Handwriting in Japanese?
April 5, 2010 1:09 PM   Subscribe

How do people hand-write in Japanese?

I'm asking because I was wondering this, specifically:

Let's say someone wants to write "cat", neko. That's normally written as 猫, which is kanji. But wouldn't it be quicker to just write ねこ, the pronunciation, but in hiragana? Couldn't this even clarify things if you're writing shorthand, since you're removing the ambiguity of the whole on/kun reading mess?

This is clearly only one example; I'm sure that some kanji are quicker than their respective hiragana counterparts, but I'm also sure that there's some 18-stroke beast of a character out there that's pronounced "do" or "kaga" or something equally simple.

So what does one do when, say, taking notes or transcribing? Do you write the kanji or the hiragana?

(Bonus points: Would one write vertically or horizontally?)
posted by reductiondesign to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
By the same token, wouldn't it be easier to write without any double consonants? Most of the time in English, double consonants are redundant. It's just the conventions of written Japanese-- sure, it might be possible to conceive of a system that is easier to use, but people are so used to the old system that it would be more trouble than it is worth.
posted by Electrius at 1:11 PM on April 5, 2010

It looks like there's a convention for which script you use to write which sorts of things, i.e. kanji for nouns but hiragana for adjective and verb inflections.

But it also appears that there's fair amount of discretion involved, and clarity and sometimes even just style seems to be prized above standardization.
posted by valkyryn at 1:17 PM on April 5, 2010

Response by poster: To me, there's a world of difference between writing "sily" instead of "silly" and writing うつ instead of 鬱. I don't think a comparison to English can be made fairly.

Stole that character from the interwebs, so it might not be pronounced that way at all; just an example.
posted by reductiondesign at 1:18 PM on April 5, 2010

I think his point was that: language is like that because it developed like that. If we were to design a language today, we'd all be speaking esperanto.
posted by CharlesV42 at 1:25 PM on April 5, 2010

Electrius is on on the mark with the observation that it is pretty much arbitrary and based on continuity of history.

Kanji were an import from China. Japanese writing before kanji used hiragana and katakana. Hiragana and katakna are symmetrical phonetic alphabets. Originally hiragana, which uses curved and looping shapes, was female writing. Katakana, which is much more angular and linear, was male writing.

Today katakana is used for foreign borrowed words and for visual impact as a sort of emotional italic alphabet.

The legendary homework times and cram schools of Japanese high school are due in no small part to the number of kanji one must learn to be literate. Writing in all hiragana will be understood by a native reader but will come across as the writing of a kindergartner. To some degree the quality and creativity of one's kanji go a long way toward projecting a cultured image of oneself. The inherent word meanings and classes of base pictograms allow for subtle word play and visual puns. There is a deep and reverent love for the tradition and techniques involved in writing. The fact that writing is seen as an art form in addition to a banal necessity is tied in to that worldview.

At the peak of my Japanese study I knew a few hundred kanji. That was not remotely adequate to read a newspaper.
posted by Babblesort at 1:27 PM on April 5, 2010

When jotting notes to themselves most people would use a combination of kanji and hiragana. Horizontal left to right or vertical right to left would probably be represented in equal amounts by different people's handwritten notes. A novel purchased at a book store would most likely be printed vertically right to left with the cover on what would be the back in a western book.
posted by Babblesort at 1:35 PM on April 5, 2010

Response by poster: These answers so far seem to misinterpret my question. I'm not asking why the language is the way it is; I'm asking if Japanese speakers will use hiragana/katakana in order to write more quickly—obviously in an informal situation, like on a Post-it note.

You might be trying to tell me, "No, and it's a dumb thing to ask," but all I'm seeing are defenses of the language as a whole.

I'm done now I swear. Carry on.
posted by reductiondesign at 1:37 PM on April 5, 2010

The answer to this question is the same answer that you're going to get with most questions relating to Japanese: It depends.

Yes, in general writing completely in hiragana does usually require less effort than using the same kanji for the corresponding letters. However, there are certain words where I will almost always see the kanji instead of the hiragana, and certain words where it is the other way around. Occasionally I see kanji used to clarify the specific context of a verb (for instance, kiku can mean to be effective in addition to hear, and even the definition of hear can differ between simply "to hear" and "to listen to music" depending on the specific character used).

From my experience, you learn which words are written as hiragana and which words are written as kanji through extended exposure and experience.

In academic settings, most Japanese students that I have encountered take notes horizontally.

(My anecdata is derived from: actual written correspondences [not e-mails] and taking classes with a handful of Japanese college-level students who fall in a range of about 25-30 years old).

Post-preview: OH, that's what you're asking. The answer to that would be yes, at least with the native Japanese speakers that I've dealt with.
posted by C^3 at 1:50 PM on April 5, 2010

(paging no-sword or some of the other folks who could, I believe, answer this for reals...)

