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I'm a beginner.

People argue for Kanji being that it helps disambiguate homophones in written Japanese, but in spoken Japanese, kanji (or any other visual aid) are not available, yet people seem to know the difference between [話]{はな}す, [離]{はな}す, [放]{はな}す, [映]{は}える, 生{は}える, and so forth. So why are Kanji necessary to disambiguate homophones if people know how to disambiguate them in spoken Japanese where Kanji aren't available? And can the same thing be applied to written Japanese?

In that case, why can't I write 私は学生です as わたしはがくせいです or use spaces like わたし_は_がくせい_です ? Or use pitch accent markers in writing like [わたしはがくせいです]{LHHLHLHLHL} (I don't know if this pitch accent notation is correct), or add furigana above particle markers to indicate their pronunciation (like [は]{わ} and [を]{お}), or a combination of these? In short, why are Kanji necessary?

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    +1 to counter downvote. Although this question seem to assume that the only reason for using Kanji is to disambiguate homophones, which I'm not sure to be a correct assumption, this is a well written question and I don't really see a problem with it. Unless it is a duplicate, perhaps. The asker showed to have a minimum knowledge and presented a few arguments to explain his thoughts, so I don't think this question deserved an unexplained downvote. – Pedro A Jul 26 '17 at 3:42
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    Also, related question on Linguistics.SE: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/3831 – Pedro A Jul 26 '17 at 3:46
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    Kanji are not available in spoken Japanese? That's news to me! 「○○そう」「そう?」「あの、地層のそう」 etc. etc. You hear such exchanges numerous times a day. – macraf Jul 26 '17 at 4:38
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    I would think that in technical document, scientific papers, and academic papers, kanji can clarify meaning in a way that could possibly be completely obscured if it were written in just kana. – A.Ellett Jul 26 '17 at 4:50
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    The idea has actually been discussed since the 19th century. 漢字廃止論 (Kanji-haishi-ron) is the related term, although I'm not sure if reliable sources are available in English. – Yosh Jul 26 '17 at 5:42
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Kanji aren't necessary to write Japanese

Your rationale is correct; Japanese is a living, spoken language; people are able to understand each other by sound only, therefore a writing system based on sound has to be sufficient.

Some commentators have mentioned that Japanese speakers often allude to kanji when talking. That's true enough (and it probably reflects something deep about how the mental lexicon is organized¹); but explicit references to kanji remain a minor cultural fact, not a necessary feature of the language. There exists blind people in Japan, for example; the congenitally blind will never have seen a single kanji, and they're nonetheless fluent Japanese speakers. As a Brazilian, I've personally met several Japanese-Brazilians who learned the language from birth, but who never learned the writing system; they could interact with native Japanese people just fine (who'd often be surprised to learn they were born in Brazil), and I'll go ahead and assert they're native speakers, too. One does not have to know kanji to be a Japanese speaker.

We also have several types of sound-based, Japanese text works, so we know it can be done. @Kurausukun's example of children-oriented videogames (and children's books, etc.) is a good point. Other examples would include historical kana literature of the Heian period; Ishikawa Takuboku's Rômazi Nikki (written in Latin characters to prevent his wife from reading it – but easily readable by any Japanese speaker nowadays); and publications by associations like the various Rômazi-kai or Kana-moji-kai.

Pitch accent isn't necessary to understand Japanese either

@Kurausukun and others have mentioned the common argument that pitch accent is necessary for sound-based understanding. It's true that standard Tokyo Japanese distinguishes many words by accent alone (like the famous three-way distinction between HÁshì-gà = "the chopsticks"; hàSHÍ-gà = "the bridge"; hàSHÍ-GÁ = "the edge"). And true, it's a damn shame that they aren't usually marked in writing; accented rōmaji is, in my opinion, a severely underrated tool for beginning foreign students, and I wish it was the norm.

One has to keep in mind, however, that the "homogeneity" of Japanese is a myth. The country has a large number of distinct dialects, and pitch accent in particular varies a lot between them (I'm doing research on accent, and I'd say the amount of variation from the same speaker is already significant…). Some areas, including e.g. most of Fukushima or Miyazaki, feature no pitch accent at all (無型アクセント). Given that people from these areas can understand each other, and that in general a Tokyoite can understand an Osaka comedian without much trouble despite their accents being unpredictably different, it has to be the case that pitch accent in writing isn't essential.

