The 4 Levels Of Kanji Hell
Everyone starts off writing in hiragana. It’s easy to learn, easy to write, and easy to remember. But you know that you can’t just hang out in the kiddie pool the rest of your Japanese life. You have to replace your ugly all-hiragana sentences with the fine presence that is kanji.
The logical thought would be: “if there is kanji for a word, use it.”
Otherwise why else would there be kanji? But no. Kanji, you trickster. Always playing games with your followers. The relationship between using hiragana and kanji goes deep. 4 levels of hell deep.
Let’s get started from the entrance to that hell:
4. Writing in all kana (where relevant and common kanji is available)
THIS IS BAD AND MAKES YOUR STOMACH CHURN KIND OF LIKE WHEN YOU READ THIS.
You know this. If you are a beginner, you are pardoned. You don’t know what kanji necessarily should replace hiragana. If you are intermediate and above, you face being exiled.
3. Writing in as much kanji as possible (where the kanji is outdated, seldom used, or rare)
While this isn’t necessarily wrong, it makes your writing harder to understand. The annoying thing about this, is that while you shouldn’t use these uncommon kanji in your writing, you absolutely need to know how to read them.
– The Internet and the tens of millions of people who don’t care about their writing being easy to understand.
– A lot of manga and literature use uncommon kanji for stylistic purposes.
2. Writing in kanji that are somewhere between common and uncommon
This type of kanji shouldn’t be a problem. They are often known, but apparently their existence bothers people (who I don’t know).
1. Writing in simple kanji in certain situations
The most common kanji make writing harder to read? Yes, and they are to be avoided based on the situation use of the word.
Why? How? What?! According to one site’s explanation, it boils down to:
Abstract: use hiragana
Not abstract: use kanji
According to another site there is a much more complicated explanation.
How much should this all concern you?
This topic actually goes way deeper than this, but it’s another one of those “you get used to it with exposure” and sentences will start to feel better with or without certain kanji. Besides maybe number #4 (even this is still technically not wrong), nothing here is really grammatical sin. It is of varying levels of aesthetic sin. Aesthetic sin that exists in abundance everywhere, all the time.
What are your hiragana vs kanji secrets?
For those of you that are into learning about these aesthetic “rules,” what are some of the official guidelines you’ve picked up?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
“THIS IS BAD AND MAKES YOUR STOMACH CHURN” Yeah, even worse is in romaji.
I was wondering why some common kanji don’t get much love. One I’ve noticed is 私 becoming わたし, I mean come on. Are people actually afraid of 私? Although one I totally understand is 綺麗.
But leaving 私 written as わたし is cuter though <(^_^) hehe.
わたし looks and feels softer than 私, if that makes any sense. It also prevents any possibility of it being read わたくし.
Most of the time I write in Kanji if I can.
Khatz said this about it, and I think it’s true. If you don’t use the Kanji, they’ll eventually be forgotten or not used. Something like 編纂 is written 編さん in many instances, for example.
If people keep writing 出来る like できる、 寧ろ like むしろ、即ち like すなわち、 eventually people will stop using the kanji all together, and then people may not even know it when they come across it completely.
I’ve already experienced some of this on chat sites. Just the other day, I came across somebody who couldn’t understand when I said 訊く. I almost couldn’t believe it.
I personally think everybody should write in Kanji if possible. If you don’t want to, it should be on purpose, for style and whatnot, not because you can’t.
I suppose that’s true if you’re actually writing by hand. If you’re just using romaji input to type Japanese (as most people do these days), then I’d really question whether or not it’s actually helping you remember those characters.
On the flip-side, using kanji in places it isn’t normally used can significantly hamper communication (as you’ve seen yourself, per your 訊く example). At best, it looks unnatural and makes your text harder to read. At worst, it can actually force a native speaker to go get a dictionary. Either way I feel like the ideal is to tailor your written content to your audience, so that your message reaches them as smoothly as possible.
I’d rather go with wherever the language is going for native speakers than master Japanese in itself. I personally think language needs to grow and change. It’s a sign that it’s still alive and well and in use.
But of course, there’s also a variety of language proficiency among native speakers themselves as well, and you have to consider where do you want to belong in that. Would you want to sound educated, pretentious, naive, etc.
