Is Katakana Really Necessary?

Here is today’s “hmm…” question: “Is Katakana Really Necessary?”

Japan’s writing system is slightly more complicate than those based around a 26-letter alphabet. Nah, slightly doesn’t cut it…IT’S A WHOLE LOT MORE complicate! There are three different elements of the Japanese writing system: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Let’s briefly examine the three different systems.


For many, this is the most difficult system of the three. Many Japanese adults have somewhere around 1900 kanji hardwired into their brains. That’s a lot of characters! But I think I understand why Japan uses kanji. Kanji is in fact a borrowed writing system. Borrowed from where you ask? China. These Chinese characters have been used in Japan for thousands of years. Albeit there may be differences in how the kanji are read in China and in Japan, but I can understand why the kanji are around…it was Japan’s initial writing system.

Some may make the argument that kanji aren’t necessary, but there are benefits to having them. The biggest example I can think of is that knowing kanji would considerably increase writing speed. Knowing kanji method reducing the number of other characters (hiragana) that you would have to use. For example if I write the information shinamono, which method “product” in hiragana, it would be a character for “shi,” “na,” “mo,” and “no.” If I take the same information and change it into its kanji form, it would just be two characters, one for “shina” and one for “mono.” basically it reduces the number of character from four to two. When applied on a larger extent it method getting more information per line. It’s like saying more with less.


I can also understand where why hiragana are a necessity. In elementary school, hiragana is usually the first writing system that kids ever learn. This 46-character system serves as a great mode of preliminary communication. Of course children begin learning their kanji (80 of them) in the first grade, too, but hiragana gives students a way to read and communicate thoughts and ideas without having know 1900 kanji.


So there’s hiragana, there’s kanji, but what about katakana? I never understood why Japan uses katakana. Yes I know it’s used for foreign loan words (also called gairaigo), but is it really necessary? It seems just a bit redundant from the outside looking in. If the pronunciation is exactly the same as hiragana and if there are an equal number of characters…what’s the point? You can take any katana information and write it in hiragana with no fuss. If we look at the information ice cream: “A” “I” “SU” “KU” “RI” “-” “MU,” what’s wrong with writing it in hiragana? You would use exactly the same number of characters, right?

Sure, there is history behind everything. Katakana was thought to have been kind of shorthand way back when. I don’t know how true it is, but a student of my once told that katakana and hiragana already had masculine & feminine implications in addition. I want to say katana was considered a more masculine form of writing (which is why the characters have a “harder” more angular feel), while hiragana (“softer” more rounded characters) was more feminine (please don’t quote me on that one, though).

My theory, a completely baseless one, is that maybe katakana stems from old traditions of keeping thing that were Japanese…purely Japanese. Japan is an island historically known for being secluded, dare I say already a slightly xenophobic? Well I think that some of the isolative aspects of ancient culture are visible in the writing system. Katakana may have been like a kind of “writing isolation” in times past. As a consequence, to this very day, we katakana are used for foreign words.

I don’t know the fully story behind why there are two separate systems for characters that are phonetically identical, but it would be an interesting to find out more. Like them or not, though, the katakana do exist, and to be able to read and understand the Japanese you read, it’s important to know them.

Happy studying!

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