I’ve been really surprised lately. I’ve gotten a few emails from people that ask me why kanji is necessary. “Kanji is sooo hard” they say. “Why do Japanese bother learning kanji when they could just use a phonetic alphabet? I mean, they have hiragana already, why would you need kanji when hiragana does the same thing? It seems old fashioned!”
If you’ve studied Japanese for a while, you probably know the answer. Sure, hiragana is pretty convenient when you are first starting out. Why write kanji 漢字寿司 (sushi) when you could write it much more simply, kanji 漢字すし? Gosh, look at all those strokes, look at all that extra time! Both versions are two characters long, but it’s obvious that the second is easier.
Alright, I’ll admit, writing everything in hiragana would be faster…but would it be easier? Here is why you need to learn kanji, and have to use it. Learn to love kanji, folks.
1. Once you start writing sentences, hiragana is no longer readable.
For example, I’ll write two identical sentences. One with hiragana only, and one normally.kyou, sushi wo tabe ni ikimasu ka 今日、 寿司を 食べに 行きますか？
kyou, sushi wo tabe ni ikimasu ka きょう、すしをたべにいきますか？
Do you notice the difference? The second sentence is very difficult to read. There is nothing separating the words from each other. In Japanese, there are no spaces between words, so kanji helps break words apart, making it easy to read. As I’m sure you can imagine, long sentences would get even more difficult to read, and when you don’t know where one word begins and another one ends, reading errors can occur. You could be thinking that one word is another by combining the back end of one word to the front end of another…then where would you be?
2. Kanji gives meaning to words.
This sort of follows the same concept as English synonyms. In English, you just take the context and work with it. In Japanese, kanji helps give meaning to words. Let’s take the example of the word “Kanji,” since that’s what we’re working with. If you wrote kanji in hiragana, it would be more difficult to understand its meaning. If you wrote it in kanji, you could tell the difference. For example:
kanji かんじ → 漢字 kanji かんじ → 感じ kanji かんじ → 幹事 kanji かんじ → 監事
…And the list goes on. There are many many more examples out there, but as you can see, kanji really helps to bring context to words.
3. It looks nicer when you write in kanji.
Sure, this is just my own opinion, but I really think it’s true. Kanji can be very beautiful. It has a soft spot in my heart, even if the rest of my heart hates it. Japanese parents tell their kids they have to learn to write beautifully, otherwise people will judge them on their handwriting. People must think I’m a slob that makes a lot of mistakes…or a twelve year old.
4. Kanji is easier to read.
“What??” You say. “Impossible!” Okay, so it’s true. Having to learn how to read kanji sucks. In the long run, though, it makes you an incredibly fast reader. I always wondered how my Japanese friends could read things so quickly. One day it hit me. Since each kanji has it’s own meaning, once you know kanji well, you can skim over things, basically one kanji at a time, and get the meaning of a sentence very quickly. You don’t have to read all the hiragana (though I’m sure people do read it, otherwise it would be unnecessary). Instead, you can understand the meaning of something just by jumping from kanji to kanji.
5. Kanji Takes up less space.
You know those darn 10 page papers you have to write in English class? Psshh, you could write a 7 page paper if you were writing it in Japanese, especially if you were typing it. Typing in Japanese makes things so much easier. Kanji takes up less space than just writing in hiragana. Often times, two or three characters will be condensed into one kanji. It’s so efficient.
6. It could be worse.
At least there is hiragana. For example, Mandarin Chinese is only kanji. I remember trying to learn that. Feel fortunate that you are learning Japanese, because really, it could be a lot harder.
So there you have it. Learn your kanji and learn it well. Besides, kanji is friggin’ cool. You’ll thank me when you’ve become a speed reader.