I don't have a definitive answer, but I can tell you that, based on the buttload of Japanese TV and films I've watched, and based on the random notes I've seen around Japanese people's houses in the U.S.A. and in Japan, Japanese people will use proper(-ish) written Japanese (that is, a combination of Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana) to write notes. Because that's how they learned to write things. It's that simple, I believe.

Different Japanese use different amounts of Kanji too, so this may vary depending on the individual, although I'm guessing for the type of stuff one would write in your average, like, grocery list, most people would use roughly the same amount. In fact, if you do a search for your example (ねこ vs. 猫) on, say, Youtube, you'll find tons of examples of both. Of course, keep in mind that there is also an age cut-off; first kids learn hiragana, then they learn more and more Kanji. So ねこ may be a bad example because of the amount of Japanese girls who かわいいねこ超好き!!

One exception to this may be names, which can have pronunciations that are unfamiliar even for Japanese, so someone may use hiragana for a name (or put the hiragana in parentheses, perhaps...).
posted by dubitable at 2:06 PM on April 5, 2010

To me, there's a world of difference between writing "sily" instead of "silly" and writing うつ instead of 鬱. I don't think a comparison to English can be made fairly.

As an aside: dunno where you got this, but it's not 常用漢字, and is probably a character that very few Japanese people know or would use, even using a computer to write. So, not such a good example. As C^3 said, it really depends; some Kanji are used a lot more than others, and some are really simple and easy to write...say, 言, or 見, or 口, etc.
posted by dubitable at 2:14 PM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

When people left notes for me, they left them (horizontally) with kanji. (I would do the same, but I'm not a native speaker.) While you're correct that sometimes it's easier to write in hirigana, it's much easier for the reader to glean the meaning from kanji than from hiragana. It's harder to decipher the meaning of a long string of phonetic characters than it is one locographic kanji that conveys meaning on its own. Also, if you're really good at handwriting, you don't make all 18 strokes on that complicated kanji, they blur a bit, like cursive. So, I get what you're saying about a two-syllable word, but for more complicated concepts, kanji is useful for quickly conveying meaning. For notetaking/transcribing I expect it's computer-based and auto-fill now, which may make handwriting kanji less prevalent because people forget how.
posted by *s at 2:50 PM on April 5, 2010

Native, fluent speakers of Japanese create written notes which look like any written Japanese -- the mix of hiragana, katakana and kanji. Kanji are great because they clarify ambiguous hiragana. Most people I know write horizontally (note that to be really old fashioned, this could be right-to-left) but vertical's okay, if you have the space. My teachers always smile approvingly whenever I turn in vertical written work.
posted by Rash at 3:02 PM on April 5, 2010

Seconding pts (and everyone else, on preview) regarding the fact that it's much easier to scan-read with kanji.

Regardless of number of strokes, it's (not surprisingly) fastest to write the way you are used to writing; switching to a phonetic alphabet for words when you're in a rush just because it would take less strokes to write would in fact be a slow-down because you'd need to stop and think about it.

Note, however, that there are some simplifications of kanji used only when writing quickly and informally, though they seem to be used mostly by older people these days. (Note that these are not, to my knowledge, related in any way to simplified Chinese characters, which were created more systematically.)

In addition to the relatively common characters listed in the link above, you will also find some technical jargon simplified; I'm pretty sure I've seen the 導 in 半導体 (semiconductor) written on a blackboard in an abbreviated kanji form.

Also, in my experience, I've only seen college kids take notes left-to-right, as is done on the blackboard (though this could be a bias in engineering fields). Top-down appears more when writing letters.

Open question on this topic: I think I once saw the simplified version of 第 on an official, permanent sign. Have you ever seen this? Do you have any idea why someone would do this?
posted by caaaaaam at 3:07 PM on April 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

The on/kun thing is a red herring, because 99% of the time there is either no ambiguity, or it doesn't matter. For example, if I write 柴犬, I might be pronouncing it "Shiba-inu" or "Shiba-ken" in my head, but who cares as long as you know what I mean?

The real issues are, as some folks have been saying, that (a) using kana where kanji are standard (a1) looks childish, and (a2) makes it harder to read, but (b) people these days know how to write fewer kanji than their parents did (although they can produce more, if you allow that computers and cellphones are a valid way of producing written texts).

So, very few people will write 鬱 -- in fact this is sort of a cliche; another kanji-knowing shibboleth is 薔薇, "rose". If you write these in kana very few people will think worse of you. It's also in general easier to get away with writing Yamato-kotoba (non-Sinitic vocabulary) in kana. But most Sinitic kanji compounds look extremely childish written in kana, and the more common the word the more so (e.g. 東京, 新聞, 両親), so people will still try to avoid that... unless they want to be cute, of course. (And there are competing traditions, too, like writing the names of animals in katakana, etc.)

