I often see words in sentences written in カタカナ or 漢字 that could be swapped for a common word of the other form. I am aware that there are lots of カタカナ words that do have a 漢字 form, but where the 漢字 form is not commonly used.

I was looking up how to translate the word "tattoo" and found that both 「タトゥー」 and 「入れ墨・刺青」seem to be used interchangeably.「タトゥーといっても本当に刺青ではなく、簡単に貼って落とせる水転写シールです。」 I'm sure there are better examples then my tattoo one, but you get the idea.

Is there a rule/method for deciding which form to use? Maybe level of politeness/familiarity with the other person, or medium of communication would lead to the decision?

(I found both What determines whether a word gets a kanji compound or katakana? and When writing for general public, is there a general guideline for selecting kanji? questions very informative, but I don't feel they addresses this facet of the kanji/katakana choice relationship)

  • One should distinguish between カタカナ words, which have a 漢字 version with the same reading, or カタカナ words, which have a Japanese/Chinese-derived word, which explains the same concept. From your example, I guess you are interested in the latter...? – Earthliŋ Feb 21 '13 at 20:32
  • @user1205935 - Yes, I am interested in cases where the reading is different. I feel that when readings are the same is covered by the second question I linked at the bottom of mine. – Peter Feb 21 '13 at 21:49
  • いれずみ is not a kanji form of the word タトゥー. It is a different word. This is true regardless of whether you write it in kana or kanji. – snailplane Feb 22 '13 at 1:12
  • @snailplane - Yes, user1205935 explained the difference between them in his answer. My confusion in this particular case arose from the sentence I was reading. user1205935 did provide a number of other examples though where the meaning is very similar, though the connotation may be different. – Peter Feb 22 '13 at 1:19
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    @Peter I just want to make sure this is clear: two different words don't become the same word even if they have identical meaning. They remain separate words. What you appear to be asking is: "If I can express something with two different words, and if one of these words is usually written in kanji while the other is usually written in katakana, can I pick which word to use based on how it's written?" – snailplane Feb 22 '13 at 1:57

I don't think there is a method to decide.

For the case you mention, タトゥー is probably more thought of as Western tattoo, whereas 刺青 is the Japanese counterpart, more likely to be associated with the Japanese culture of tattoos (see Wikipedia), including associations to criminality, or tradition, as the case may be.

There is レッスン vs. 授業, ウォーキング vs. 散歩, ad infinitum. All these word pairs are not pairs of pure synonyms. Both parts of such a word pair continue to coexist, because they convey something different. In broad terms, the カタカナ words have an air of modernism and the 漢字 words sound more traditional, but being fond of tradition in Japan doesn't make the Japanese/Chinese-derived word more appropriate. I think many beginners (including myself) prefer to use 漢字 for words which are better written in かな, or even have a more appropriate 外来語 counterpart.

Talking to elderly people, some of the newer カタカナ words (like タトゥー) may not be as easily understood, so then the Japanese/Chinese-derived words would be the better choice. But in general it really does depend on the word you are thinking of.

An almost unrelated phenomenon is that plants and animals are often written in カタカナ (e.g. カマキリ vs. 蟷螂). Here, the word is the same and the choice of カタカナ vs. 漢字 is only a matter of taste or context, not a matter of meaning. As for カマキリ, sometimes these words are 義訓 readings, i.e. the choice of 漢字 is not related to the reading. Recently, we had サルスベリ vs. 百日紅. Sometimes the reading is just the 訓読み of the 漢字 for the plant or animal, but still, especially in a scientific context, the word is written in カタカナ, e.g. シラカバ for 白樺 "Japanese white birch".

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    Two points related to the last paragraph: (1) I do not think that it is correct to say that most kanji words for plants and animals are 義訓 readings. There are many such words, but there are also many words which are just usual kun readings: 鶏 vs ニワトリ, 桜 vs サクラ, and so on. (2) 麒麟 has another meaning (Qilin) which is usually not written as キリン. See this question and the answer therein (shameless plug). – Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 22 '13 at 0:06
  • @TsuyoshiIto Thanks for your comment. For (1) I said often, which is less often than most, but I'll change my wording anyway. For (2) I guess it is a coincidence that キリン and 麒麟 refer to different creatures, although they doubtlessly share the same etymology. – Earthliŋ Feb 22 '13 at 0:59

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