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Why Japanese still use Kanji?

hua he

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I have been wondering as Japanese has alphabet (katakana and hiragana) why did Japanese still use Kanji?
 

NANGI

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Konnichiwa Hua he-san!

Why do Japanese still use Kanji? Because Kanji is better efficiency than Hiragana.
An instance, Arabic figures and English figures.
"Eight" is made from five characters in English. But "8" is made from one character in Arabic figures. Which is easy to understand? Of course it's an Arabic figures. Because Arabic is only one character.
It is the same as Kanji. Hiragana is a phonogram but Kanji is a pictograph.
The Hiragana only sentence is longer than Kanji only. And it is hard to understand.

NANGI
 

Maciamo

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The other reason is that Japanese has so many homonyms that it would be utterly confusing just to read a word like "kouka", "shou" or "koutei" in romaji or kana, because they ll have at least 5 or 6 different meanings. And I am just talking about common meanings, otherwise I've found 17 "kouka" in my Japanese-Japanese dictionary, no less than 26 "shou" and 16 "koutei". But these are merely examples, for almost all kanji compound in Japanese have several meanings and there is always a plethoria of kanji for a given sound, all having of course a unique meaning. E.g., there are more than 30 ways of writing "kou" alone.

That always amazes me that Japanese people actually understand each others when they speak. Maybe is it because they try so hard to avoid kanji compound or "on" readings when there is an authentic Japanese word that means the same. Kanji compound are more formal and are better used in written language, except very common ones.

As a result, many Japanese people (especially young ones) use very repetitive vocabulary everyday and difficult words are scarecely used. That still surprises me that the Japanese I meet can't come up with a word I ask them in English because they never use it (often because it's a kanji compound). I asked a friend today how to say a "Ferris wheel", but she had to think something like 5 long seconds to remember the word, as if Japanese was a foreign language to her. The word is 展覧車 (tenransha) or 大観覧車 (daikanransha). With the kanji, I understand easily the meaning even if I've never seen or heard the word before (lit : "observation car" or "big sightseeing car"). For some reason, without the kanji, this kind of word is just thin air that doesn't catch the imagination because it could mean so many things. That is probably why there will always be a need for kanji in Japanese (and Chinese). If children didn't learn them at school, they would be at a complete loss to understand their own language. Lots of people I know readily admit having difficulty understanding the news on TV because they use "too difficult words". I am sure the fact that these words are kanji compounds they had to learn, instead of words that sounded natural to them since their childhood, explains a lot on the lack of interest of Japanese for politics and other "serious" subjects.
 

mdchachi

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As a result, many Japanese people (especially young ones) use very repetitive vocabulary everyday and difficult words are scarecely used. That still surprises me that the Japanese I meet can't come up with a word I ask them in English because they never use it (often because it's a kanji compound). I asked a friend today how to say a "Ferris wheel", but she had to think something like 5 long seconds to remember the word, as if Japanese was a foreign language to her.
I think the issue is more that you are asking them in another language than the fact that it is a kanji compound. I often do the same thing when somebody asks me in Japanese what the equivalent word is in English. Sometimes it takes me more than 5 seconds. Don't tell me you've never had a delay in retrieving a word in your native language??
 

Maciamo

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Originally posted by mdchachi
I think the issue is more that you are asking them in another language than the fact that it is a kanji compound. I often do the same thing when somebody asks me in Japanese what the equivalent word is in English. Sometimes it takes me more than 5 seconds. Don't tell me you've never had a delay in retrieving a word in your native language??

I forgot to say that we were in front of a Ferris wheel and I asked her pointing at it.

I very rarely have problems retrieving words from either French or English and contrarily to Japanese I almost never need a dictionary to read a book or understand the news (even in English, which I've learned only for 8 years, among which 4 years of formal education with an average of 3h/week, which is less than almost any Japanese adult under 50 ; what's more I've stayed less than a year altogether in a native English speaking country in all my life, half of which was just travelling). I mean, "Ferris wheel" is not a very complicated word. That often happens that I point to an object and ask "kore wa nihongo de dou iu no ?" (how do you call that in Japanese ?) for things like an electric pole, a window frame or some common flowers or tree I know in English and French, but so often they can't answer, because they don't know ("nan te iu n darou ?") , or don't remember or simply because there is no word in Japanese (at least do they claim). Isn't it strange ?

