Other pages in this series:
Kanji: Japanese Characters
The Japanese language probably has the most complex writing system on earth, combining thousands of Chinese-based characters with two Japanese syllabary alphabets and lately using the Roman letter alphabet as well. About 1850 characters are required by eighth grade, college grad knows about 4000.
Each character has two pronunciations-the Japanese word and the Chinese root. To draw a parallel, if in English a symbol meant "far," you'd read it "far" when you saw it by itself, and as "tele" when you saw it in compound words such as "television" or "telegraph" (these Greek roots mean "far look" and "far write", respectively).
How Kanji are constructedHere's an example of how the two readings occur in Japanese:
Most complex characters have a radical (hen) part which suggests what kind of category it belongs to (tree names have the tree radical; things to do with water will have the water radical; words dealing with time or light use the sun radical, and so on) and a second part which suggests the Chinese sound for that character.
Thus both the following have a radical + the character for blue. Like the character for blue, these both have a Chinese sound reading SEI:
Add the water radical, the Japanese reading becomes kiyomeru, "to purify, cleanse."
Add the sun (day) radical and the Japanese reading becomes hareru, "fine weather, clearing up."
In actuality, there are 5 or 6 related verbs, nouns, and adjectives, each with a slightly different Japanese reading, that are associated with each of these characters. (I just gave you one example.) Readers have to guess from context and from the alphabet clues that follow, which reading is intended.
Some cultural effects of using kanji
The Japanese have a much more visual sense of their language than do peoples who use alphabets. The written language can convey meanings that can't be communicated orally. (For example, you can write the character "to meet" two ways -- they are pronounced the same way but carry different shades of meaning.)
Notice the opportunities for word/image play, the linking of image, concrete meaning, and metaphoric meaning -- no wonder Japanese is famous for its poetry!
Adults never reach full literacy in Japanese or Chinese. There's always some character or pronunciation they don't know. Not surprisingly, Japanese schooling requires intense time investment for learning to read and write. As a consequence, Japan has had a centralized, effective nation-wide educational system, and children's lives are absorbed by schooling to a degree that Americans could not imagine.
There's long been talk of going to an alphabet system (as Korean did with Hangul) but it looks like the computer has rescued the character system-by removing the tedium of typesetting/typing, but it also has reduced people's ability to handwrite individual characters correctly.
Implications for intercultural communicationIt is more difficult for foreigners to become fluent readers and writers in character languages. Conversely, among East and Southeast Asian peoples, one can often get a good sense of what a written statement means, even if you do not know a word of the language. (Thus I could shop in Chinese markets by writing Japanese characters--they were confused about why I could write but not talk, but I got what I needed, and they were amused.)
The complexity of the Japanese writing system reminds us that our own language also was uneasily bent to fit the Roman alphabet (which is why we have to study spelling ...), but in the long run, we have had easier communication with the dozens of languages from Norwegian to Vietnamese which use that alphabet. The Japanese adoption of the Chinese character system also reminds us that English is itself an intercultural language, with the mingling of peoples recorded in our very words--Greek, Latin, French, Anglo-Saxon, doubling our available vocabulary. (Unbelievable! No, incredible!). Modern Japanese has a triple vocabulary also of native Japanese, Chinese, and European (mostly English) words to choose from. These intercultural hybrid languages enrich our speech and our thinking with shades of meaning, choices of sound,, the pleasure of choosing JUST the right word.