries (hiragana/katakana, which are different from each other in some way I don’t fully understand). As far as I can tell, it would be perfectly possible, although apparently quite unusual, to write nearly any text using hiragana/katakana alone and have it be entirely comprehensible. Functionally, the irreducible uses of kanji seem to be a) really cool puns, b) literary flights and allusions, and c) making you look smart.

Reading translations/English versions of Japanese lit-crit and media-studies articles, I have occasionally come across cases in which native speakers complain about difficult kanji, or discuss an author’s choice to replace obscure or unusual kanji with hiragana/katakana. I was vaguely assuming that this had to do with academic, literary or deliberately pretentious usages, but comments in the linked thread seem to suggest that native Japanese speakers have some difficulty with kanji in everyday contexts as well.

So, questions for the Nippon-savvy branches of the Dope:

  1. Is there a trend, over time, for the average person to use less kanji in everyday writing?
  2. Would kanji-free everyday writing actually be comprehensible and usable?
  3. Is it likely to ever happen?


Can I just add my question - what with ever-increasing globalisation, is it likely that Japanese will be written exclusively with romaji (roman letters) in time? I’ve never been to Japan, but judging by pictures of Tokyo I’ve seen, romaji seem to be pretty prevalent in advertising etc.

I think it would take a concerted effort on the part of the Japanese government to cause it to happen. It’s not something that will happen naturally because there aren’t spaces in Japanese writing and the different alphabets make it easier to find the boundaries of words.

If spaces were added, writing in pure hiragana would be perfectly easy. I think there might be more homonyms in Japanese due to the comparatively small number of vowel and consonant sounds, but if people can differentiate meanings aurally, they can do it visually.

Sorry, to answer question #1, I’d say not significantly. Computers make writing kanji easy, since you just need to know the phonetic pronunciation and be able to visually recognise the characters. So it’s not any more or less laborious to write them. Where the greatest shrinkage of kanji has come is in the increase in the number of borrowed words, which are written in katakana. But from a language standpoint, there isn’t a large difference between a noun written in kanji or in katakana, it’s just how it’s written.

I have a set of books from the early 19th century (the Hakkenden), and it probably uses more kanji than modern day by a small amount, but it really is quite insignificant, especially if you consider most words in katakana to be equivalent to a word in kanji. I don’t think there will be a large amount of shrinkage in the decades to come.

I’d scan pages from a modern book and the Hakkenden to compare, but my scanner isn’t working.

I do know something about this (but not much, so take my comments in light of that). First, all Japanese can be written in hiragana (katakana is used for foreign words and names–think of it as analogous to italic, except that the forms don’t resemble each other). Children are taught to read hiragana and there are children’s books, I was told, written entirely in it. As a result, it is considered childish to write in it.

Learning Kanji is a long arduous process. To graduate from HS in Japan you must know some 1800 kanji. Some people know several thousand, few know as many as 10,000. The research institute I visited sent announcements to people and I noticed (not that I could read any of it) that occasionally a kanji would have a tiny sequence of hiragana printed above it. When I asked I was told that the administrators like to show off how many kanji they know, but if a character is sufficiently unusual, they would spell out the word in hiragana. My host named his daughter a relatively archaic name and even though there was a kanji character for the name, he chose to spell it out on her birth certificate and that name, in hiragana, is her legal name. It is interesting that people not born in Japan are not permitted to write their names in kanji, at least for legal purposes. This is true even if the name is Japanese. (This applies especially to third and fourth generation Brazilians of Japanese origin who have reversed migrated to Japan in significant numbers.)

So, a prioir it would seem that social pressure would mitigate against replacement of kanji by either hiragana or romaji (Japanese written as phonetically as possible in roman letters). Of course, society could change quite suddenly. The current issue of the New Yorker has an article about a new phenomenon: the cell phone novel. These are written, mostly by 20something young Japanese women on their cell phones, in Hiragana and circulted as text messages (incidentally, texting in Japan is free–it uses grossly less bandwidth than voice). Some of them are printed and have sold well, even in the hundreds of thousands. There has been speculation, according to this report, that this might lead people to abandon kanji.

This would not be unprecedented. Several hundred years ago, Korean monks created a true alphabet (not syllabary) of 24 characters that was sufficient to write Japanese. But Korea was occupied on and off by Japan until after WWII and continued to use kanji. Since the war ended, however, the new alphabet, hangul, has become the official way to write Korean.

There are a couple of reasons why kanji is less useful in Japan than in China. China has a number of mutually incomprehensible languages (mistakenly called dialects) but just one written language. Moreover Chinese languages are not inflected. Nouns are not inflected for gender, number, or case, the verbs are not inflected for tense, number, or person. Japanese is a single, highly inflected language and the hiragana is necessary for adding the inflections. So all text is a mixture of kanji and hiragana anyway.

This is fascinating. Upon arriving in China, I was given a Chinese name. I was surprised to find this name taking on a semi-legal status. It’s on my bank documents and visa apps. Anyway, I was just really taken aback because I never thought about how names don’t translate. Hanzi names really aren’t the same thing when you translate them into roman characters. Likewise my American name is a little short on meaning in a Hanzi world.

  1. Yes and no. It’s certainly the case that your average Japanese can only write a smaller number of kanji than those from a few generations ago because of computers. On the other hand, I would argue that the number of kanji used in everyday life is actually increasing in some ways. Because it is so easy to input kanji now, people will sometimes now use kanji that in the past would have been written in hiragana.

