The Japanese language contains three different kinds of alphabet: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Combined, the three alphabets boast of around 2,037 separate characters. Now, as a foreigner (gaijin) I find that to be quite a lot, and thus without further ado I would like to welcome you to my personal rant on the Japanese language.
Hiragana and katakana are quite easy to learn and to read, as there are only 46 basic characters for hiragana, and same for katakana. Similar to the English alphabet, each character represents one sound. The sound consists of a consonant followed by a vowel. For example, one hiragana character would sound out ka (か), hence a word like hiragana (ひらがな) consists of four separate characters. Theoretically, you could write solely in hiragana, as it covers all the sounds in the Japanese language, but we’ll get back to that later. Katakana follows the same rules as hiragana, and is quite a recent alphabet used to facilitate the influx of English words into the Japanese dictionary. So far so good.
Now, kanji. There are 1,945 frequently used individual kanji characters. A single kanji can be pronounced in up to four different ways. Kanji was adopted from China, and thus contains on’yomi (the Chinese pronunciation) as well as kun’yomi (the original Japanese words attached to kanji). On’yomi in itself has four separate ways of reading: Go’on, Kan’on, Tou’on and Kan’you-on. If you have followed so far, that means that a simple kanji like 木, which means tree, can be read as either ki, moku or boku. Let’s not forget the fact that each separate kanji has a strict rule on how to write it; the number of strokes, the chronology of the strokes, and the direction are all taught fastidiously at school.
But I haven’t even gotten to the kicker, guys. The four or so separate readings I mentioned? Well, they come into further play when we start getting into kanji compounds. Kanji compounds are words that consist of four or more individual kanji characters. There are more than 70,000 kanji compounds out there. I’m not even going to get into how to read自信満々 or which rules apply so that you know which of the four readings to use on each separate kanji character in order to pronounce the word correctly. Think of learning kanji being akin to trying to create a sugar cake on top of a galloping horse that is running through an earthquake followed by gigantic mutant insects. You have to do it in order to survive in Japan, but it’s not easy.
Imagine trying to read an article in the newspaper. If you don’t know all the most used kanji (1,000 or so individual ones, 10,000 or so compounds), it would be like reading “then _______ went to the _____ to _____ a _______”. Kanji cannot be scratched out and simple replaced by hiragana. It would be like reading a child’s grammatically incorrect essay minus spaces between words.
“Oh golly” might be your reaction to this rant, but I would not want to dissuade you from learning the language. Why don’t you prove me wrong? Start learning Japanese and show me how easy it is!