Complicated characters: Let us now praise difficult kanji

by Daniel Morales

Special To The Japan Times

For beginner and intermediate students of Japanese, encountering a kanji such as 鬱 (utsu, depression) in the wild can be a somewhat traumatic event that, appropriately, induces a deep, introspective depression regarding their language ability. Let’s pull out our electron microscopes and examine that sucker up close: It’s got an upstairs, a downstairs and what appears to be a safety deposit box holding some secret treasure. It has a kakusū (画数, stroke count) of 29 and takes half an hour to write. How the hell would you even determine the bushu (部首, radical) in order to look up the meaning in a kanji dictionary? It looks like it has 10 bushu.

Kanji such as 鬱 generally cause students to either think that they’ve made a terrible decision to study this language or that kanji themselves should be abolished and replaced with kana (仮名, syllabary characters) or rōmaji (ローマ字, Latin alphabet letters). They’re mistaken.

Kanji may be intricate and complicated and take a significant investment of time to use correctly, but they are an essential part of the Japanese writing system. One that actually makes it easier to read the language.

Take, for example, this sentence: まいにちどらやきをさんこたべる. Without any kanji, a reader must look at each individual hiragana (平仮名) character and, after processing the pronunciation, parse out the words that make up the sentence.

While this may not seem like much to ask, try looking at the same sentence written with katakana (片仮名) characters: マイニチドラヤキヲサンコタベル. That’s enough to induce a migraine in some newbies who may believe katakana are inherently more difficult. What that tells us, though, is that language is all about familiarity. A written language that only uses hiragana might seem easier at first, but this is because beginners have more exposure to hiragana.

Rōmaji requires even less work because they use familiar Latin characters and the spacing helps sort out the words: Mainichi dorayaki wo sanko taberu. But it will be hit or miss. You either know the meanings of the words or you don’t. In other words — and this is key — not knowing the rōmaji is the same as not knowing the kanji. You have to anki (暗記, memorize) something, it’s just a matter of what.

It should be clear that writing the sentence with both kanji and kana produces a more readable result: 毎日どら焼きを三個食べる (I eat three dorayaki every day).

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the kanji, you can at least discern the pieces involved because most kanji compounds come in sets of two or four. For example, 毎日 (mainichi, every day) is a timing adverb set at the beginning of the sentence. Also, it’s easy to tell where どら焼き (dorayaki, red bean pancake) ends because it’s followed immediately by を, a grammatical particle that marks the direct object of the sentence. Beware: を is pronounced identically to お (o) but gets written “wo” in the world of rōmaji.

三個 (sanko, three items) specifies the number of dorayaki that will presumably be taken care of by the verb at the end of the sentence — ah, there it is: 食べる (taberu, to eat).

The first benefit of kanji is that they are so drastically different from kana, they stand out within a sentence, even against each other. Kanji rarely exist in a vacuum, and because readers are familiar with them as compounds (rather than just individual units) and with how kanji become verbs, using kanji helps readers parse the words in a language written without spaces.

With kanji there is also a chance that you can extract the meaning visually. For example, you might not know the exact meaning of 軽食 (keishoku), but it’s clear that it involves eating or food because of the second kanji. The first kanji you may recognize from 軽い (karui, light), so it’s simple enough to understand that this compound literally means “light food/meal,” or a snack.

The word 早食い might confuse you because 食 isn’t pronounced shoku (しょく) or taberu (たべる), but you can determine the meaning rather quickly from the kanji alone. 早 you may recognize from 早い (hayai, fast) and it’s modifying our lovely kanji 食, which we already know means “eat,” so it must be an adverb-verb relationship: eating quickly or speed eating. 食う can be pronounced (くう), which in this case becomes , so 早食い, is pronounced hayagui.

And finally, kanji make reading more efficient. Our kanji-kana sentence above was only 12 characters as opposed to 15 in the kana-only version. This may sound insignificant, but it’s 20 percent more efficient!

The way kanji create verbs is also efficient. This doesn’t save much space with verbs such as 食べる and 飲む (nomu, to drink) where the kanji only takes the place of one kana. Nevertheless, it efficiently communicates the meaning visually and lets the reader focus on how the verb is inflected: Is it past tense 食べた (tabeta, ate) or did someone overeat with 食べ過ぎる (tabesugiru, eat too much)?

