My Evolving Thoughts on Kanji

My thoughts on kanji and what they are for have evolved over the past year or two.  When first starting Japanese, they seem almost redundant and needlessly difficult.  Why use kanji, you think, when there are around 110 perfectly good syllables to use in their place?

But that’s an English way of looking at the problem.  We don’t have a syllabary, though we have syllables.  About fifteen thousand possible ones, though I don’t know how many we actually use.  So we take a look at the twenty-six letters of our alphabet, the 110 or so syllables that the Japanese languages use, and try to learn them through a functional one to one comparison.

That doesn’t work and it will never work.

The reason is that kanji fulfill a purpose that is wholly (or mostly) absent in English.  They are a sort of alphabet of their own, but instead of specifying specific sounds or sets of sounds, they specify meanings, and the sounds that relate to them map to the syllabary, but that mapping is not one to one.  We have twenty-six sounds and characters and they are sufficient to contain our language, because there are quite a few different syllables that we can make from them.  That is not the case in Japanese, because the number of sounds they can use are so limited.  For example, I can think of about four kanji right off the top of my head that are pronounced “hou”, several that are pronounced “ryou”, quite a few that are pronounced “do” and “to”.  The sound that a kanji makes, while important, is not important in the same way that the sound of an English letter would be.

This is why studying kanji, I think, is so critically important to understanding Japanese.  You can get along without them for conversational purposes, but without understanding the role kanji play, you’ll never understand the important role that they play in making the Japanese language what it is.

Put another way, I don’t think the Japanese language has an alphabet of 110 characters.  I think it has an alphabet of over 2,400 characters.  It just serves a very different purpose than ours.

Kanji is easier than Hiragana

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.

The Two Pillars of Success

There are two pillars to success when learning any language: vocabulary and grammar.

The thing about them is, they are actually rather orthogonal to each other. Even in Japanese, as long as you learn the dictionary form (or to some degree even the polite form of the word) you don’t need to worry too much about how to use it to know the word.

You need to know both, obviously, but you can work on both separately, and not lose anything when it comes to learning whatever language you’re trying to learn. Eventually, of course, you have to tie them together, but that actually happens rather naturally with exposure.

And each requires a separate way of learning. Vocabulary seems to work best through a combination of exposure and rote memorization, but grammar seems to work best mostly through exposure and immersion. Grammar is how you learn to think in a language, and vocabulary is how you learn to express the thoughts within the framework grammar teaches you.

I think this is one reason why Japanese is seen as so difficult: in order to learn either vocabulary or grammar, you first need to learn the framework in which both of those things are expressed. Such as hiragana, katakana, kanji, particules, etc. And you have to learn them before you can move on.

That’s the “hump” I was talking about earlier. Japanese is very much not an instant gratification language, if you’re starting from zero.

Japanese is Biased Against Beginners

As I have been learning Japanese, one observation keeps coming to mind, one I can’t shake:

Japanese is incredible, amazingly, spectacularly biased against beginners.

What I mean is this: when you start learning Japanese, there is a hump. The hump seems almost insurmountable. You have to learn an entirely new way of thinking about language – the grammar is exactly backwards from English, there are several different writing systems that are completely unfamiliar, and (at least for any practical purpose) you have to learn them quickly, because you’re not going to get anywhere with the language until you get over the hump.

In the community college class I took last year, half the class dropped out, because it takes a spectacular effort to get over that hump. It is very difficult and it seems insurmountable. And if you’re struggling with hiragana when the rest of the class has moved on to katakana, you may never recover – at least when it comes to that class.

But once you get over the hump. it realy is kind of like learning any other language. You learn vocabulary, you learn grammar, you learn pronunciation, and picking it up gets easier, because you’ve successfully bootstrapped the language.

I personally don’t really think Japanese is all that hard. Others disagree, and I absolutely understand why they think that, but other than there being an extraordinary number of words and characters to know, it really is just like learning any other language. But you have to get to the point where you understand the assumptions and the prerequisite knowledge first. And, frankly, I think that’s where most people stumble.

And with very good reason, to be honest.

I wonder, for Japanese people, if the English hump is as seemingly insurmountable.


One thing I love about learning a new language, is that once you get past the basics, there is always something to discover.  I’m still a beginner by all means, but I consider having learned hiragana and katakana, and getting to the point where I understand the language enough to actually discover things, to be “getting past the basics”.

Even though arguably I have not.

Yesterday, I encountered the word “大日本”, which means “greater Japan”.  I found that it was pronounced “dai-nihon”.  I knew the characters for “nihon” (日本), and I know that 大 means “big” and is pronounced おおき in on-yomi, but when I saw how 大 was pronounced in kun-yomi, the wheels in my brain started turning.  Is this, I said to myself, the same character that is in 大好き, which means to love very much?

