Why Kanji is Used in Japanese and Why it Remains Important

Kanji was not invented in Japan, but the way it has evolved and been adapted for use in the Japanese language is unique to Japan. It has played a critical role in the development of Japanese literature and has become deeply entrenched as part of the language. But understanding why kanji was adopted into Japan in the first place and why it continues to be used in modern Japanese writing requires a historical examination.

Japanese was originally a spoken language only and did not have a writing system of its own. Kanji was adopted from China and adapted for use to write Japanese. Kanji first started to be used in Japan in the 5th century and was the only script used until katakana and hiragana were developed.

Kanji gets its name from the Chinese ‘hanzi’ which means ‘Han characters’, which are the characters from China’s Han Dynasty period. Although the use of kanji in Japan has been adapted and evolved in a unique way over time, the onyomi readings of kanji are still a reflection of those associated with the original hanzi. But the question remains of how kanji came to Japan in the first place.

Although there was some exposure to kanji even earlier, actual use of kanji in Japan is thought to have begun in the 5th century when the scholars Achiki and Wani came to Japan from the Korean peninsular state of Paekche and brought kanji with them [1]. At the time, Japan was not yet Japan, it was the Yamato imperial court. Through diplomatic exchange between Yamato and Paekche, kanji began to be used in the imperial court.

At the time, all the writing was actually done in Chinese. The script was called kanbun. One needed to be bilingual to read and write it. Writing in kanbun was the standard way of writing at the time. But only those of high social class, such as members of the imperial court, or Buddhist monks, were able learn and use kanbun, so writing ability was restricted to a privileged few [2].

By the 8th century, a new form of writing in kanji had emerged called man’yougana. This was a form of writing that used kanji for their pronunciation (reading) only and ignored their meaning in order to spell out Japanese words [3]. The word man’yougana is taken from Man’youshuu, the title of an early anthology of native Japanese verse compiled in 759 [2].

Offshoots of Man’yougana Kanji: Hiragana and Katakana

Hiragana and katakana are two simpler Japanese scripts which together are referred to as kana. Both were derived from man’yougana in the 9th century. Hiragana are simplified characters derived from cursive style man’yougana. Katakana was developed by taking small parts of man’yougana characters and turning them into simpler characters [4].

The kana scripts were developed separately. One reason katakana was developed was to provide phonetic readings above or beside man’yougana kanji [4]. Katakana was therefore an early form of furigana and was mainly used in conjunction with kanji. Hiragana on the other hand took off on its own and gave rise to a new style of writing called wabun [3].

The important point to note about kana is that both are syllabaries whose characters represent phonetic sounds only and not meaning. The characters are phonograms. Anything that can be said in Japanese can be written in either script.

The derivation of kana was a major development that allowed the Japanese to represent their own language more directly via phonograms [3]. But despite the new easier form of writing that hiragana in particular offered, both all-kanji and all-hiragana styles continued to exist as separate forms of writing.

It was not until the 12th century that kanji and kana finally started to merge, and a new mixed script was developed called 漢字仮名交じり文 (kanjikanamajiribun), which is a nice short way of saying ‘Chinese characters and Japanese phonetic characters mixed writing’. This system evolved over time into what still exists today. Each of kanji, hiragana and katakana serve their own unique role in modern Japanese writing.

Kanji is used for primary lexical categories such as nouns, verb stems and adjective stems. Hiragana is used for grammatical elements such as particles, auxiliary verbs and the inflectional affixes of nouns adjectives and verbs. Katakana is used for foreign names, loan words and stylistic purposes.

The Perseverance of Kanji and its Place in Modern Japanese

With the development of hiragana and katakana, you would think that kanji would have been phased out. As we know today, it was not, but there were several attempts over the course of a few centuries to abolish kanji. There were two main movements pushing for kanji abolishment, each with their own rationale which were国字改良 (kokujikairyou) and 言文の一致 (genbunicchi) [5].

Kokujikairyou, which means ‘national (written) character reform’, was all about replacing kanji with a simpler script. At the end of the Tokugawa period (1603-1867) and into the Meiji period (1868-1912) there were more than 10,000 characters in use [5]. They took so long to learn, and the study of kanji was academic pursuit in and of itself.

There were a few different groups (clubs) which sprung up out of kokijikairyou. Two radical groups were the kana club and the romaji club. The kana club advocated a kana only writing system. The even more radical romaji club advocated to dispense with all existing scripts and replace them with romaji, i.e., the Latin alphabet. But there was also a moderate group which favored modifying the existing majiribun script by paring it down to make it simpler.

Genbunicchi, means ‘consistency of spoken and written language’. Despite the merge of kanji and kana into majiribun, even as late as the Meiji period, Japanese writing was still vastly different than spoken Japanese [5]. The writing style was an archaic reflection of centuries past. Genbunicchi was all about the need to move to a more colloquial style of writing reflecting the way people actually spoke to make written information accessible to all.

Those who opposed the movements were those of high social strata that wanted to keep kanji because it separated them from the lower classes. Knowledge of a vast number of kanji was a mark of their erudition [5]. But there were those with a lot more foresight that pushed for reforms out of a growing necessity for a consistent widespread level of literacy in Japan.

During the Meiji period, the West was highly advanced, and Japan was way behind. Those with foresight knew that the way to keep up was education of the populace, and the way to do that was through dissemination of information via the written medium. For this to happen, reform of the writing system was a necessity. But the idea which won out in the end was modification of majiribun.

