Updated: Oct 10
Learning a language can be both challenging and rewarding. Japanese, in particular, can be intimidating due to its writing system consisting of Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. While Hiragana and Katakana are relatively straightforward to learn as they are scripts, Kanji poses a more significant challenge with its thousands of intricate characters borrowed from Chinese. This leads us to the question: Can one achieve fluency in Japanese without studying Kanji?
The Brief Answer
Yes, and No. Indeed, it is possible to acquire proficiency and understanding of Japanese without delving into the realm of Kanji. Many individuals have chosen this path with varying levels of success, those in conversational Japanese for travel purposes or basic communication needs. Hiragana and Katakana alone may suffice for beginners who wish to navigate life in Japan or enjoy anime, music, and simple written materials.
Now let's break down how not knowing Kanji can affect different aspects of Japanese language learning.
Speaking Japanese Without Kanji
The good news is, yes not knowing Kanji will not affect your Japanese speaking. Here's the 'but'; Although to speak Japanese you don't need to know Kanji, not being able to read Kanji may limit the resources you can use for learning or practicing speaking, especially Japanese-oriented resources. However, there are also so many English-oriented or audio resources that will not require you to know Kanji in order to practice your speaking.
Writing Japanese Without Kanji
This one is a bit tricky. Although technically you 'can' write Japanese entirely using Hiragana and Katakana and without using a single Kanji, it will look as if a child wrote it since kids in Japan start learning Kanji as early as six years old. It may also be a bit hard to read and understand for natives as it is not common for them to encounter Hiragana-only text in everyday life. However, again, it is possible and you will be able to communicate with them, just with a little bit of obstacle.
Reading Japanese Without Kanji
Unfortunately for this one, the answer is most likely no, unless the text in the question is written without any Kanji or with Furigana. Furigana is tiny Hiragana characters written next to Kanji for its pronunciation. Not every text, book, subtitles, or website content has Furigana and not knowing Kanji will significantly limit the content you can read and understand. So, if your plan is to become proficient in Japanese reading, you may want to consider learning Kanji at some point. But if your plan is to read manga with Furigana or read Hiragana-only books, you can skip learning Kanji.
Now that you know how not knowing Kanji can affect you, let's look at its advantages and disadvantages.
Pros of Learning Japanese Without Kanji:
1. Faster Progress in Speaking: By focusing on Hiragana, Katakana, and spoken phrases, you may be able to achieve conversational fluency quicker.
2. Less Overwhelming: Memorizing thousands of Kanji characters and their various readings can feel overwhelming and take up a lot of time.
3. Immediate Needs: If your aim is to communicate at a tourist level or grasp the essentials, you may not necessarily need to prioritize learning Kanji from the start.
Cons of Learning Japanese Without Kanji:
1. Limited Understanding: Your comprehension will be capped, making it difficult to understand newspapers, official documents, or even some signs and menus, which often use Kanji.
2. Nuanced Meanings: Kanji often provides the semantic meaning in a sentence, making it easier to understand the context or subject matter.
3. Perceived Illiteracy: Locals may view you as less serious or committed to learning their language, which could affect personal or professional relationships in Japan. Typically, using only Hiragana in the writing is considered a kindergartener's language level, making your text sound childish.
How Can I Learn Japanese Without Kanji?
Now that you are familiar with how not knowing Kanji influences different aspects of the Japanese language and its merits and demerits, let's say you decided to pursue learning Japanese without Kanji. You may want to know "How can I learn Japanese without Kanji?". Here are some tips for you to consider;
1. Start With Hiragana: First thing first, you need to learn the basic alphabets of the Japanese language called Hiragana. Hiragana is a phonetic script consisting of 46 characters representing all language sounds. Hiragana will be your best friend if you want to read and write without Kanji.
2. Next Step, Katakana: Similar to Hiragana, Katakana is also phonetic. It also consists of 46 characters and some might even look similar to its equivalent Hiragana characters. However, its main purpose is for foreign words, technical or scientific terms, and onomatopoeia.
3. Make Use of Right Resources: As explained above, the resources you can read by only knowing Hiragana and Katakana are limited as Kanji is used in literally every text. You can however look for resources with Furigana or children's books that are written only using Hiragana and Katakana.
What If You Do Want to Learn Kanji?
For those who are daunted by the thought of learning all 2,136 常用漢字 Jōyō Kanji (common-use Kanji taught in Japanese schools), consider focusing on a smaller, more specific set of Kanji relevant to your needs. Learning the Kanji for numbers, days of the week, and basic nouns can significantly help with tasks like shopping, reading a calendar, or making reservations.
Considerations for the Future; It Depends on Your Goals
Your decision to learn Kanji will ultimately hinge on your long-term objectives;
Travel: If your interest in Japanese is primarily for travel purposes and handling interactions, you may be able to manage without delving into Kanji.
Professional Endeavors: If you have plans to work in Japan or in a field that requires proficiency, learning Kanji becomes crucial for comprehending terminology, emails, and reports.
Cultural Appreciation: Kanji plays a significant role in literature, history, and even culinary arts. Choosing not to explore it would mean missing out on an aspect of culture.
Language Proficiency Exams: 日本語能力試験, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) consists of five levels. While the first level (N5) only necessitates knowledge of Kanji, higher levels demand an extensive grasp.
It is indeed possible to learn Japanese without focusing on Kanji; however, there are limitations that come with this approach. Nevertheless, don't let this discourage you from embarking on your journey with the language. You have the option to begin your language learning journey without incorporating Kanji. It's important to remember that learning a language is a process, not something that can be rushed. It's perfectly fine to start off at a slower pace and gradually delve deeper into your skills, including tackling Kanji when you feel ready.
So, if you're curious about whether it's possible to learn Japanese without Kanji, the answer is yes—you can certainly start that way. However, as time goes on, you may discover that these beautiful and intricate characters are more than intimidating scribbles; they actually hold meaning and contribute to the richness of the language and culture you've grown fond of.