I always use as much kanji as possible when writing by hand to reinforce it, since I have so few opportunities for writing to begin with. But when it comes to typing, I take stylistic choices. When it comes to being able to read kanji, my novels and manga (without furigana) account for that and would teach me what’s more natural than typing it myself.
With Japanese I try to match the same level of care I put in my English. Since in English I tend to have a more proper way of speaking and writing, and I enjoy choosing more “difficult” words and having fun with nuance, I try to do the same in Japanese. So for me it would be important to make sure that I’m not only writing a kanji, but that I’m choosing the right kanji. So the difference between 聞く、訊く、聞く、利く、 and 効く are of great appeal to me.
As for the kanji in #2, I would say I use half of the kanji versions regularly, and then the other half I switch between the hiragana and kanji depending on what I’m writing. Interestingly enough I write ください as 下さい when writing by hand as it’s one less character to write so writing the kanji version has become my shorthand.
You often get a lot of signs in Japan that use 下さい as well.
As a personal pursuit, I think it’s fine. I also love rare kanji and knowing the kanji that were originally used. And as I mentioned, you still need to know them depending on the material you are reading.
But as a communicative pursuit, I have to disagree a bit.
One thing I’ve found from reading a lot of novels from various authors, is there is a very different feel from the authors that overload on kanji, and those that adhere to proper aesthetics. The former feels crowded.
What annoys me is when a word is written using kanji and hiragana, for instance i played a game the other day and 宝石 was written as ほう石. Sometimes that confuses me and makes stuff harder to read.
Agreed. I’m not sure what the official aesthetic stance is on these, but I know a lot of people are against this type of half kanji split.
I was under the impression that was done to make it accessible for younger readers (as an alternative to furigana). According to the internet 石 is a Grade 1 kanji, while 宝 is a Grade 6 kanji, so maybe that’s the case here?
I could be totally wrong, of course =)
I should’ve been more specific. The 宝石 example is as you say, probably done for younger children. But there is a new trend in newspapers and news sites (which are targeted for adults) to dumb down kanji words that have always appeared in kanji, but are starting to move to being considered too difficult. This results in kanji compounds having one of the kanji (the more difficult one) in hiragana and the easier one remain in kanji. The academic world has been looking down at this trend.
This is probably due to trying to make newspapers/news sites more accessible to younger readers, but it creates a problem of these kanji disappearing. Then adults stop seeing them, and then adults who once knew the kanji forget it (due to lack of exposure), creating a bad cycle.
But at the same time, that would really help Japan’s literacy levels. I wonder what they are.
I heard South Korea has one of the highest literacy rate in the world because of how easy the writing system is, and that’s thanks to Korea abandoning kanji.
Not downing kanji or anything! I think reading with kanji makes it easier than reading with hiragana lone after all. But efforts to increase literacy are important.
I don’t think that’s the case.
In 2002 Japan’s literacy rate was already 99% average (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2103.html#136) Which is a few percentage points higher than Korea’s actually.
And if I’m correct, most university educated Koreans can read hanja (same thing as kanji) to at least a certain extent.
Unless you’re talking about North Korea, which apparently has 100%, which is obviously hard to believe that’s actually tue.
Then it shouldn’t be a problem if Japan doesn’t have a problem with literacy.
Nope, just talking about stuff I’ve heard. And I was talking about South Korea, because I never heard anything about literacy in North Korea.
Never researched any of this myself. Just speculation. Not really something I’m interested in enough to research.
Thanks for looking it up (^_^)
If you look at almost any Japanese NES game, the majority of text is completely in kana. I think this is simply to do with the number of pixels available, making displaying even quite simple kanji impossible. The Nintendo DS suffers from low pixel density and even more grown-up games have had to resort to that mix of kanji and kana (see Radiant Historia). Zelda, the Phantom Hourglass on the DS didn’t to do this, as far as I can recall, but then you could bring up furigana by touching any kanji word with the stylus.
I think the real reason for kanji-kana mish-mashing is probably a combination of both pixel limitations and accessibility to younger players. If you squash up 宝 to make it fit within a limited space, you can see where confusion might arise in younger players, but an adult could probably read it based on experience and context.
I’d be interested to know what game and on what system you encountered this!