And there are some verbs that replace several kana, the longest of which is 承る (undertake/take). Hidden within that single kanji are five syllables: うけたまわる (uketamawaru). You might recognize the 承 character from menus: Yoyaku wo uketamawarimasu (予約を承ります, We take reservations). Look at all the space the kanji saves compared to the rōmaji!

So the next time someone says they wish that there were more furigana (振り仮名, kana superscript pronunciation guides) or that kanji didn’t exist, tell them that they must help protect the kanji.

In the end, you too can gain access to this efficiency with many hours of study and by having soft eyes, as Detective Bunk Moreland recommends in the HBO TV series “The Wire,” as a method for examining crime scenes: “You got soft eyes, you can see the whole thing. You got hard eyes, you staring at the same tree, missing the forest.”

Soft eyes let you read compounds and pieces of the sentence together rather than seeing them as individual kanji, kana or rōmaji, and given enough time, even the individual strokes of 鬱 will turn into a familiar forest.

  • very good article!

  • Love this! Very well written and funny….and I absolutely agree. Though my kanji skills aren’t perfect yet, I much prefer seeing characters where I can recognize the meaning as opposed to a giant mess of hiragana.

  • Nishinomajo

    I don’t find this article very convincing. You say that kanji are essential, because readers would have to parse out individual words if everything was written in kana, because there are no spaces.Well, how about introducing spacing then? Problem solved.

    Also, Japanese doesn’t have as many homophones as people claim. A lot of Western languages have them too and people survive, thanks to a little thing called context.

    Yes, it’s handy that you can guess the meaning of a word by looking at its kanji. But you can do that in alphabetic languages too, by memorising common morphemes instead.

    The fact that kanji save space is also not an argument in their favour, IMHO. Take a look at German, which has compound nouns that can fill an entire line on a page. And they love it. Length and complexity are very weak arguments against orthographical, grammatical or phonological rules in any language, because in reality, a lot of languages favour complicated structures.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for kanji, because they are an essential part of Japanese culture and I personally find them beautiful. But try to present your arguments to a linguist and they will tear them to shreds.

    • Daniel Morales

      I think the article was less linguistic argumentation and more an attempt to show beginner and intermediate students that, yes, kanji will turn into readable characters the more you study them. Basically: Take the language as it is and just get used to it, because your brain will nativize it in time, and no, furigana everywhere is not the answer.

      (I think the use of exclamation point probably ruined any chances I had of being taken as a serious linguist anyway.)

      Although I still do think there is an “efficiency” of sight, which I hint at with たべる vs 食べる. 食 visually contains more information than た, allowing a reader to precede with the safe expectation that the inflection will follow. Sure, we would understand from context that it meant eat or ate, but we’d have to first read the whole. Not sure if that makes sense, might not since 食べる probably gets read as a whole including inflection, but I just feel like it’s more efficient…no linguistic proof, of course.

      In the end, I guess my larger point, which I didn’t get to in the article–my fault, I’ll admit–is that Japanese is no more difficult than any other language, especially German.

      More thoughts here, if you can stomach them: http://howtojaponese.com/2014/08/18/into-the-benkyo-ness-let-us-now-praise-difficult-kanji/

      • Nishinomajo

        Hi Daniel,

        thanks for your reply and also thanks for stating that “Japanese is no more difficult than any other language”. I have read tons of articles written by members of the Japan-crazy kawaii-faction who think Japanese is so complicated and unique that it defies Western logic and has to be venerated in awe. And I must admit that after reading your article, I thought you were coming from that direction too. So thank you for proving me wrong!

        I get that your intention was to motivate beginners and intermediate learners of Japanese and not to start a linguistic debate. But to me your pro-kanji arguments sounded a bit like telling 3 year old that if he doesn’t finish his plate, the sun won’t shine. But of course the sun will shine and of course Japanese would survive without kanji.

        In my own experience, the students who have to be motivated with these pro-kanji-arguments are the students who will never truly immerse themselves into Japanese language and culture anyways. If they can’t appreciate kanji as an essential part of Japanese culture, I myself wouldn’t even bother teaching them. But maybe I’m too pessimistic here ;-)

      • ScottyP

        I used to think the exact same way as you, Nishinomajo. But now that I’m relatively proficient in reading Japanese, I can’t imagine the language without kanji. And not only for its beauty and culture, as you said: Now, whenever I read an all-kana children’s book, my brain hurts — with or without spacing. (In fact, I’d argue that spacing makes it an even uglier, more slogging, more broken read.)

