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A recurring theme on this site is that foreign learners of Japanese use too much kanji. Often the reaction is puzzlement that we can't "just know the right way". Native speakers literally say they don't understand why we use too much kanji:

... Why you always write things in kanji, I never understand.

Since native speakers can't understand why we do it, there must be some intuitive or logical way to know.

Is it as simple as "If the word uses any non-Joyo kanji then hiragana is probably best"?

Or is it that if we can tell it's ateji then hiragana is to be preferred these days?

Or are these just two of several factors involved in deciding?

For example, the last word this came up with for me was "まめ" meaning "blister", which has the following kanji spelling which I don't think uses non-Joyo characters but I think probably is ateji: 肉刺

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There seem to be three other questions on this topic, I don't know which might be regarded as dupes of which others: Is it possible to tell whether a word is kanji or hiragana without reading it? Are there general rules on when to use kanji vs. kana? When should I replace kanji with hiragana? –  hippietrail May 3 at 2:21

1 Answer 1

Here are two possible guidelines:

  1. Follow existing practice. Write things the same way you see other people do it. The large majority of native speakers have been exposed to a lot of written language, and they can often follow existing practice without putting much thought into it.

    Not everyone writes everything the same way, so expect to find a fair amount of variation. Most people do follow certain practices, though—you'll rarely find function words written in kanji, for example, with only a few exceptions.

    And of course, you can always consult a corpus such as BCCWJ if you're curious about how a particular word is written.

  2. Following prescriptive rules. You can buy a dictionary such as the NHK漢字表記辞典 and follow its suggestions when you aren't sure. Or you could try not to use readings and kanji that aren't on the official Jōyō kanji chart. But there are many kanji on the chart with readings you'll never see people use—when was the last time you saw someone use the kanji 虞?

    Some dictionaries give information about how individual words are written, especially monolingual dictionaries. Many mark non-Jōyō characters or readings—check the 凡例 section or front cover to find which symbols a particular dictionary uses. EDICT marks words that are "usually kana" with the abbreviation "uk".

Any way you do it will involve a lot of memorization. But the more you interact with the written language, the more you'll get a feel for which words are written which ways. If you aren't sure the kanji are correct or commonly used, you can do one of the following:

  1. Look it up.

  2. Use kana instead.

  3. Use furigana.

Just remember that you're trying to communicate and that just about everyone can read kana, but not everyone can read rare kanji or unusual readings. People will understand if you write something in kana, even if that's not how it's usually written.

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"Follow existing practice" is what I would do, but in Japanese that requires a fairly higher level than I currently have, since it requires the ability to read, which for Japanese you can't do straight off the bat. (Not nitpicking your answer, just highlighting the beginner's predicament.) Sometimes even when I use furigana (or kanji followed by kana in brackets or vice versa) I still seem to upset native speakers \-: Do you think the advice about always being able to use kana should be qualified due to so many homonyms? I knew まめ also means "bean" for instance. –  hippietrail May 3 at 3:15
"you can always consult a corpus such as BCCWJ" might not really be accurate since being a beginner mostly rules out using monolingual sites. –  hippietrail May 3 at 3:21
@hippietrail People can communicate fine in speech without using kanji, and although pitch accent helps it has a very low functional load and speakers from areas with very different pitch accent can understand each other just fine. So I believe that Japanese could be written with no kanji at all! Compare Korean being written without hanja. But since people are used to the current kana-kanji mixture, that's what they find easiest to read at the moment. (Reading is a highly overpracticed skill for any literate adult.) –  snailboat May 3 at 3:37
It's true that people can communicate in speech without kanji to disambiguate homonyms, but I would expect people to choose their words slightly differently too for this and other reasons. In fact for similar reasons in Korean you actually see the opposite of furigana, where a hanja character is added in brackets to disambiguate a hangul homonym. Korean also uses spaces between words so the number of ambiguous ways to read is reduced compared to Japanese written only in kana. That said, I find my limited Japanese easier to read than my limited Korean sometimes. –  hippietrail May 3 at 16:08
@hippietrail No, because you probably would not have a bean on your foot. In the case of a blister, its probable you would say where it is. –  user3169 May 3 at 18:37

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