On other occasions, they can only tell me an word that comes from English (for exampe, the carousel next to the Ferris wheel was "meri-go-raundo" =>merry-go-round). I usually insist to know the real Japanese word when I am sure there must be one, that is for objects that existed more before Meiji, such as "table", "door", "knife", "tent", "curtain", "towel" or "juice", that all come from English in modern Japanese. One can say respectively "taku", "tobira", "kogatana/houchou" , "tenmaku", "maku", for the first 4, but I can't find a good translation for towel or juice. That explains why when I ask someone what is the real Japanese word they would have used in Edo-jidai (or in any kind of literature since Heian-jidai) for these, they are usually confused and need to think hard sometimes. I guess that f so many English words have come into Japanese, it's because it was too difficult to be understood clearly with the traditional vocabulary. And the process has just started, since young people always pick up new words from English every time they can't remember the kanji compound or just find the English term less confusing because no other word in Japanese is homonymous (=sounds the same).
 
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mdchachi

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I understand your point and have had some of the same experiences but I'm still not convinced that it's that much different in Japanese vs. other languages. In English, old words are so long forgotten that we would never think to ask somebody -- no, really, what is the "real" word for "knife"? In Japanese, "naifu" is the real and current Japanese word for this item and I wouldn't expect anybody to know the word they used 200 years ago for it. Also, note that most of your examples are things that did not traditionally exist in Japan or, if they did, they existed in a totally different form. For example, "doa" brings to mind a modern door but "tobira" or "to" represents a traditional Japanese entrance way. They are not really the same things.
> I guess that if so many English words have come into Japanese, it's because it was too difficult to be understood clearly with the traditional vocabulary
I think it's more likely that the foreign words filled in gaps in the traditional vocabulary or that they were more readily adopted simply because it was stylish to do so. For example, for "towel" they probably used a less specific word such as orimono (cloth) or a longer phrase. Therefore "towel" may have been adopted because it fills a niche.

This process of adopting foreign words has happened in English for so long that we now consider these loan words as part of the English language. So I really don't see a distinction between this and Japanese except that loan words are much more obvious in Japanese because they are written differently.
 

Maciamo

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no, really, what is the "real" word for "knife"? In Japanese, "naifu" is the real and current Japanese word for this item and I wouldn't expect anybody to know the word they used 200 years ago for it. Also, note that most of your examples are things that did not traditionally exist in Japan or, if they did, they existed in a totally different form.

Of course Japanese used knifes 200 or even 1000 years ago. They needed to cut meat or cook, even if they didn't eat with eat. The word 包丁(houchou) is still used everyday for big kitchen knives. That's what I mean by real Japanese words. Then, don't tell me they had no tables (even low, Japanese-style ones, which are also referred to as "teburu" nowadays). If you watch 時代劇 (jidaigeki = historical series with samurai, etc) on TV in Japan, the army always sleeps in tents. I also don't know how they'd dry themselves after their "o-furo" (Japanese bath, that has always been so popular) or "onsen" (hot springs) without towels. I don't think they just lied nude in the sun. :D Finally, the word 扉 (tobira) doesn't only refer to the traditional entrance way or even castle gates, but is still used alternatively for "doa" for bus/train doors (tobira ga simarimasu, go chui kudasai). However, the average people nust use it only once a month or something (but it [is] still used, like the other example I gave, they in no ways old-fashioned equivalents of Shakespeare's language in English).
 

mdchachi

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However, the average people nust use it only once a month or something (but it [is] still used, like the other example I gave, they in no ways old-fashioned equivalents of Shakespeare's language in English).
True many of these words are not dead. Still, just because many words are being replaced by gairaigo I don't think you can infer that the reason is because these words are kanji compound words and are somehow more difficult and that the Japanese try so hard to avoid kanji compound.

As for towel, I don't think it's too hard to believe they used to say something like "cloth" or "bath cloth" and didn't have a single, specific word for it. Let us know if you find out the truth on this one.
 

Maciamo

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Hmm, I might have strayed a bit away from the original question, you are right. The adoption of foreign words is not necessarily related to kanji compound words. But I still feel that the lack of different sounds or combination of consonnants pretty restrict the number of possible morphemes. Therefore, we get myriads of meanings for words like tsuku or tsukeru (which could be the potential form of "tsuku") or kaku, kakeu and kakaru. Even for the same kanji, there are about 10 different meanings for each of these. So very confusing ! So, the use of more kanji would indeed be welcome to distinguish (especially when Japanese is not your mother-tongue) between the different meanings more quickly. In spoken language, I am still convinced that is the reason why Japanese keep very simple and easy conversation between them. Today I still had to check a word in a conversation. It was phonetically "kasou", but there were 7 different kanji compound in my electronic dictionary and several of which could have been more or less possible because of the lack of context (the possible meanings were : imagination, phenomenon, disguise, cremation, construction or lower-class). There was also "kaso" ("depopulation" or "plastic") which sounded almost the same. If I use any of these word alone in English, anybody could understand exactly what I am talking about. But in Japanese, if I say "kaso(u)", I get blank stares because no particular meaning or image springs to mind because of all the possible meanings. Unfortunately, it's like this for the majority of the words in Japanese. Chinese at least has tones to differentiate words that would otherwise be homonyms.
 

mdchachi

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I agree that Japanese words out of context are less easily understood due to many homonyms. That's likely the reason in Japanese TV they often show what the "tarento" has said by writing it on the screen. Perhaps they depend on deriving meaning out of context more so than other languages?

