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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
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2 Answers

up vote 6 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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「うらにわにはにわにわにはにわにわとりがいる」は?w –  Chocolate Jun 6 '12 at 0:28
    
@Chocolate Haven't heard that one before. What does it render to in a kanji/hiragana mix? –  dainichi Jun 6 '12 at 2:18
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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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"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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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
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