The major modifications would be the standardization of written language into a colloquial style and a reduction in the number of kanji to be learned. Carrying out the modifications was a big task and it was not until 1923 that the first reduced list of kanji, the 常用漢字表 (joyokanjihyou) ‘list of kanji for general use’, was produced which contained 1963 kanji [3].

Another notable revision to the list of prescribed characters was the post second world war 1946 当用漢字字体表 (touyoukanjijitaihyou) ‘list of kanji approved for general use’. Actually, this list came out a year after there was a second movement to abolish kanji right after the war [3].

The decision whether to abolish kanji or not was not America’s, but rather it was given to Japan’s 国語審議会 (Kokugo Shingikai) ‘Deliberative Council on The National Language’. Again, majiribun won out and kanji prevailed [3]. Today, we now have the most recent list, which was published in 2010, the 常用漢字 (joyo kanji) ‘regular use kanji’.

The Advantages of Kanji: Complex, but Highly Useful

Despite Kanji’s complexity and clear need to be reigned in for the benefit of the Japanese people’s literacy and education, kanji also had practical uses beyond its use as a writing system. And even in a modern context, there are still several reasons why kanji remains important and a useful part of the Japanese language.

Kanji is important for its place in the cultural heritage of Japan, contribution to reading speed and efficiency, delineating word boundaries in written text, semantic transparency, and disambiguation of homophones. Although difficult, kanji facilitates learning and understanding of Japanese.

As mentioned, kanji was the first and only writing system used in Japan for many centuries. Although it came from abroad, it became woven into the fabric of the language. In the past, when new ideas and technologies were coming into Japan that needed new names for use in Japanese, kanji with onyomi readings were used freely as building blocks to coin these new terms [3]. And it was not just new terms affected by kanji.

…the core vocabulary of Japanese developed an entirely new set of word formation procedures based on the imported Chinese readings of characters, and these procedures came to underlie both learned, technical words and even common vocabulary words which compete with native Japanese words.

Joseph F. Kess

A major result of word formation with kanji is 熟語 (jukugo) which are kanji compound words. Jukugo are made up of two or more kanji and correspondingly contain two or more syllables. Jukugo are critical to your Japanese vocabulary. I have written in detail about jukugo here. And one more culturally important contribution of kanji was the development of a few new characters unique to Japan, for example, 峠 (touge), which means mountain pass [6].

How Kanji Helps You Read and Understand Japanese

If you don’t have sufficient mastery of kanji, it does make reading in Japanese quite slow and laborious. But once you have a certain level mastery, the tables turn, and kanji becomes an efficient reading aid rather than a hindrance. Kanji-mixed texts (majiribun) can actually be read faster than all kana texts!

Kanji allows readers to skip from kanji to kanji like steppingstones and the compactness of kanji allows for a wider range of words to fit in one’s peripheral vision [6]. Also, since there are no spaces in Japanese writing, kanji offers helpful delineation of boundaries between words.

Words written in kanji also have the benefit of providing semantic clues as to the meaning of the word. Take for example, 登山 (tozan), if know the two individual kanji, you might be able to guess that this word means ‘mountain climbing’. But caution, not all words are this transparent!

For example, 外見 (gaiken) means ‘outward appearance’. This is harder to guess as there are a lot more plausible candidates for the meaning, for example you might think ‘outside’ plus ‘seeing’ might add up to sightseeing. This is called semantic semitransparency [7].

Another advantage of kanji is the disambiguation of homophones. For example, if きじ (kiji) is written in hiragana only, without sufficient context it’s hard to know if it means 記事 ‘newspaper article’, 生地 ‘cloth’, or 雉 ‘green pheasant’. There are a huge number of homophones in Japanese, but kanji makes each word distinct. 

It’s not just discerning the correct homophone either, kanji is also an often-used way of understanding the meaning of just about any unknown word. Seeing the word written in kanji or giving another known word using the same kanji often clarifies the meaning [2]. So, you can see that kanji is quite important to the overall learning of Japanese. Although difficult and daunting, hopefully this quote will help make you feel good about learning kanji.

The use of kanji in modern Japanese is intricate, as is the history of its evolution into the language; kanji is an integral part of Japanese language heritage, and provides invaluable enrichment to modern Japanese that far outweighs the difficulties involved in its learning and mastering.

Holly F. Layman-Tyler

For even more information about the importance of learning kanji, I write about it here. I highly recommend making an effort to learn kanji, but early on in your studies, there are going to be a lot of cases when you can’t read it. And even with advanced knowledge of kanji, there may still be characters here and there that you can’t discern. But using technology as an aid, you can get the meaning and reading of just about any kanji! I write about it here.


[1] Miyake, Marc Hideo. (2003). Old Japanese: A Phonetic Reconstruction. Routledge Curzon.

[2] Layman-Tyler, Holly F. (1998). A Brief Overview of Kanji in the Japanese Writing System Its History and Current State. Ball State University. Muncie, Indiana.

[3] Rubrecht, Brian. (2003). Japanese writing and the writing of English in Japan: A progression toward simplicity or increased complexity?. Literacy Across Cultures.

[4] Smith, Janet S. Japanese Writing. Section 16 of Daniels, Peter T. and Bright, William, eds. (1996). The World’s Writing Systems. Oxford University Press.

[5] Twine, Nanette. (1983). Toward Simplicity: Script Reform Movements in the Meiji Period. Monumenta Nipponica. Vol. 38, No. 2.

[6] Kess, Joseph F. (2005). On the History, Use, and Structure of Japanese Kanji. University of Victoria. Glottometrics. 10, 1-15.

[7] Mori, Yoshiko. (2012). Five Myths About Kanji and Kanji Learning. Japanese Language and Literature, 46, 1.

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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