This should come as no surprise, since language is notoriously resilient. Tone in Chinese is responsible for a lot more important distinctions than accent in Japanese, and yet Chinese people can read pīnyīn (Chinese romaji) without tone marks, and often don't bother writing them. Vowels are certainly an important part of the English language, but yuu cuuld wrutu wuthuut vuwul dustunctuns und stull bu undurstuud must uf thu tumu.

Written Japanese is different than spoken Japanese

That being said, there are still some reasons why Japanese people feel so strongly that kanji are important.

The first of them is that the vocabulary of written Japanese isn't the same as the spoken language. To understand this, you have to switch your point of view inside out. It's not that Japanese has so many homophones that it needs kanji to be written. This is exactly backwards; what happens is that kanji allows one to write with lots of homophones, and therefore Japanese writing (and only writing) can use more homophones than normal. The same is true of Literary Chinese, the (artificial, written) language for which kanji were designed.² Chinese, too, is a spoken language (actually a large family of spoken languages), and as such is perfectly understandable by sound alone. However, the Literary version was a kind of super-condensed Chinese that relied on the characters as support. Reading Literary Chinese aloud wouldn't always result in something intelligible (unlike natural, spoken Chinese).

A big source of those Japanese homophones are precisely loanwords from that homophone-heavy Literary Chinese; these Chinese-style words are called kango in Japan. Typical spoken Japanese has about 23% of kango; typical written Japanese has some 41%—almost double as much.³ The more formal, intellectual or specialized the language, the more it tends to use kango.

Due to this difference, if you just blindly convert a text made for kanji into kana or rōmaji, the result often feels clunky and hard to read. The proper thing to do would be to replace kango vocabulary, bringing the written language closer to speech; this is called iikae by Japanese researchers.⁴ If the text is written without using kanji from the outset, the writer will instinctively choose adequate vocabulary, and iikae isn't necessary.

Kanji can be cool

Finally, I think it's important to keep in mind that, just because kanji are not necessary, it doesn't mean they don't add something. Reading kanji text feels different, and there are neurolinguistic reasons for that.⁵ And this means that the use of kanji has æsthetic, cultural, and subjective value.

Through their entire history, the tendency of the Japanese as a culture was never to try and make their writing simple and utilitarian, but rather to experiment, play, innovate with it. They could just have used kana or bonji phonetic characters for everything since a thousand years ago – indeed Heian kana literature was an experiment with this – but opted instead to keep using kanji, and not only that, but to assign multiple readings to them, and mix them with kana in many ways. The resulting system has always been explored creatively, to create many effects; not just in fancy works like the Man'yōshū (almost a puzzle-set of script play), but also in popular things like Edo-era folk literature or modern-day visual culture.

When Natsume Sōseki writes tonikaku as 兎に角, or yakamashii as 八釜しい, for example, he's making a kind of game with the reader, sharing a sort of intimacy with them. When Anzai Fuyue writes a poem about a butterfly like this—

てふてふが一匹韃靼海峡を渡って行った
A butterfly is travessing the Strait of Tartar and—gone.

—he's using the cognitive weight of kanji characters to cause an effect similar to what Western poets usually do with consonants and obstruents. Natsuhiko Kyōgoku, a writer of detective fiction, relies heavily on archaic kanji and unusual furigana for atmosphere; he'd lose a lot if merely converted to kana. All sorts of linguistic and æsthetic effects can be created with the inventive interplay of kanji and kana and furigana…

No Game no Life "kuuhaku" Tokyo Tabearu-ki enter image description here enter image description here

enter image description here enter image description here

…and this sort of thing is extremely common. It doesn't occur just in elevated poems and classical literature, but happens right now in the most popular of forms: in manga, in videogames, in advertisements, in song lyrics, in baby naming… So I'd claim that the Japanese have a living, thriving culture of kanji, and I find it perfectly reasonable that they consistently reject the idea of killing it.

