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I was reading upon Japanese writing system history and found out there were several attempts to abolish the use of 漢字 in favor of kana or romaji, e.g. after the WWII. All of those failed, and the only big thing which happened to Japanese writing system since the adoption of Han characters is the invention of kana. However, I couldn't find information about any attempts to construct alternative writing systems, analogous to Hangul in the Korean language.

The main problem with kana/romaji approach is homophonic 漢字 and words. I can see why this could prevent the adoption of kana/romaji-only writing with additional spaces b/w words: it may be enough for video games but is problematic for news, scientific, and legal documents.

The other thing which strikes me is that hiragana and katakana do not exactly match the phonetic structure of the language. For example, the word 漢字 consists of 2 syllables "kan+ji", but in kana, it is written as "かんじ", which is 3 moras. In Hangul, each symbol encodes exactly one syllable, which seems to the language phonetic system much better. This makes me think that Japanese can be encoded in a similar way. This may be just my personal quirk, but I feel like many 音読み kanji should have been a single kana character, e.g. "かん", "ほん", etc. (However, I do understand why it is not so, so don't bother explaining this.)

All this makes me wonder if the invention of kana was the one and only attempt to address the problems related to the use of 漢字. Are there any academic/historic attempts to invent something akin to Hangul for the Japanese language? If there are, how do they address the homophony problem?

Related question on linguistics.SE: Why was Korea able to remove kanji but Japan wasn't when both languages use homophones?


To clarify: I'm not saying or implying that 漢字 is a bad thing which should be replaced. I'm just curious if there were any "creative" attempts of doing that since obviously there are supporters of such ideas even among Japanese people.

Also, I'm not saying that Korea did a better job (compared to Japan) by introducing Hangul, either. Hangul is used as an example only. No comparison intended aside from purely scientific.

  • I doubt just kana is enough for video games. All-kana games are something of the past, because memory limits are no longer a problem. Some games today have enough text to fill a good-sized novel, and god forbid I'd have to read that in all hiragana! – Jimmy Jul 15 '17 at 22:58
  • I mean "enough" as in "enough to work when you cannot use kanji", not as in "it proves that kanji is excessive." – scriptin Jul 15 '17 at 23:00
  • I think Japanese people doesn't have intent to stop usage of kanji completely, neither I heard such attempt like that. Kana symbols primarily created as phonetic lettering but not received well at the the time they're invented. I doubt kana symbols are invented to replace all existing kanji, as current kana derives from man'yōgana practice started from 5th or 6th century. – Tetsuya Yamamoto Jul 15 '17 at 23:09
  • In that sense, I feel like all-kana is "sufficient" for any purpose. From there, it's more a matter of readability, user-friendliness and precise documentation. I'll stop here, since I'm not really addressing your question at hand (I'm clueless about that part). – Jimmy Jul 15 '17 at 23:15
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    @scriptin Sorry about "holy wars". That's why I immediately posted my second comment to try to make clear I didn't want to deligitimatize your question. But I do appreciate you're taking the time to address my four points. Thank you. – A.Ellett Jul 16 '17 at 0:16
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You said "hiragana and katakana do not exactly match the phonetic structure of the language," but that's not true. The Japanese language is mora-based, and only trained people who study foreign languages recognize the concept of syllable. Everyone believes 天文台 (てんもんだい) has six "sounds" here in Japan, not three. And that's why it's straightforwardly six characters in kana.

Kanji were only "borrowed" from China. The Chinese language is syllable-based (correct me if I'm wrong), but ever since kanji came into use in Japan, Japanese people have understood their readings with the Japanese mora-based brains. There is no wonder old Japanese people used two characters to describe an on-reading of 石 (せき), 活 (かつ), etc; they simply felt there were two "sounds".

Even if you created different phonetic characters for different possible on-readings (a few hundred different characters would be required), you still cannot write many native Japanese words like さむらい, よろこぶ, わたくし, やまたのおろち, etc, with fewer characters. And daily conversations are largely based on such native Japanese words.

Hentaigana were abandoned, but the number of hiragana/katakana currently in use is small enough to remember, and I'm not aware of previous serious attempts to reorganize them (aside from ローマ字).

  • Do monolingual Japanese people recognize that, for example, か consists of [k] and [a] sounds? Since there is an あ, and also because kana tables are organized in rows based on the starting consonant sounds, I would think that it is apparent that there are two sounds in this particular mora. – scriptin Jul 16 '17 at 8:11
  • @scriptin Yes, by the time children learn ローマ字 in fourth grade, they know what a consonant/vowel is. But they are usually not aware they are using consonants irregularly in some lines. – naruto Jul 16 '17 at 9:56
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There's no point in creating syllabic alphabets because Japanese phonology consists of mora, instead of syllable. That's why you use moraic alphabets, that is, kana.

Through centuries, some nationalists have insisted abolishing kanji and failed, as you say. The reason I think is not homophones but inconvenience for loosing productiveness for technical terms or variety of expression.

We want to educate our medics or engineers with our own language. I don't understand why we have to bear inconvenience of expressing shogi notation without kanji, for example.

  • "Japanese phonology consists of mora, instead of syllable. That's why you use moraic alphabets, that is, kana." Is there historical evidence for the direction of causation? Were kana created based on morae because the pronunciation is, or was the pronunciation modified by the introduction of kana? (Of course historical evidence this old may be hard to come by.) – Mathieu Bouville Jan 26 at 8:24

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