Kanji is hard. The hieroglyphic written script (just one of three) used in Japanese has a weird history, borrowed and bastardized from the Chinese. And it takes years, even for the Japanese, to learn. For foreigners used to Roman scripts, of course, it adds an extra wall to climb: Not only do you have to memorize the words, you also have to memorize the pictograph linked to that word.
Turns out, it isn’t just lazy foreigners who wish Japan would get rid of it.
A Bad Day for Turtles
Kanji initially came over from the Chinese, which uses something pretty similar, called Hanzi. If you think Kanji is hard, just be grateful that it replaced the original “language” of China, which involved tying intricate knots into rope.
According to legend, Hanzi started when a Chinese bureaucrat, named Cangjie, went hunting and saw a cool-looking turtle. Cangjie, in my opinion, was probably high on something aside from a mountain, because he spent a lot of time finding patterns in the turtle shell and writing them down. (Things would get even more awkward for turtles a little later on).
Inspired by the way the turtle shell looked, and convinced that these symbols were communications from the Gods, Cangjie made a copy of them. As the legend goes, at that moment, a bunch of ghosts started freaking out and it rained breakfast cereal. Understandably, that was a pretty intense day for Cangjie. Inspired, he traveled around China copying down small markings on animals that sort of looked like stuff in Ancient China: Gates, Birds, Fish, that kind of thing.
Another version of the story has Cangjie – who, by the way, is portrayed in pictures and statues as having four eyeballs – was basically tasked with creating a written script for the emperor of China, but had writer’s block until a Phoenix dropped a hoof from the sky. Cangjie asked a passing hunter what kind of hoof it was, and was impressed that the hunter could tell simply from the shape of the hoof.
As this iconographic language developed, the markings became a common shorthand. Since the Gods were sending messages to humans through these markings on animals skins, people began sending messages back, by writing stuff on turtles and then setting them on fire. When the animal was cooked, they’d take a look at the cracks on the animal’s shoulder blades and divine the God’s response (This practice, at least, seems to be proven by archeologists).
This is all a theory, and I am sure the Defenders of Japan on the Internet will correct me. But if you study Kanji or Hanzi, you can see that the symbols typically look sort of weirdly like the things they’re supposed to represent, while sometimes they don’t. I usually asked myself why the characters didn’t look exactly like tiny pictures of fish, for example. The reason, I guess, is because the icons are a collaboration between the human capacity to see pictures in things, and the way bones crack when they’re hot. Which is a weird collaboration.
When the Japanese decided it was time to start writing things down, they looked at Chinese literature, which was widely read at the time (at least among the aristocracy). The Japanese started shifting the writing around to match the way Japanese people spoke and sounded. This is called the kun’yomi reading of the kanji. Sometimes people use the original Chinese reading in Japan, too, the on’yomi reading.
All of which is really confusing for foreigners and, honestly, even for some Japanese people. Kun’yomi is considered sorta pretentious, like using Latin all the time in English.
But lest the wary Japanese-lacking visitor to Japan feel alone in history, fear not. Sometimes, people have had the same thoughts as we.
The Hiragana-Only Movement
Jump to 1868, when Japan, in awe of the Western world, decided it was time to modernize. This meant abolishing class distinctions and making major strides in its education system. Everyone also got new haircuts and samurai got a stipend in exchange for calming down about the killing-peasants thing.
In the midst of egalitarian education reform, the Japanese had some internal debate about modernizing their language. At the time, you’d have to learn 10,000 kanji if you wanted to converse fluently among the upper classes. The lower classes were literate, but in a limited way. A good way to make sure everybody was on the same page was to make that page easier to read.
Enter Maejima Hisoka, a Meiji-era Ben Franklin type who, among other things, created the Japanese Postal Service (and Post Office’s Bank), as well as found the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. The craziest thing? Just like Cangjie, Maejima also had four eyes!*
He also wrote “Reasons for Abolishing Chinese Characters,” where he argued that Kanji was way too hard for an egalitarian society to learn, and that the difficulty would only create a divide between the rich and poor. It was also a major time commitment, and he argued that the Japanese were learning “words” instead of “things.” He even went so far as to create a hiragana-only newspaper, which folded after a few years – basically because nobody was reading newspapers yet.
Maejima’s plan was to force the government to write exclusively in hiragana – a pre-existing, simplified, 46-character phonetic alphabet. Hiragana worked the way a standard alphabet would – the character stood for a sound, which were put together to sound like a word. It’s simpler to memorize (46 characters vs the Meiji era’s 10,000). Nobody liked this plan. The noble classes worried that it would coarsen the language, reducing it to 1868-era LOLspeak.
Others took up the charge, however. Some translated German military and science papers into hiragana, which was easier for the masses to read and would, therefore, be really useful for when Japan had a war with the West.
But in 1872, a solution came in the form of the Shinsen Jisho, a dictionary that cut the 10,000 kanji down to just over a third. Over time, this would be reduced even further.
*= Just kidding. Maejima didn’t have four eyes. American joke!
When in Tokyo, do what the Romans do…
There were other language reform advocates who pushed for an even more extreme change in writing: The adoption of the Roman alphabet, or romaji.
For whatever reason, some magazine publishers were printing things using the Roman alphabet to spell out Japanese words. This was part of a weirdly nationalistic movement that saw a simplified Japanese as a great weapon toward adopting Western science and technology. By 1888, over 10,000 people were part of a “club” advocating for the change.
One of the problems with this approach – and, really, with hiragana and katakana approaches as well – is that the way people write using Kanji doesn’t exactly translate into hiragana. For example, one of the reasons reformers hated Kanji is because one character had multiple readings. But the same problem existed when you reversed it: The same word had many different meanings, which could only properly be identified by looking at the kanji.
Also, Romaji lead to a lot of very long but very commonly used words. This was an annoyance. For example, “watakushi,” the word “I” in English, would be shortened to “W.” Similar, again, to modern textspeak.
Reformers also did something which was downright bonkers: Standard Japanese didn’t use blank spaces, so the reformers often didn’t use blank spaces either. So sentences ran together without any white spaces: domouarigatomisterrobato. This was just a crazy hot mess and made it far harder for the masses to wrap their head around. (I, for one, wish they would just insert exclamation marks after every word, as it seems is the standard practice on Japanese T-shirts).
Shikata Ga Nai
Fundamentally, you could say that reform efforts failed because, frankly, the people in power had already mastered Japanese. Asking someone who speaks a language to write it in a completely new way is a tall order, especially when that language is a sign of your education and class. Even sincere reformers of education policy often struggled to be convinced that there was any problem to begin with. If they could learn it, so could anyone else, right?
Which actually turned out to be the case, in the end, if you don’t count the endless hours of work used to practice writing Kanji in the exact specific stroke order and memorizing every meaning and reading. It’s easy for us to look from the outside and say that the whole thing is crazy, but it’s also fundamentally tied to Japanese culture, history, and identity.
If we lost Kanji, we’d lose the entire art form of Japanese calligraphy; even haiku and classic works of art. It would also make Twitter far less useful in Japan.