References:

  1. Terry Joyce, Modeling the Japanese Mental Lexicon (& further research).
  2. Victor Mair, Buddhism and the rise of the written vernacular in East Asia.
  3. Miyaji and Kai. 「日本語学」特集テーマ別ファイル 語彙3:語種論/和語。
  4. Sachiko Matsunaga. The linguistic and psycholinguistic nature of kanji.
  5. Zev Handel. Logography and the classification of writing systems: a response to Unger.
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    I'd had that kanjis can hold a nuance that may not be obvious when speaking. More specifically, there are homophones that look like they are the same word but aren't. For instance, 探【さが】すand 捜【さが】す both mean "to look for", but the former is used when looking for something that has not been discovered yet, while the latter bears the meaning of something lost (correct me if I'm wrong though). The same goes with 見【み】る/診【み】る/視【み】る/観【み】る, which all mean something related to sight. In a nutshell: kanjis are cool. – Right leg Jul 26 '17 at 9:09
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    The Americans observed that in POW camps, when they gave German newspapers to Germans, one of them would read for the others, while the Japanese would distribute the paper, everyone reading for themselves. – Simon Richter Jul 26 '17 at 14:56
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    This is a great answer! I think one detail that could be added though is kanji's enhanced ability to expand vocabulary. If someone had a native or sufficiently thorough background in kanji, seeing a new word written in kanji can quickly help them to ascertain its meaning. I've often compared it to how learning Greek and Latin roots will help one understand difficult vocabulary in English. – BlackThorn Jul 26 '17 at 16:35
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    I have to say, the use of the underrated æ for aesthetic is especially on point for this answer. – Williham Totland Jul 26 '17 at 20:02
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    One thing I think you overlooked: spoken Japanese is usually spoken in dialogue, where you have plenty of context and can ask for clarification if needed. In some situations where you might not hear perfectly and can't ask for clarification, such as TV shows, there are often "subtitles" of a sort that include kanji. So it's not even necessarily true that Japanese speakers can understand each other "perfectly fine" without kanji, just well enough. Kanji are an aid, as well as supporting/enabling the nuances in written text as you pointed out. – SirTechSpec Jul 26 '17 at 22:43
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This is definitely a bit harder for native English speakers to pick up on at first, but sometimes homophones in Japanese are distinguishable by the pitch accent. So some of them aren't an issue at all. But of course some words do sound exactly the same. So how do you tell those apart? Easy: context.

Kanji aren't "necessary" to distinguish between homophones; they just help a bit in written text where you don't have pitch accent to help you. In reality, you don't technically need kanji at all. If you wrote a long essay in nothing but kana, everyone would be able to read it, albeit a bit slower. Since traditionally-written Japanese has no spaces, sometimes it can take a bit of closer reading to figure out when one word starts and another stops; but even to learners and especially to native speakers, this isn't too hard. In fact, it's not even unique to Japanese; back in the day, classical Latin and ancient Greek were also written without any spaces between words, and they managed just fine.

You mentioned using spaces as well; this is also something Japanese writers will do if they are writing in all kana. For example, all of the Pokemon games are written in nothing but kana because they knew lots of young kids would be playing it (though newer games do have an option to use kanji instead). In these games, words are actually separated by spaces, like you would see in Western writing. Note that in this case, particles like は and を, etc., are attached to the word they are modifying, not treated as a separate word or anything. Also, I'm not really sure why people would write わ as furigana over は when literally everyone knows that's how to read it. Additionally, を isn't always identical to お; there are still times when the pronunciations are distinct.

EDIT: Just to show what I'm talking about, here's Professor Oak asking if you're a boy or a girl.

enter image description here

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    I guess that is readable. But here's another question: Can you always rely on context to know what people are talking about? I get that you can figure out that おとこのこ would be 男の子, おんなのこ would be 女の子, and きみは would be 君は, but can you always rely on context to figure stuff out? Hmm, maybe I'm starting to like the idea of Kanji more. – Matcha Jul 26 '17 at 5:04
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    English has homophones too, not as many as Japanese, sure, but we never have any problems distinguishing. I think probably you only think it would be hard to tell because you're only beginning. Once you start reading more, you'll see that almost always, there's only one parse of a sentence that actually makes sense. – Kurausukun Jul 26 '17 at 5:21
  • +1, except for this part: "Additionally, を isn't always identical to お; there are still times when the pronunciations are distinct." – snailcar Jul 26 '17 at 5:32
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    @snailplane Could you explain better why did you say this, please? – Macabeus Jul 26 '17 at 7:32
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    @Macabeus The merger of を and お was completed around a thousand years ago, so it's not really accurate to say it's "still" distinguished. Rather, the [w] does appears sometimes, but it's a modern phenomenon. It appears as a spelling pronunciation, as a deliberate choice in singing, etc., but it doesn't seem like a phonemic distinction. (I once read speculation that typing with romaji input has led to a resurgence in the pronunciation! Who knows if that's true, though . . . ) Note that [w] is sometimes inserted before お as well as を in singing. – snailcar Jul 26 '17 at 11:27
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Thinking briefly, I think that there is no problem even if we have no kanji in Japanese to disambiguate homophones or homonyms as OP thinks , but in fact we need kanji.

