At my Japanese lesson today, the question was posed:
ひらがなは漢字どちら方が一番やさしいですか (which is the easiest, kanji or hiragana)
I responded 漢字は方が一番やさしいです (kanji is the easiest).
I didn’t make this statement lightly or without thinking. And while it would have been fun to troll sensei, I wasn’t doing that either. I really do think that is the correct answer. And here’s why.
Yes, when it comes to pronunciation, hiragana is by far easier. This is obvious. Each kana has its own pronunciation, and the syllables are one to one – meaning there is one and only one pronunciation for each kana. But that doesn’t make it easier. It just makes it a more predictable writing system, which is not the same thing.
There are two things that make kanji difficult: the fact that there are so many of them, and the fact that each one has many different pronunciations. But, honestly, I think this is a problem of scale. When you take a look at a word with its kanji, compared with the word in hiragana, it’s really no contest. Kanji is far easier.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that if you just go by pronunciation, there can be many, many different meanings for the same word, and it is unclear except through context which meaning is the correct one. The second is that in hiragana, you don’t know where one word ends and the next begins, and this leads to no end of confusion. So you can tell at a glance which word (and by word I mean meaning and not pronunciation) you are looking at, so it is far easier to figure out what a particular sentence means than by using the equivalent hiragana.
Kanji is more intimidating than hiragana is, for sure. It’s a lot more to learn and a lot more to memorize. But not by much, as you would need to remember the words one way or another, and kanji gives you a visual anchor to help memorization.
So, all told, I think kanji is far easier than hiragana. Hiragana is important and indispensable, for sure – how could you tell how to pronounce the kanji without it! But for actually getting anywhere with the language – I think staying exclusively with hiragana hurts much more than it helps in the long term.