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Writing Japanese requires a mix of Kanji and Hiragana, usually some Katakana as well. I have read that some Kanji characters can be replaced with Hiragana characters for easier writing.

My question is: can all Kanji characters be replaced? Can I write Japanese only with Hiragana or only in Katakana and be fully understood?

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if you get a book for a japanese toddler, it is usually written in all hiragana. So mostly for that level of communication – yadokari Jun 5 '12 at 21:07
up vote 13 down vote accepted

Kanji can always be replaced with hiragana, for example

  • if the writer cannot recall the correct kanji, or
  • the intended reader is likely to have a limited knowledge of kanji (eg children), or
  • the kanji for the word is not in general use, or
  • pretty much any reason you want.

The use of katakana, however, is usually reserved for borrow words, emphasis and so on.

So writing using only hiragana is both valid and understandable, with the caveat that in many cases doing so will make your writing very awkward reading, and can introduce ambiguity into your writing, for example in the case of homophones (words that share the same pronunciation but generally different kanji).

Compare the following two ways of writing the same well-known sentence:

庭には二羽鶏がいる
にわにはにわにわとりがいる

I think all Japanese speakers would agree that the kanji version is much easier reading and much clearer than the hiragana-only version.

Writing using only katakana will be more awkward to read because it is not generally expected for Japanese words to be written in katakana, and for the same reason would probably be considered invalid, except in certain circumstances like to put emphases on pronunciation. If you did decide to write this way for some reason, however, it would be just as understandable as writing in only hiragana as the two characters sets have a one-to-one relationship.

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5  
「うらにわにはにわにわにはにわにわとりがいる」は?w – user1016 Jun 6 '12 at 0:28
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Haha, I'm also interested. I wonder if it might be 裏庭には庭、庭には二羽鶏がいる? Or, 裏庭には二羽、庭には二羽鶏がいる? – ジョン Jun 6 '12 at 2:20
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This answer to a different question by Tsuyoshi Ito is interesting and also relevant here. – ジョン Jun 6 '12 at 2:27
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@Chocolate: すもももももももものうち! – istrasci Jun 7 '12 at 2:47
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@istrascisan, Lol~ yes, so that's why we can't do without kanji, because writing just in hiragana or katakana can often be so ambiguous that it may cause confusions such as ゆで卵/茹でた孫/気が乗らん/飢餓の乱/去年から海外に住み始めました/去年から貝が胃に棲み始めました kanken.or.jp/henkan/4happyou.html#05round – user1016 Jun 7 '12 at 5:07

"The Tale of Genji", which is regarded as Japan's first novel, in all hiragana. Wikipedia mentions that modern day Japanese have difficulty understanding the book as sometimes there's two or more possible meanings for what's written, though.

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3  
Probably the bigger impediment to understanding is that it's written in Early Middle Japanese, and that it avoids directly mentioning characters. – Mechanical snail Jun 6 '12 at 4:22
    
Genji is in fact not the first novel and no one knows what style the original work is written in because the original source is missing. – user4092 Jun 11 '15 at 8:50
    
I think Tosa Nikki (土佐日記) is famous for being written (almost) only with hiragana. The author, Ki no Tsurayuki (紀貫之), pretended that he is female and wrote the text in hiragana because hiragana was used by women in those days. – norio Jul 23 at 2:50

As a minor addendum to other answers, there is another problem with writing in kana only: reading speed.

For someone who has knowledge of the relevant kanji, reading the kanji version isn't just a way around homophones and ambiguity, it is actually faster.

The reading speed difference gets bigger as your reader's level goes up and the more you stick to 'conventional' kanji assignments.

I am not a native speaker, nor anywhere near, but I notice my reading speed drop significantly in 'all kana' situations, probably by a factor of 2-5. That factor has continued to increase with my literacy level, so I imagine a native speaker would suffer quite a serious slow down.

This is consistent with some research that suggests fluent readers dont really read individual characters.. they recognize whole words or even phrases at a time based on visual components that are distinctive combined with contextual predictions. If you use an unconventional spelling, eg all kana or unusual kanji, you change the visual form and the reader is less likely to 'shortcut' recognition, perhaps causing a 'stumble' where they have to read more closely. (Intentionally causing such stumbles is a valid technique, and may partially explain why kana are sometimes used for emphasis)

Your readers will thank you if you make the effort to learn to write to the conventions they are used to.

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Yes, all Kanji characters can be replaced by hiragana, by katakana, and by a mixture of them. However, as other answers show, two sentences with Kanji may map to the same single sequence of hiragana or of katanaka. Such a sequence is understandable, but may be understood as multiple meanings.

For example, in old days (probably around early 20th century), Japanese telegraphy messages were all written only with katakana, as far as I know from movies. Even more, it seems to have been customary to omit the dots and circles (゛,゜) and commas and periods (、,。) to save the number of characters. A famous message is

ハハキトクスクカエレ

which may be written with Kanji as

母危篤。すぐ帰れ。

which means "Your mother is dying. Come home in a hurry." I think people did understand this kind of katakana-only messages. For more examples, please see 電報 Wikipedia.

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