In conversation, not in writing, it is quite natural that people in the conversation hope the conversation goes smoothly. Therefore, we usually avoid using words that might cause ambiguities to listeners like homonyms. Also, just after a homonym we used, we often complement the ambiguity with another word or expression similar to the homonym. In addition, when a listener wonders in what meaning of multiple meanings of a homonym, the listener would ask unknown points to the other party. Furthermore, when speaking, if we think that the partner in the conversaion has misunderstood the homonym we used, we will try to resolve the misunderstanding soon with another expression.

In this way, there are many advantageous conditions in conversation different from writing, so homonyms can be used without kanji even in conversation.

As the conclusion, therefore, it is not possible to discuss whether kanji is necessary or not for homonyms because conversation and writing are not used under the same condition.

  • I was thinking along this line too, but I had trouble resolving it with the idea of speeches. If you are giving a speech to hundreds of people, your opportunities to disambiguate and your opportunities to avoid ambiguities would seem to be roughly the same as they would be if you printed the words and had the hundreds of people read it. – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Jul 26 '17 at 6:13
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    @CortAmmon: Regarding homonyms, I think that it is most difficult to talk in front of a large number of people when you compare the three of (1) speaking in front of a large audience, (2) talking in conversation, and (3) writing. In general, however, I think that we could have enough time to prepare to talk in front of a large number of people. In talking, the problem to convey homonyms with the intended meaning, is the same condition for any language having homonyms not only as Japanese and English. It is a good occasion where the skill of the speaker is demonstrated. – mackygoo Jul 26 '17 at 7:54
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Stop signs could also be just the word "STOP" written on a white rectangular sign, but would you argue the necessity of using a RED octagon? Probably, not, because human brains recognize shapes faster than words that we have to read to our selves and then get the meaning. Native English speakers can skim thuorgh lines of text beaucse they are able to recgnoize words by their gerneal shapes.

However in Japanese language that does not have spaces, they need other forms of grouping characters that only represent a certain sound, into something with a context. Conveniently, there is a language that has been doing that for quite a long time, hence Chinese. So Japanese borrowed some characters that have similar meaning or pronunciation and assigned the Hiragana to them (hey at least that's what I think happened, THIS IS NOT A FACT, CHINESE/JAPANESE DON'T KILL ME)

Personally, as a Chinese that studied Japanese, I find myself reading at least 5 times slower if I'm reading texts for "beginners" or "kids", because I would have to read the Hiragana in my head and then recognize the context by the sound (PS: not related but Romaji are the worst, I have to translate to Japanese then do the things). While with Kanji I can skim though the general "shape" of the character and know the meaning, just like knowing red light means stop.

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Most everyone's answers are correct, but I wanted to bring up one useful aspect of kanji which I don't think has been brought up. It may be limited to learners like me, but many times when I encounter new words in kanji (in manga, online, paper forms at the doctor's office, etc...) I've found that I can understand what is being conveyed even without knowing how to pronounce that word because I know what the kanji mean.

In a recent example, a native Japanese friend was helping me with understanding a dentist form, and didn't know the English phrase "receding gum line." I had no idea what the word for "gums" even was in Japanese, but I saw 歯肉 ("tooth" and "meat" or "flesh"), and I immediately could understand that we were talking about gums, which helped us figure it out.

If this had all been written in kana, and I didn't know what しにく meant already -- or if I were speaking to someone over the phone and only heard the word -- it would have taken more time and more explanation, and possibly a dictionary.

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