  2. Not as the language exists now. Reading kanji-free blocks of text is very tiring and difficult, because the use of the various writing systems in Japanese provide visual clues for where one word ends and another begins. As suggested above, one solution to this problem would be the use of spaces. But I don’t think that would be enough. Japanese contains a massive number of homonyms due to the limited number of sounds it contains and because when adopting words from Chinese it dropped the tones that were used to distinguish them. Kanji thus provide a much needed way for figuring out what meaning is meant. The vocabulary used in speech and in writing is different, so I’m not convinced that just because people can differentiate by context in speech that they’ll be able to do the same in writing. There’s just a much larger range of homonyms.

  3. No. I think that it would have to be enforced by the government, which would go against the trend of the last 60 years. The first restrictions of the use of kanji in Japan were put in place during the US Occupation (as part of “democratizing” the language) and Japanese conservatives have been fighting against them ever since. For example, the jinmeiyo kanji (the list of kanji allowed to be used in personal names but not found in the normal list) has increased from 92 kanji in 1951 to 983 kanji now. (Hari Seldon’s friend’s daughter, if born today, could quite likely have her name in kanji rather than hiragana) Beyond the governmental aspect, there’s a strong cultural resistance. Just as with obscure, difficult vocabulary in English, sometimes Japanese authors like to use obscure, difficult kanji in their writing because it has some prestige. The new Japanese prime minister, Aso Taro, has been the subject of much mockery recently because he’s made some much publicized mistakes in reading kanji.

The use of kanji and the characters themselves fascinate me, so this is something I’ve done a fair amount of reading on. One of the more interesting books that I remember was William Hannas’ Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma. Hannas is a strong opponent of character use in any of the east Asian languages, and I disagree with his conclusions, but its a very interesting book. One of the more fascinating topics he touches upon is the effect that writing systems can have on the development of language, and how getting rid of characters has effected Korean. I highly recommend the book.

Just a nitpick, but the use of hangul was suppressed by Sinophile Korean conservatives almost immediately after its creation. It was actually during the Japanese colonization of Korea that its use was revived.

You’re probably aware of the scope in which you used “legal,” but other people reading this thread might not be. To “sign” things in Japan you need to get a seal made with which you stamp things, called a hanko or inkan. Your hanko can have pretty much anything you want on it, from katakana to romaji to hiragana to (I’m pretty sure) kanji. Haven’t seen pictures of cats on them, but it wouldn’t surprise me. This hanko can be “legally” used as your signature in a number of cases, including officiating paperwork at your workplace, registering paperwork at the town office for your foreigner’s card, opening a bank account, etc.

Though I haven’t yet encountered the situation that Hari describes, I assume he/she is talking about “officially registered” hankos. I think you need those for things like owning property, perhaps? I have not yet had the need for one, so I’m not sure of the scope of them. But I just wanted to clear up the fact that I’ve lived here for a year and a half, rent a house, pay utilities, own a car, and obtained a multiple re-entry permit visa, and have not yet needed a hanko that couldn’t have on it exactly what I wanted.

While mine is in katakana, a Chinese friend here has a character that isn’t even Japanese on it. If you can get hanzi on your “unofficial” hanko, I’m pretty sure I’m remembering correctly that you can get kanji if you want it. You won’t be able to do everything with it, but most things are ok.

You can actually get away with using a signature, as well. I had a hanko the last time I was living here but had lost it before I came back. Since it can take a while to get a new one and I had a lot of paperwork that needed to get done right away, everything’s registered to my signature now. I’d kind of like to start using a hanko now, but it would probably be more hassle than its worth now.

It’s called a jitsuin (実印)、and just means that it’s officially registered at the local ward office. Some loan contracts will require one, others won’t - it varies. Major contracts, such as establishing trusts may also require them.

As to the main question, there’s no way kanji will fade out in the forseeable future. It’s too much a part of the culture, and too useful. Once you get the hang of it, it makes reading quite easy. A large part of every child’s life is spent learning the system, so unless that changes, it will never just fade away.

There is a significant benefit to using Kanji in that learning to read Chinese can be greatly facilitated. Although some of the characters used in China have different (or slightly different) meanings, many are identical. I learned a bit of Kanji when I was spending a lot of time in Japan, and was pleasantly surprised how much Mandarin I could read when I first went to Taiwan. I couldn’t speak a word of the language (beyond ni hou, or however you spell it), but could read many of the signs and menu items at restaurants. My Chinese colleagues would often “write” Kanji on their palms when speaking to Japanese associates if their English wasn’t sufficient to communicate properly.

Wouldnt consider myself savvy, but just having a go.

  1. Is there a trend, over time, for the average person to use less kanji in everyday writing?
    Could be. Most youngsters seem to be unable to read the kanji used in older japanese literature.
    Although it could be just that all the kids I know are stupid.
    There are mini kanji tests in the trains in Tokyo, and my Japanese friends fail to identify many of them (They are really obscure, but that is the point of the test).
    The Chinese friends however seem to identify the kanji a little bit more easily.

  2. Would kanji-free everyday writing actually be comprehensible and usable?
    Yes probably. But even to me, sometimes kanji just feels right. It looks more elegant that the hiragana/katakana scrawls.You can express a lot more in less space using kanji. Also there are some words which sound the same but use differnt kanji. Dont know how that issue can be handled.

  3. Is it likely to ever happen?
    Probably not, but who knows.
    I think using kanji is too ingrained to give up easily.

Very unlikely. Roman characters don’t line up completely with the sounds of Japanese, so romaji transliterations are only approximations. (The most obvious example is L and R. Japanese has a sound halfway in between the two.)