Intro to Kanji #02. Advantages & Disadvantages
With just hiragana and katakana, the Japanese language suffers from one same issue as the English language: many words have multiple definitions that you have no way of telling without context. In Japanese, because there are so many kanji and they all represent ideas, you can instantly tell which meaning the word is referring to despite every meaning having the same pronunciation (provided you have memorized the required characters). One such example is the word “kanji” itself, which has more than five different meanings, but you can tell instantly which one is which if you’re using kanji. 漢字 means “Chinese characters” and 感じ means “feeling” and both are pronounced “kanji.”
Compression & Processing
In the same way that 999,999 is much easier to process than “nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine,” kanji characters are much easier to process than their hiragana counterparts.
Additionally, for whatever reason, the Japanese language does not employ spaces between every word; kanji eases this burden a considerable amount by representing ideas while hiragana is typically used to represent grammatical necessities (you can essentially tell when a word ends when kanji switches to hiragana or vice versa). Given this, forsaking kanji is tantamount to reading written English without any spaces. However, beyond the issue of spaces, kanji ultimately compresses written language tremendously. To illustrate, imagine if a lengthy English word such as “internalization” could be represented by one single character. (It is much easier to Tweet your ideas in Japanese without worrying about the 140 character limit than it is in English!)
Theoretically, because the characters predominantly represent ideas and can garner more pronunciations as time goes on, kanji could transcend the Japanese language and find its way into all languages of the world, just like the system of numbers all but do. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple to propogate one universal system to the entire world. However, because kanji derives from written Chinese language, a command of Japanese kanji naturally comes with a fraction of an ability to make out the meaning of some Chinese words (without even knowing how to pronounce them, which is the beauty of ideograms).
It is ultimately unrealistic to create and use a writing system wherein the characters represent every single idea. Given the essentially infinite amount of ideas in the universe, which is only increasing with each passing day, one would have the memorize an infinite amount of graphic representations, or pictures, by heart just to be able to communicate in written language. The Japanese kanji system overcomes this by having its characters instead represent a set of ideas as opposed to very specific, individual ideas (this in turn results in another issue in and of itself albeit it isn’t nearly as daunting as conquering infinity). This results in there being approximately 50,000 kanji characters since the dawn of time. In the present day, the Japanese government has issued a set of approximately 2,000 most commonly used kanji, which should altogether be sufficient for being literate with modern media. as compulsory education