For commonly used homonyms, though, the Japanese do use some tonal variation. Words such as "ame" or "chichi". The differences go over my head most of the time but the Japanese seem to be able to clearly differentiate the slightly different pronunciations. Same thing for words that differ only by an elongated vowel. Though they sound almost the same to me, they are easily distinguished by native speakers.
 

Maciamo

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I don't know if it's just me, but I also tend to differentiate slightly homonyms in English. For instance saying "waist" and "waste", I'll elongated a little bit more the vowel of the second. Then, there are other tricks such as actually pronouncing the "r" or not, so you could say it in "air", but not in "heir" for examlpe. Notwithstanding, I believe it's just a matter of usage and it won't work with people with different speaking habits. In Japan, the tones are notoriously different between Kanto and Kansai, but every region really has its own specific way of pronoucing (+dialects).

In England, a word like "house" has at least 3 distinct pronunciations. The "ou" can be pronounced
1)"haus", like in "mouse" or "cow" (standard form)
2) changing the "au" sound to the "e" of "bird" followed by a "w", a sound that doesn't exist in American English.
3) "hus" like in "mousse" or "group" (which is actually the Old English pronuciation and is still used especially in Northern England or Liverpool).

I guess that simialar differences, probably not in sounds but rather in tones, exist in regional Japanese. I understand why harmony is so important to Japanese now. Without a radical language uniformisation, Japanese peolpe wouldn't understand each others. It's sometimes difficult between 2 British people, 2 Germans or 2 Italians from different regions, though they have hardly any homonymous words. Just a matter of accent or dialect. I imagine it must be hell in Japan when a word like "kasou" is actually pronounced like "kaso" or "kazo" outside Tokyo, adding even more possible meanings and bringing even more confusion.
 

kixot

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Just to note something, a "naifu" is very different from a "hochou" they are different kind oof knives and are used for very different things.
Anyway, Japanese will still use kanji because they can't conceive langauage away from the meaning, and they find difficult to conceive a meaning without the notion of kanji.
The way the head works is very different from one culture to another, just think about the basic logical brick in western culture and try to imagine a culture (Japanese in fact) where the logic structure IF -> THEN is rarely used for talking (somtimes I think that is also rare in thuinking).
 

mdchachi

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Re: towel, my SO says that the traditional word is "tenugui". Big bath towels that we see today, though, didn't exist.
 

Squareboy

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I do not care why the Japanese still have Kanji, there are many reasons, but Kanji is what makes the language challenging, interesting, and beautiful, imagine if everything were written in kana, Japan wouldn't even look the same!
 

kazuma

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kanji shows the origin of this language. This is why Chinese and Japanese are always connected.
 

Masuda

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Initially, Japanese didn't have their own concrete and systematic letters. They began to use chinese character to describe the japanese pronounciation. The meaning of chacacters were also introduce all together.

If Japanese stop using chinese character, they lose 80% or more of their culture, heritage, perception ability, thinking extent...

Language is not only for a communication tool but also a thinking tool.

The most appolling thing to stop it is discontinuity of history associated with reduction of intellectual perception.
 

Elizabeth

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I don't think I really even understand the purpose of the question. Why and how exactly should the everyday use of kanji be phased out in Japan? North Korea experimented with the total abolition of Chinese orthography in the 1940's to combat illiteracy only to begin gradually reintroducing it twenty years later. The same thing in the South off and on from about the '50's to the '70's until the government realized how much history was being lost, high school graduates couldn't read the paper, the country was losing influence within the 'Kanji Sphere of Nations' etc. It is unfortunate in a way that given the relatively limited and simple sounds of the Japanese language there wasn't a system of representing them phonetically before the importation of kanji. If that had happened, characters today probably would still be used but in a more uniform and standardized way. They could be brought in alongside kana as semantic devices to clarify homonymous meanings (as is the case with Korean for example) with many fewer on readings borrowed and reborrowed from various periods of Chinese history. Something of the flavor would definately be lost, though, it makes my head ache even more just to imagine everything in kana. Especially with word processing now that you don't even have to learn kanji writing.
👍
 
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AviFunniBunni

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The use of kanji also helps break up long paragraphs and sentences especially if written horizontally.
 
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