Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What is Kanji? Why Kanji is still used?

As we already saw in Japanese Scripts, Kanji is one of the writing scripts of Japanese. It is the pictogram of representing things. It is a set of Japanese ideographs borrowed from China.

History of Kanji

History says that the inspiration of Kanji has come from the footprints of birds and animals in the ancient China. I am not really sure if it’s true or not but the reality is this – the origin of Kanji is during the Yin Dynasty (1700 – 1050 B.C). Check out Oracle Bone Sculpture which is the earliest Kanji specimen available today. It was told that this Oracle Bone Sculpture was written on tortoise shell & animal bones. This Oracle Bone Sculpture was followed by the Bronze Sculptures which were mainly used as decorative inscription on Bronze ware, swords, etc during the Chou Dynasty (1050 – 220 B.C.). It is also believed that Kanji has come to Japan from China through Korea somewhere around the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.

Why Kanji?

We already have Hiragana to write Japanese words and Katakana to write foreign words so why Kanji? Can’t we just express it all using hiragana itself?

Technically speaking, 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 will have at least 5 or 6 (or even more) different common meanings. But these are merely examples, for almost all kanji compound in Japanese have several meanings and there is always a plenty 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. So, even though the sound is same (kou), the way how it is written surely does vary based on what kanji written. In this way Kanji is a lot efficient than the Kana.

Well, I do not really care why the Japanese still have Kanji. There might be 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 :)

Okay, so how many are they in number?

If you go behind the History, you can find that most of the Kanji were found during the Tang and Sung dynasties. A total of about 47,000 Kanji were recorded in the Kanji Dictionary (Kouki-Jiten) which was compiled in the Ching Dynasty. Around 3,000 to 4,000 Kanji were used in Japan until 1946. Then, the Ministry of Education (Mombusho) made an effort to simplify the writing system. They actually chose 1,850 of the most important Kanji used in various fields including Business, Newspapers, Magazine, Official documents, etc and named it collectively as, Tōyō Kanji (meaning Kanji for general purpose). It was 1981 when the Mombusho added 95 more additional Kanji to the Tōyō list and called it as Jōyō Kanji (Kanji for daily use). The 1,945 kanji in the jōyō kanji consist of:

  • 1,006 kanji taught in primary school (these are known as the kyōiku kanji)
  • 939 more kanji taught in secondary school

What is so tough about Kanji?

Kanji is ideographic & not phonetic! This means that each character represents a concept or idea rather than a sound. Let’s consider the shaded portion of the below picture:

How do you write it in English? – MOUTH
In Kanji –

Did you see the difference? The English word is phonetic. It helps you to read the word but it does not help you to know the meaning of it unless you already know what a mouth is :)

Where as, the Kanji helps you recognize that it is a mouth by seeing the picture but… How do you read it? That is NOT known unless and until you memorize it.

As we said, there are around 1,945 called as the Kanji for daily use (Jōyō kanji). It is really easy to remember how to write them as they are ideographic but to remember how they are read is what making Kanji slightly tougher!

To me, Kanji is beautiful and fascinating!

Reference on the history of Kanji is from Kodansha’s Kanji Guide


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