Why We Shouldn’t Use Kanji

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Some people give reasons why kanji is not practical as a modern communication tool, while others will extoll the ability to convey information using kanji: today’s post is not associated with this at all. Often I notice that words are written out in phonetic hiragana. Sometimes this happens because a word has no kanji associated with it, but there are a few reasons why people will choose not to use kanji. The reason I learned most recently is fascinating and not explained in conventional dictionaries.

One reason is that some very difficult kanji with many strokes have a very simple reading that is much easier to write with hiragana. For example, sama is a formal mode of address used in letters and taught in 3rd grade. It can be written in kanji – 様 – or hiragana – さま – replacing 14 strokes with 5 quick ones.

Some words, particularly conjunctions, had kanji associated with them historically, but they have fallen out of use today. Very old people and classics professors will know them. (I also aim to grasp these.) Sometimes these also fall into the previous category. For example, tame ni can be written as 為に, or an older version that IME is not coughing up for me.

Japan has an official list of ‘Standard Use’ kanji. Learning beyond that list is not required except in a few college degree programs. Often kanji outside this list aren’t used because the readers (and often the writers) don’t know them. For example, bara means ‘rose’ and is typically written in katakana – バラ – instead of kanji – 薔薇.  Replacing 32 strokes (not often used nor taught) with 6 strokes (learned in pre-school) makes pretty good sense.

My recently learned reason has to do with sense and feeling. Kodomo means ‘child’ and can be written in kanji as 子供; however, it is often written as 子ども, replacing the second kanji character (of 8 strokes) with two hiragana characters (of 7 strokes, including the sound change marks). Deciding against the kanji doesn’t seem to be associated with economy or simplification; so, why?

The second kanji is a verb, sonaeru (供える), which means ‘to make an offering’. Shinto faith holds that most people have the ability to become a kind of god or spirit after death. As a result, it is necessary to make offerings at relatives graves to appease them or soothe them. Many people don’t want to write child in a way that uses a character associated with death and offerings.

I was previously of a mind to always use kanji because I think knowledge is being lost, hence I know some kanji that most natives don’t know. However, in light of this week’s learning, I have to rethink my approach. I appreciate the sentiment of not wanting to associate death and children. This sensitivity is one of the attractive factors of Japanese tradition. My cultural education will undoubtedly never be complete…

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2 Responses to “Why We Shouldn’t Use Kanji”

  1. Linda Gaulke Says:

    Speaking of Kanji and lost knowledge, I just posted my rakkan stamp on my website. Utsukushii.
    Thanks Erik 🙂

  2. びっくり Says:

    Ack! Now I have to remember your website URL… I must have a link somewhere around here. You are welcome; I’m just glad you had a name that was so easy to translate.

    Last night, by chance, I was riding on a train with our last guest judge at the photo society. He labelled this post as Kangae-sugiru (over thinking). He suggested that people who worry about the characters other meanings are few. He thinks it is easier for people to understand ‘kodomo’ when the kana are used: just that.

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