I also can imagine that throughout these limitations in history, some people became accustomed to words being simplified like this, so even if the pixel limitations weren’t as bad in the future, people would expect certain words to appear a certain way.
It was on a my little pony android game. Its probably because its aimed at young kids as people pointed out but it still makes it harder for me to read lol
Great article. Thanks Adam!
As I’m working hard to get written output practice, I find myself contending with those last two points a lot lately. I’ve got a decent level of intuition at this point just from other things I’ve read as to whether a conversion feels natural, but I still mix them up sometimes. Oh well, just gotta keep at it =)
This lady I was skyping to started laughing because she expected hiragana to be easier but half the words I missed is because when I asked her to write it out she used hiragana. And when I was explaining the words I was conjugating incorrectly she couldn’t believe that I meant that kanji reading.
Making an effort at discerning between usage is what really makes a difference. Once you start being aware of it and paying attention, it can be picked up a little at a time. Recently I’ve been trying to polish up my writing (expect more Japanese articles on the site!), so I’ve been noticing the aesthetic choices required a lot more.
I was having a conversation with one my soon to be Japanese tutors (conversation practice really) and she said 宜しくお願いします！。never seen that first kanji used in it before so now I’ve decided I shall add kanji everywhere based on that logic mwahahaaha
I play an MMORPG on a Japanese server (FFXIV) and since everyone says this at the start of every group, I’ve seen a TON of variations. 宜 is almost never included but it is used.
出来る is the one that really threw me off the first time seeing it. I’d also feel weird leaving 必ず in kana.
Does playing ffxiv help with your speaking a lot? Also, do you play on tonberry by any chance
Luckily for me 出来る is very common in my anki cards. I guess it’s all relative to the form you learn it on anki.
I play on Chocobo currently (Enzu Sagara) but haven’t made any attempts to connect to players yet so 0 speaking increase there.
Oh, I thought tonverry was the official Japanese server? That’s just what I’ve heard though could definitely be wrong
One of my surprises was when I saw 有難うございます written in kanji for the first time. It was in one of my favorite manga. I was like…. what… that word has kanji, and it’s used often!?!?
I had gone so long without seeing that word written that way in my native resources. I recalled seeing it that way by a foreigner before but didn’t know if it was a common thing or not, and then it was popping up left and right in my favorite manga years later.
Not going to lie, that’s the first time I’ve seen That too. All in the same day! Don’t I feel special *puts on dunce hat*
No, don’t put on a dunce hat <(_ _)
At one point, I didn't know it either! Haha.
But now you’ve seen it! Yay!
Didn’t you know? If a native does it, it must be right haha.
People in the business world sometimes use it. The consensus seems to be is that it looks unprofessional (though this doesn’t stop millions from using it).
The first time i saw kanji words such as 此処、貴方、何処、有難う、宜しく i was like, what those words actually have kanji？
thanks for the first three words in kanjified form, hadn’t seen them before.
Question: when I search words up in the dictionary will they definitely have kanji form? Or if it’s missing it does that mean there are no kanji for it? Many times on goo.ne or iphone dictionary no Kanji version is given. Or does this just mean it’s rare to see it?
I was really surprised too when I saw these words for the first time in kanji. I found them in visual novels, and it seems like they often use these for some reason there. Maybe to save space?
If you want to improve your handwriting, here’s a nifty YouTube channel I’ve been enjoying:
Lately, he’s been doing a series on elementary school kanji.
I love how he points out places to pay attention in your writing, to make it more aesthetically pleasing. He speaks in Japanese, so you can get some listening practice, too.
[http://kakikata.dkrht.com/kihon/kihon00300.html] のウエブサイトを呼んでみたら殆ど「：P」の内容が分かった！でもアダム君の「Abstract: use hi。。。kanji」のヒントのお陰で。。。
でも一つのことに迷ってるのは方「ほう」と方「かた」の部分。「ほう」と「ほう」の違いじゃなくて「ほう」と「かた」の違いを説明されるみたいね。 「Xの 方 が好き」と「Xの ほう が好き」、どっちが正しいの？
このpostの目的は二つの中で正しい読み方じゃなくて”書き方”を知らせるですね。。。例えば 「分かる事」 と 「分かること」 の中で(このwebsiteによって)一つだけが正解です。