The Japanese language has three writing systems: hiragana (ひらがな), katakana (カタカナ) and kanji (漢字). In one sentence, you can have all three! How amazing is that! However, for those who are considering picking up the language, it might be intimidating as three writing systems seems like a challenge — some might have the mentality that one writing system is hard enough to master!
Out of the three, kanji is usually the writing system that Japanese learners have difficulty in getting used to. Each character looks so complicated and there are so many characters that it seems like there is no end to them! Because of that, some even drop the kanji and focus on the other two writing systems, hiragana and katakana.
This brings up the question: how important is kanji in the Japanese language that one can just not study it? Does one really need to know the kanji to be fluent in Japanese? Let’s take a look at the importance of kanji and how it plays a role in this culturally rich language!
Kanji As One of Three Japanese Writing Systems
Kanji characters in the Japanese language are basically the Chinese characters. The Japanese adopted the kanji from them, however, there is no direct link between the two language families other than using the same characters. In fact, there are even differences between how the Chinese pronounce their characters and how the Japanese pronounce their characters. This is known as the onyomi (音読み) and kunyomi (訓読み). The onyomi is the Chinese-style reading based on the sounds of the ancient Chinese languages. Kunyomi is the native Japanese reading.
An example is the kanji 草. The Chinese pronunciation, the onyomi, is “sou” while the Japanese pronunciation, the kunyomi, is “kusa”. The kanji on its own is pronounced in kunyomi, but when it is connected with another kanji, both words are pronounced in the onyomi way most of the time. For example, if the kanji 草 joins with the kanji 食, it becomes soushoku (草食) to mean herbivorous.
How cool are the flexible changes of kanji in the Japanese language?
The Importance of Kanji in the Japanese Language
You may not want to believe it, but kanji is extremely important in the Japanese language. They are so significant in interpreting the meanings of the sentence and words. There’s not only one way that the kanji is notably useful in the Japanese language — there’s quite a few. Let’s take a look at some of them!
Prediction of meanings
While it’s best to know the pronunciation of the kanji characters, even if you don’t, you can somehow guess the context if you know the meaning of the kanji character. Once you can recognize kanji characters individually, you can definitely recognize them when they’re joined together.
For example, the word for anthropology in Japanese is jinruigaku (人類学). Even if you don’t know the word in Japanese and how it’s pronounced, you can guess what the word of combined kanji characters based on the individual meaning. The kanji 人 refers to “human”, the kanji 類 means “kind” and the kanji 学 has the meaning of “study”. All of these kanji characters are basic to lower-intermediate. If you combine all of them together, you can guess that the combined kanji characters refer to the study of humankind.
This technique can be applied to most, if not all, of the kanji characters in the Japanese language.
In the Japanese language, there are tons of homonyms, which means that there are so many words that have the same pronunciation and sound. One pronunciation can have over 50 different meanings! The Japanese differentiate them from the kanji characters.
A simple example is the pronunciation of “kanji”. Even this pronunciation has at least two different meanings. One is kanji (漢字) which refers to the Chinese characters, and the other is kanji (感じ) which has the meaning of “feeling”. These two words have totally different meanings but the exact same pronunciation! If one uses just the hiragana which is かんじ, people reading it wouldn’t be sure what it’s actually referring to, but with the kanji characters, they’ll be able to.
Radicals refer to the components in a kanji character. Some kanji characters are made up of a few other kanji characters squished together into one character. For example, the kanji 木 refers to “wood”, but it is also a radical in a few other kanji characters like branch (枝), cedar (杉), root (根) and forest (林). On the left side of the kanji character, you can identify the 木 kanji. Similar to predicting the meanings of a word consisting of kanji characters, you can also predict a kanji character based on the radicals made up of other kanji characters.
Some radicals are not always on the left side. They can be on the right side, upper side or even lower side. The kanji 草, is a radical in a few of these kanji on the upper side: flower (花), strawberry (苺), tea (茶) and potato (芋). All of the kanji characters with the same radical are related to the same thing, and in this case, they’re related to plants.
Why Should We Learn Kanji?
It might be easier to just stick to hiragana and katakana. Maybe starting out, it definitely is more convenient, especially if you’re trying to grasp the basic vocabulary and grammar. But if you’re looking to advance more, kanji is definitely essential.
If the importance of kanji in the Japanese language is not convincing enough to learn kanji, then here are other reasons why we should all learn kanji when learning the Japanese language:
Kanji gives meaning to words
Without kanji characters, one would just have to guess the meaning based on context, like in English. But with kanji characters, it gives the words meaning and assists the reader. It’s easier to differentiate one meaning from the other with the kanji characters. On top of that, it gives the word some character and personality. Once you get the hang of the kanji characters, you’ll realize the kanji characters reflect the same essence of the meaning. For example, 愛 has the meaning of love, and in that sense, the kanji gives off a warm embrace.
Kanji makes sentences easier to read
You wouldn’t believe it, but kanji makes sentences far easier to read than if it were just made up of hiragana. It makes you a faster reader in the long run. Once you are super familiar with kanji characters, you’ll end up sprinting through a book in minutes (that’s an exaggeration, but you know what we mean).
Let’s use an example:
Kyou wa sushi o tabe ni ikimasu ka?
It is arguably harder to read than when there is kanji involved. Here’s the sentence with kanji:
Sometimes, some people can even skim over the recognized kanji instead of sounding out each hiragana character in their head. It’s like recognizing a picture — your mind understands it and grasps it well but doesn’t have to sound it all out. Similarly, you’ll be able to understand the meaning of a sentence just by recognizing each kanji one by one instantly.
Kanji takes up less space
One kanji character can have two to three (or even more) syllables. If you’re writing a sentence with only hiragana, you’ll be using a lot of space for each syllable, whereas if there are kanji characters involved, you’re basically compressing some syllables into one space. Instead of a 10-page paper, you’ll end up with a 7-page paper with the use of kanji because it takes up less space, making it very efficient and even neater.
Useful Kanjis To Know
With all this talk about kanji, here are some really useful kanji characters to know that will help you with future kanji characters that might be more complicated and confusing:
入 — enter
口 — entrance
出 — exit
駅 — station
車 — car
左 — left
右 — right
電 — electricity
Kanji is just as important as the other two writing systems in the Japanese language. While it is a bit more of a challenge compared to hiragana and katakana, you’ll not only be thankful that you learned it because it’s so widely used in Japan but also proud of yourself for mastering this writing system. Ganbatte (頑張って), you can do it if you put in the effort!