Here’s today’s “hmm…” question: “Is Katakana really necessary?”

Japan’s writing system is a bit more complex than those based on a 26-letter alphabet. No, a little is not enough… IT’S MUCH MORE COMPLEX! There are three different elements of the Japanese writing system: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Let’s briefly examine the three different systems.

kanji

For many, this is the most difficult system of the three. Many Japanese adults have around 1,900 kanji etched into their brains. There are many characters! But I think I understand why Japan uses kanji. Kanji is, in fact, a borrowed writing system. Borrowed from where you ask? Porcelain. These Chinese characters have been used in Japan for thousands of years. Although there may be differences in how kanji are read in China and Japan, I can understand why kanji exists…it was Japan’s early writing system.

Some may argue that kanji are not necessary, but there are benefits to having them. The biggest example I can think of is that knowing kanji would significantly increase typing speed. Knowing kanji means reducing the number of other characters (hiragana) you would have to use. For example, if I write the word shinamono, which means “product” in hiragana, it would be one character for “shi”, “na”, “mo”, and “no”. If I take the same word and change it to its kanji form, it would be just two characters, one for “shina” and one for “mono”. In essence, it reduces the number of characters from four to two. When applied to a larger scale, it means getting more information per line. It’s like saying more with less.

HIRAGANA

I can also understand why hiragana is a must. In elementary school, hiragana is often the first writing system children learn. This 46-character system serves as a great mode of preliminary communication. Of course, children also start learning their kanji (80 of them) in first grade, but hiragana gives students a way to read and communicate thoughts and ideas without having to know 1,900 kanji.

KATAKANA

So there’s hiragana, there’s kanji, but what about katakana? I never understood why Japan uses katakana. Yes, I know it’s used for foreign loans (also called gairaigo), but is it really necessary? It seems a bit redundant from the outside looking in. If the pronunciation is exactly the same as hiragana and if there are the same number of characters… what’s the point? You can take any katana word and write it in hiragana with no problem. If we look at the word ice cream: “A” “I” “SU” “KU” “RI” “-” “MU”, what’s wrong with writing it in hiragana? You would use exactly the same number of characters, right?

Sure, there is a story behind everything. Katakana was thought to have been some kind of abbreviation long ago. I don’t know how true it is, but a student of mine once said that katakana and hiragana also had masculine and feminine implications. I mean that katana was considered a more masculine form of writing (which is why the characters have a more angular and “harder” feel), while hiragana (more rounded “softer” characters) was more feminine (please no). quote me on that yes).

My completely unfounded theory is that maybe katakana stems from old traditions of keeping things that were Japanese… purely Japanese. Japan is an island historically known for being isolated, dare I even say a little xenophobic? Well, I think some of the isolating aspects of ancient culture are visible in the writing system. Katakana may have been like a type of “write isolation” in the past. As a result, to this day, katakana is used for foreign words.

I don’t know the full story behind why there are two separate systems for characters that are phonetically identical, but it would be interesting to find out more. However, whether you like it or not, katakana do exist, and in order to read and understand the Japanese you read, it’s important to know about them.

Happy studying!

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