        The fact is, it takes at least double the time to read a sentence converted into all-kana as compared to a natural sentence incorporating kanji. And if any linguist tries to counter this fact, they clearly have little first-hand experience with or knowledge of the language. Which means they’re really not much of a linguist after all.

      • Daniel Morales

        I have to disagree a little here…again I think it comes down to familiarity. If Japanese only existed as kana and had spaces, I think everyone would do just fine. We would get used to it eventually – our brains are pretty flexible. We would probably do just as well with all kana and no spaces…the Koreans manage to pull it off somehow…although I don’t know…do they have any tricks that help mark the spots between words? I’m not sure. I think we get ourselves in trouble by thinking one language more difficult than any other.

        That said, I still think there is some visual efficiency as I mentioned above.

        And I think the efficiency of space shouldn’t be underestimated either – Twitter isn’t exactly the greatest medium to compare, but you can fit a much more in 140 Japanese characters than in English characters, and kanji definitely help out.

        Another interesting thing to note: Foreign scholars studying old Japanese kana texts (Tale of Genji, etc) often read them in romaji. I was surprised to go into a Classical Japanese class and be given a handout completely in romaji.

  • Nishinomajo

    @Zulixia, you wrote: “And to suggest to remove Kanji and just add spacing would be like telling English people to remove spacing and stick words together like German.”

    German only sticks compound nouns together and all nouns are capitalized, so they are as easy to spot as kanji. I’ll give you an example: “Armbandclock” (Armbanduhr). An ‘arm’ is an arm, an ‘arm-band’ is a ‘bracelet’, and a ‘hand-band-clock’ is a ‘watch’. Now imagine a learner of English and a learner of German. The first one would hear the word ‘watch’ and wouldn’t be able to guess its meaning. But a learner of German would be able to understand ‘Armbanduhr’, because it is made up of very common nouns that you’d learn in the first month of studying this language. And since English is a Germanic language and the 100 most common nouns are all of Germanic origin, there would be absolutely no problem if English speakers suddenly decided to stick existing nouns together instead of creating new words.

  • A.J. Sutter

    I do think kanji add an interesting layer of meaning to the language. One thing, though, that creates headaches for students is that the people who compile kanji dictionaries promote a certain mysticism about Japanese, that there is something esoteric about kanji. You always have to learn some arcane system before you can look anything up. But those systems are totally unnecessary.

    I’ve used probably half a dozen different Chinese-English dictionaries (both from Taiwan and PRC), and they all allow you to look characters up by straight stroke count. Why can’t Japanese-English dictionaries do the same?C-E dictionaries usually offer several means of look-up: radicals, pinyin, stroke count, and for Taiwan dictionaries maybe also second form of romanization plus bopomofo. It would be nice to see a new edition of Halpern or Nelson that is similarly pluralist, with a stroke count index alongside radicals, phonetics, and their own proprietary razzle-dazzle.

    In the case of 鬱, with a stroke count index I’d simply start from the highest counts, where there are relatively few characters, and start looking in descending order for a rough visual match, without necessarily needing actually to count. Whereas even with the SKIP system (which in my view is handier than some others devised for Japanese) I’d need first to figure out whether it’s left-right, top-down or whatever, and then how many strokes make up the left, top, etc. part. Granted, a straight eyeballing technique might be less efficient for kanji with roughly between 6-12 strokes, but then those aren’t the complicated kanji motivating this article. Overcomplicated reference tools make learning to read Japanese more difficult than it need to be.

  • ScottyP

    I wish every beginner learner of Japanese would read this article.

    I also wish this article had been available 10-12 years ago, when I was stubbornly resisting something (kanji) that I should’ve embraced from the start. Doing so would’ve sped up my language development threefold.

    • Daniel Morales

      Thanks for the kind words! When I write about Japanese, I feel like my audience is myself when I first started studying…like yourself, 10-12 years ago. Wish someone would have told me stuff like this! I also with that the Anki SRS program had been around. That would’ve been nice!

  • Extremely well written article. Kanji can be a real hurdle for beginner learners, and puts up a barrier as to the languages accessibility, but once you get familiar with them, they are actually extremely useful in knowing exactly what is going on. Thanks again.

  • sakanaとkoeda

    I jumped into Japanese by first memorizing some Kanji (just for the hell of it really). And wow did it really make a difference once I started grammar and reading. It’s still a pain having to memorize so many, though.