It really is kind of similar to "sily" vs "silly", although admittedly not quite the same since "sily" is indisputably an error.

Re the kanji reducing ambiguity thing: this is related to my (a2) above. Again, most of the time there is no real ambiguity (especially if this is something you're likely to write by hand, and not e.g. an essay on chemistry or politics); the real issue is that because Japanese readers grow up practicing their reading skills on texts with mixed kanji and kana, all-kana texts feel more laborious to read in addition to the childishness. There are no kanji/kana boundary cues for grasping the shape of the sentence (content words vs particles etc.) or individual words at a glance, you can't skim for certain kanji you know you're looking for (牛乳 vs ぎゅうにゅう), etc.

One thing you may not realize is that there are simplified handwritten forms in Japanese too. So, for example, most of the time if you're writing the radical 門 you won't write out all those strokes, they'll write something more like 门, which has now been standardized as the simplified Chinese version (many simplified Chinese characters came from handwritten abbreviations like this). There are more ways to simplify characters than you might think.

And yeah, horizontal is more normal, though certain things like letters and thank-you notes are still written vertically.
posted by No-sword at 3:16 PM on April 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

So, yeah, what caaaaaam said.
posted by No-sword at 3:20 PM on April 5, 2010

There is a more fluid form of handwriting in Japanese called 草書 (or cursive script) you would use when writing a letter to someone, and is rougly analogous to cursive writing using roman script.

Like anything to do with written Japanese, there is a right way to do it, and a wrong way to do it. People (or, at least, my wife does, anyway) judge you on the quality of your writing, including how well you write your kanji, whether or not you use the right kanji (there are a lot of homonyms), whether or not you use the correct register, and whether or not you understand how to use polite speech.

Some professions or occupations, such as fish sellers, carpenters, shipping agents, people in manufacturing use a kind of shorthand notation system that is unique to their industry, too.

Couldn't (using shorthand) even clarify things if you're writing shorthand, since you're removing the ambiguity of the whole on/kun reading mess?

It's not really a mess, because most readings are obvious. The pronunciation of Chinese characters and Chinese compound words have their own kind of logic, and it begins to make sense after you master the first 1000 or so (I found learning the second 1000 kanji was far quicker).

When you're reading a newspaper, you already know the meaning of the words and can recognize them on sight - you learned them in high school.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:36 PM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

The legendary homework times and cram schools of Japanese high school are due in no small part to the number of kanji one must learn to be literate.

Not really. I went to high school in Japan (for a year), and most of the time spent studying was Math or History or Literature; whatever anyone spends time studying in high school. There is some writing, of course, but it's no different than English classes. "Write a 5 paragraph essay about ..."
posted by jrockway at 3:46 PM on April 5, 2010

I ran a cram school for 5 years, and also taught in the school system from Grade 7 to college. At our cram school we employed 4 Japanese instructors who taught our 70+ students math, physics, calculus, chemistry, and, of course English. We helped D students get Cs, and helped B students get As so they could get into good high schools or good universities. We also had a lot of specific information about individual entrance examinations for 50+ universities.

The one thing we did not do was teach kanji (aka "kokugo"). For one thing, it would have been absurb for a foreigner like me to teach Japanese. For another thing, there would be no market for it - Japan truly does have a 99% literacy rate, because people take learning how to read very seriously. And the people who are disinclined to learn to read can always use the furigana that spells out every word in Jump.

There are few resources for kids with learning disabilities.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:56 PM on April 5, 2010

I'll second what KokuRyu and No-sword have said, and just add a few things:

1. You'd be surprised how fast a native speaker can write kanji. My own handwriting (in any language) is abysmal, so I stare with envy. I haven't seen a lot of ryakuji per se, but I have seen a lot of gyosho-inspired penji. I haven't run across a lot of sosho.

2. If you're accustomed to reading a mix of kana and kanji, as all adult Japanese are, it's harder to read all-kana. No reason to take notes that will slow you down later.

3. I suppose different native speakers will have different breakpoints for when they'll substitute kana for difficult kanji, but I've also seen personal letters written by older people that used pre-reform characters like 學 instead of 学.
posted by adamrice at 3:57 PM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a native english speaker, while you can understand the sentence just above, you will agree that it looks all mushed up together and it isn't any easier to read than just standard english.

Kanji vs. kana is pretty much like that, only worse. If the reader knows the context, he may be able to glean that "ねこ" is meant as "cat" from the context, instead of the syllables being part of another word (maybe the middle of a word, maybe the start of another, etc). However, "猫" is very definitely "cat" and is a recognizable word or word part. If you are just scanning a text to glean the gist of it, kanji will tell you a lot more than kana.

