Is kana sufficient to write Japanese?

There is a recurring theme on a lot of blogs and forums that Japanese can only be written intelligibly using kanji. They have the idea that Japanese written only in kana (or romaji) cannot hold enough information and becomes difficult to read if not unintelligible. These ideas are mistaken. Kana is perfectly suitable to represent the sounds of Japanese, and that is all writing is, a representation of spoken language.

There are two examples of kana usage in Japan that demonstrate this; braille and morse code.

It can’t be claimed that blind people are unable to comprehend what they read in braille. It is the same Japanese. It is sound represented through kana encoded as braille.1 Nor has this been lost on Japanese educators.

The blind man can be better educated than his more fortunate brethern who are endowed with good sight; for the former by acquiring the forty-seven letters of the I-ro-ha syllabary, through the Braille system, can read history, geography or anything written in that system; whereas he who has eyesight cannot read the daily paper unless he has mastered at least 2000 characters.

Nitobe Inazo, quoted in Ideogram J Marshall Unger. 2

Entire fleet movements and diplomatic negotiations were driven through kana, enciphered then encoded to a variation of the morse code, wabun code. Not only was this sufficient for the Japanese to understand but also for the British and Americans who had cracked their ciphers. (Although Toland seems to argue that the Americans’ poor translations hindered the negotiations to avoid war. p180 Rising Sun)

Another example, this time of romaji use, is in multipart carbonless forms on postal deliveries. These have to be made with a typewriter and romaji is the most efficient way to do this. And yet no-one would suggest that the Japanese post office can’t read these addresses and deliver them, extremely quickly.

The Myth that bloggers are perpetuating is number five on DeFrancis’ list of six myths about Chinese characters. The Indispensability Myth. More than anything else, the continued use of kanji in Japan is cultural rather than pragmatic. Perhaps bloggers want to have extra reasons to spend a large amount of time on learning kanji. Kanji are indispensable to being literate in Japanese, given that that is what is used in Japan, but you cannot rightly claim that kanji are the only way to properly represent spoken Japanese (nor the most functional).

Unfortunately we have to deal with what is. While it would be pragmatic to use kana or romaji alone, “real” Japanese is written using kanji. Japanese would find kana alone easier in the long run as they have complete command of their spoken language, but for JSL learners oddly kanji when augmented with a computer can make things easier. It is easier to do a dictionary search. It is also possible to extract some meaning without fully understanding the kanji or the word. 3

I doubt very much there will be any language reform to eliminate kanji. They are too much a part of the culture at this point. Language reform would need a revolution to carry it, such as when kanzi were simplified under the communists in China, or abandoned in favour of a roman alphabet in Vietnam. Or be imposed by a totalitarian regime such as happened with hangul. At any rate, reform if it comes will come from the Japanese themselves rather than from any outside forces. Japan’s last opportunity was immediately after World War II, while they did simplify some things they didn’t bite the bullet and introduce more far reaching script reforms.

For JSL learners, the trend now seems to be hiragana, then a limited amount of kanji in Adult education at least where once whole courses would only use romaji. The emphasis is on spoken Japanese and communication. 4 Romaji is often used in the earlier stages. I suspect university degree courses have a greater emphasis on written Japanese and kanji (but have yet to satisfactorily address how to teach these). For self-taught, well it’s up to the individual. But I’m sad to see an emerging elitism around the use of kana and kanji (and specific methods) rather than an excitement in exploring Japanese to whatever level is desired.

Further reading.
J Marshall Unger is very interesting on the area of script reform, romaji and literacy. While I’m sure many would dispute with him, his credentials as a researcher and scholar of Japanese are impeccable. Unlike me, say, he’s not just a random blogger.

Here are excerpts from
The Fifth Generation Fallacy
This is an interesting book. The computing aspects are completely outdated now, but they do give an insight into problems that have only relatively recently been overcome. I’d like to see an essay from Ungar on what he thinks of the current situation in computing in regards to the Japanese language now. Whereas in 1987 he was writing about the complexity and cost of pen input and OCR, yet I now have good pen input on a Nintendo DS and OCR that costs under $200 (compared to $50,000 plus for roman only when he was writing). However what he has to say about Japanese literacy and the efficiency of roman touch-typed input compared to any other method still remains true today.

Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan
Research from the late 1940’s suggest that romaji is a much better way for Japanese children to learn. Research also suggests that Japan might not have been as literate a society as was imagined. Kanji were for the elite, who had the time to master them.



1. There are systems for representing kanji in braille but understandably they don’t seem to have much traction. Ungar points out in Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan that it was developed for social reasons as the blind were discriminated against for their inability to talk about and deal with kanji (p26, p126).

2. Nitobe probably wrote this in English, rather than this being a translation. However I can’t access the original source.


Many non-Japanese believe that because they can guess the meaning of a word like uwayaku if they know the meanings of other words written with the same kanji, “knowing a kanji” in this ad hoc sense is sufficient for written communication. For them, the correct reading is a mere detail of little consequence. While it is easy to see why they should think this way, they are mistaken—as are Chinese college students who think they can coast through Japanese texts by looking only at the kanji.

J Marshall Unger Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan p20

4. It’s hard to find studies about teaching Japanese or literacy in JSL learners. Maybe this discourse only happens in Japanese, maybe it just doesn’t happen. My only resource is the Internet really, where sometimes I find tantalising references or abstracts but without access to a university library or login (and 4 years of not getting paid and circa £70k to spare to pursue a language degree) my amateur (dilettantish) efforts are stymied. I wish bloggers would either keep to opinion (“this is how it works for me”) rather than absolute statements not backed up by citations or research (“romaji is bad”) or even just stop making stuff up.

24. May 2011 by ロバート
Categories: 02 reading • 読む事, 03 writing • 書く事 | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Is kana sufficient to write Japanese?