The Messy Genius of Kanji (Guest post by Ineptidude)

こんにちは, everybody! I’m Ineptidude, and I’ll be posting today.

Today, I want to talk about the bane of the Japanese student’s existence: Kanji. (For those that don’t know, Kanji are Chinese characters used in Japanese to represent nouns, verb stems, and adjectives.) When I started to study Japanese, I was initially daunted by the immense number of kanji I would have to learn. (There are 2000 kanji, called jouyou kanji, that the Japanese government deems the most “common” kanji. Adding to this, there are other kanji that are considered generally good to know.)

Most Japanese teachers, however, will tend to skip teaching kanji until the advanced level, saying that kanji are “unnecessary” due to the phonetic scripts that Japanese has, Hiragana (ひらがな) and Katakana (カタカナ), collectively called “kana”. However, let’s take a visit to Yahoo! Japan for a moment:

Try to get through this without knowing any Kanji. I guarantee you couldn't do it.
Try to get through this without knowing any Kanji. I guarantee you couldn’t do it.

Why, then, are Kanji so necessary? Let’s look at the word 「あめ」(ame) for example. The following kanji all have the reading 「あめ」:

  •  – candy
  • 天 – heaven, sky, weather
  • 雨 – rain

As you can see, each one has a different meaning. If I were to write 「あめです。」(Ame desu.), it could mean anything from “There is candy” to “There is sky” to “There is rain.” However, with kanji, this is elucidated a little better:


Ame desu.

There is candy.


Ame desu.

There is rain.

It gets worse, too. There are I think eight different kanji for the word 「せい」(sei), ranging in meaning from “life” to “gender.” This is due to the fact that there are so many homophones in Japanese. Many words are also appropriated from Classical Chinese, and because Japanese has such a limited soundset (Only five vowel sounds and eighteen consonant sounds), many words that sounded different in Classical Chinese ended up sounding the same in Japanese.

Another thing is that Japanese is written without spaces. This isn’t that much of an issue for short sentences like 「あめです。」, but it can be a problem for longer strings of text like this:


As you can see, it’s a pain trying to figure out where one word ends and the next begins. It’s like this:


Now, let’s add in some kanji:


My name is Smith. I am American. I like Japanese food but I don’t like natto. I am a teacher.

It’s a common misconception that the kanji supplement the kana, hence the reason that people think that you don’t need kanji for Japanese. However, Japanese relies on the kanji for visual cues, and as such, is written without spaces. With kanji you can tell where one word ends and the next one begins.

Finally, studying kanji is a great way to learn new vocabulary, akin to studying Latin roots to learn English.  Take for example, the word for volcano, kazan: 火山 (かざん).

The word is made up of the kanji for fire(火) and the kanji for mountain(山). Bearing this in mind, I can remember the etymology for volcano: literally “fire-mountain.” Therefore, when I learn the word, I take the readings for the “fire” and “mountain” kanji, and put them together:

か+さん = かざん

火+山     = 火山

In conclusion, Kanji are pretty damn awesome, and you should learn them. They’re one of the things that makes the Japanese language so interesting.