Much like an english speaker could parse my very first sentence and know that "writingspaces" is the word "writing" followed by "spaces" instead of "writings" followed by "spaces", but if I had just written "writing spaces" there would be no parsing required and you'd know where one word starts and the other ends.
posted by splice at 4:09 PM on April 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just to chime in, the Japanese I've seen written, both on blackboards, in notes, and otherwise, is written incredibly fast, with varying degrees of legibility for me (a non-Japanese), but perfectly legible for a native-speaker. I occasionally have to ask my wife to re-write a kanji for me because, to me, her handwriting is pretty bad.

High schools in Japan disgruntlement: Jukus are necessary because no one learns anything in high school. Japanese education is cripplingly outmoded, and relies almost soley on rote memorization and teacher centered classrooms with little student participation or activity. Rote memorization and cramming do very little to create long-term retention of facts. At least where I've worked, students spend the week before exams working on pre-test review sheets that cover everything they've studied, so they know what will be on the exam. Gah.

On a less argh-note, in college I took a course in Chinese calligraphy from a Beijing born teacher. He was big on needing to create each stroke quickly and cleanly, no wavering, no pausing during each line. Every new character we learned would follow nearly a standard routine. He'd explain the character, then he'd draw the character at what he felt was the appropriate speed. To us, the page would be blank, and then a second later, there'd be a complex character. He would always slow it down for us, one stroke at a time, until he showed us cursive and running Chinese scripts, where the character is broken down and written almost entirely in one fluid line. He tried to explain to us that writing slowly guarantees your character will be wrong. So, to sum up, Japanese (and Chinese) people write fast, and they use a mix of kanji and hiragana to do it. Also, reading unbroken hiragana is hard.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:10 PM on April 5, 2010

I took 2 years of Japanese in college, and even as a not-really-fluent speaker, some kanji were easier to understand in context than the same words written out in hiragana. This was because, as others have said, Japanese has a lot of homophones, and a lot of other words that sound pretty similar, so the written-out hiragana is much less distinct than the kanji characters.

Also, when a sentence is written entirely in hiragana, like we started out doing, everything sort of blends together--including grammatical markers (which are always written in hiragana). But with kanji the grammatical markers are much more distinct, and that makes it easier to grasp the gist of a sentence faster. Since I came to that conclusion as an only semi-fluent speaker, I feel pretty safe in assuming that native speakers feel somewhat similar.
posted by colfax at 6:00 PM on April 5, 2010

I my dataset is too small to draw conclusive evidence as to what most Japanese people do or do not do, but I would like to add another point in the column confirming that most people write out characters as much as possible.

We get lots of letters from friends and (pseudo) family still in Japan. Most of them are little notes dashed off during a vacation or a few spare moments, and all of them are filled with kanji.

Right now I'm looking at a postcard sent by a friend that I would say is pretty typical of the correspondence we get. It was obviously written very quickly, be almost anything that can have a kanji character does have one, except for some a few phrases like かもしれない (which can be written as かも知れない, but nobody does).

If you want to see for yourself I'd be happy to send a few de-personalized scans along.
posted by Alison at 7:11 PM on April 5, 2010

This is anecdotal, based on my own perceptions - Most Japanese people find large amounts of text with no kanji very difficult to read. Every Japanese person I've seen taking notes during a lecture or whatnot has used a fair amount of kanji. Whether that amount is more or less than they would use if writing a more formal document is difficult to say. But I've never seen anyone write more than 20 words at a time without using any kanji. In fact I remembering reading on a Japanese person's blog that writing something significant without using any Kanji would cause you to be perceived as unintelligent. (Or a foreigner. Or a child.)

I can't even read/write all the kanji that a Japnaese high school student would know, and I still use as much kanji as I can when writing notes in Japanese. I also find large blocks of hiragana confusing at times. Since written Japanese does not have spaces between words, kanji helps to distinguish one word from another. The complete absence of kanji makes a paragraph look like 1 word at a glance.

As for horizontal/vertical, I have no idea. FWIW, when one of my Japanese friends writes in the margins of a book, he writes horizontal across the top margins, and vertical along the side. In contrast, when I write notes in English in the side margins of a book, I turn the book sideways and write horizontally perpendicular to the book's text.
posted by Vorteks at 8:39 AM on April 6, 2010

Just to chime in regarding shorthand -- there's no widely-used shorthand for Japanese. Although you could probably get away with using simplified Chinese characters instead of actual kanji in some instances, most people would have a hard time understanding what they meant.

I took notes, both by hand and on the computer, for meetings at a Japanese company I worked at. It turned into a combination of kana, relatively simple kanji, and English shorthand (especially for technical vocabulary and acronyms imported from English). I also often "simplified" my kanji, such as using only three strokes to write characters using the 門 radical. I'm not a native speaker/writer, but my Japanese peers did much the same thing.

Oh, and we generally wrote horizontally; vertical writing tends for more formal contexts.
posted by armage at 9:57 PM on April 6, 2010

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