Yes!  It is!

So I looked up 好き, and realized that both of those words mean love, but 大好き is something greater in scale, like “I love you” vs. “I love you very much”.  And so now I know the kun-yomi pronunciation, or at least one of them.

So then I thought of the word 大人, which means “adult”, and I thought “why isn’t that pronounced “daijin”?  Turns out, it’s not.  Turns out I just stumbled on one of the few exceptions to the rule of compound words in Japanese.  It’s pronounced “おとな”, and who knows why.

But, you know, I’m just pleased that I know enough to ask the questions!

I’m still studying kanji and vocabulary, but I think this kind of discovery is honestly the best way to learn.  It’s just not a very quick way.  But what you discover in this way, you’re probably never going to forget.


Perhaps one of the most challenging things about learning Japanese is that it does not have an alphabet – but it appears to have an alphabet.  So we, as English speakers, try to overlay what we know about alphabets onto Japanese, and then it simply doesn’t work.

Japanese, instead, has syllabaries – which are very different animals.  They are more like a grid than anything else.  There is no set order – in fact, any order that we put them into when we learn Japanese is based upon the romaji order – a b c, etc.  They don’t even have names, like romaji characters do – they are basically named after the sounds they make.

And the syllabaries aren’t an alphabet in another important way – they were created from kanji as a simplified way of representing syllable sounds.  The true alphabet in Japanese is in the kanji, as pointed out by kanji damage.  This alphabet is in the form of radicals, many of which were actually abstracted out into the syllabaries.  There does not seem to be an order there, either, but those symbols are used to build up words in the form of kanji.

But not only are we not taught/do not recognize that, we even come into the whole deal thinking that kanji that have the same radicals are related to each other.  But they’re not, in the same way that the word “add” is not related to the word “ade”, even though they have two letters in common.

So while memorizing the syllabaries is absolutely necessary to learn Japanese, it’s not at all learning the alphabet in the same way that we learn the alphabet in English as children.  It’s learning the phonetic building blocks of Japanese.  The letters of the romaji alphabet are not the phonetic building blocks of English language.  We have special, not widely known characters for that purpose.

So in learning the Japanese syllabaries, you are learning the sounds.  The letters (which are not related to the sounds in any but a superficial way) are actually the kanji radicals.

Basically, unlearn everything you knew when learning English.  It really doesn’t apply – at least not in anywhere near the same way.  That’s the only way, I think, one can start understanding Japanese.

Learning Japanese

I’ve tried several different approaches to learning Japanese.  Some work better than others.

The first thing I looked at was duolingo.  I then trashed that very quickly, as I didn’t think it would do well at teaching me what I wanted to know.

I looked at Rosetta Stone and tried it out.  As I mentioned, I have very mixed feelings about it.  It teaches a lot of vocabulary very quickly, which is a plus.  What it does not do is give any kind of background to the vocabulary – so you don’t really understand what you’re saying, you’re just repeating back by rote.  I imagine in later lessons it might teach some of that stuff, but it’s not how I learn.  Couple that with being very horrible about their chat, and I gave up on that.

I decided that I was going to take community college classes.  But if I do so, I figured that the best “bang for the yen” I’d get would be to learn the stuff that needed memorization, so that I could concentrate on the grammar and vocabulary.  That means, getting proficient at hiragana, katakana, and learning as much kanji as I can.

Hiragana and Katakana aren’t that hard, honestly.  They are syllabaries of about, what, fifty or so characters along with a few “small-case” structures, and while there’s no real pattern to them (they were pulled out of kanji that sounded like them), once you memorize them, you memorize them.  Drawing them is entirely different, but that’s also not too hard.  I’ve found that spaced repetition tools like memrise or some of the android apps are very helpful for that.

Kanji is an entirely different animal, though.  There are a couple of thousand characters that seem to have no rhyme nor reason, and it’s mostly just memorization.  Each kanji has two or more different pronuciations, too.  However, I find that a method called “kanji damage” is actually really useful for this purpose.  It teaches the kanji in a logical progression, starting from “radicals” and moving forward.  I find some of the names for the radicals to be funny, such as “George Michael’s Moustache”.  It condenses it into what I’ll really need, and then I can go back and study the rest later.

Which is kind of what I was looking for.

So I’m not studying grammar or vocabulary seriously right now, though I’m learning some as a side effect of my other studies.  I figure being fluent at hiragana and katekana reading and writing will give me a leg up in classes, as will knowing as many kanji as I can get my hands on.  Then the rest will take care of itself once I start the classes.