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Is it possible to write Japanese in pure Kanji?

I think I have seen in one TV news show in Osaka that they are showing snippets of newspaper written in all Kanji.

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Is it possible to write Japanese in pure Kanji?

Yes.

This is mostly historical, however, such as the Man'yōshū poetry collection dating to roughly 759. The University of Virginia has published this online in all-kanji Old Japanese, as well as modernized orthography (spelling), and kana-only for clarification of the sound values.

As others have noted, modern Japanese makes extensive use of kana as a required element to specify particles, the inflected endings of verbs and adjectives, and other elements of the language.

... snippets of newspaper written in all Kanji

Newspapers are a special context. Space is a premium, so shorter forms are preferred, especially in headlines and captions. This kind of "headline-ese" is a weird version of Japanese, leaving out most particles and inflections. Grammatically, most headlines are parseable as noun stacks.

In a brief search, I couldn't find any headlines that were only in kanji, but the following examples come close.

If you think about it, "headline-ese" is weird in any language: English newspapers use a similar kind of special grammar for headlines to tighten things up. Examples:

That said, if you saw whole newspaper articles written without kana, then no, that would have been Chinese, not Japanese.

  • 1
    Some prominent public signage may be written in all-kanji, e.g. this. – dROOOze Sep 28 '18 at 8:17
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    Yes, good point -- much signage can also be viewed as a similar application of "headline-ese", deliberately shortened text in contexts where space is at a premium. – Eiríkr Útlendi Sep 28 '18 at 16:40
  • @EiríkrÚtlendi, how did the all-Kanji Old Japanese manage without the 'particles', inflected endings of verbs and adjectives and etc.?????? – G Flores Oct 21 '18 at 5:25
  • @GeorgePaoloFlores: There were two approaches. One was to write in a kind of Classical Chinese, even using Chinese-ish grammar, and to just read it out in a kind of Japanese translation. This was called 漢文【かんぶん】訓読【くんどく】 (kanbun kundoku), literally "Chinese writing, meaning [i.e., Japanese] reading". See more at Wikipedia. In this case, the particles, inflected endings, and other Japanese parts of grammar were not written, and were only implied. – Eiríkr Útlendi Oct 21 '18 at 6:34
  • @GeorgePaoloFlores: The other approach was to use kanji for their phonetic values, called 万葉【まんよう】仮名【がな】 (Man'yōgana). This is where we start to see Japanese written down as Japanese, complete with particles and verb inflections, the whole shebang. That said, this kind of writing often mixed usage of kanji for meaning, with usage of kanji for their sound alone. It is quite confusing, and it's hard to read. Over time, the cursive forms of the kanji used for man'yōgana evolved into hiragana. Read more at Wikipedia. – Eiríkr Útlendi Oct 21 '18 at 6:37
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Kanji in Japanese is ideographic, meaning that each character has a set meaning. As such, it is possible to string several together to get larger words with greater nuance.... This Stack Exchange talks about long Japanese words:

What is the longest word in Japanese?

Notice, however, in one of the examples on that page, that the long English word "antidisestablishmentarianism" cannot simply be rendered with kanji, in Japanese (英国国教会の廃止に反対する主義). This is because the Japanese explanation of the concept includes a possession marker, a preposition and a verb, all of which involve the use of hiragana.

The Japanese language needs these hiragana portions to represent verb conjugations, and to denote movement/placement/relationship, etc... So if you saw a string of PURE kanji, it is likely to be a singular name or idea, not a fully formed sentence or a complete thought.

Chinese, on the other hand, IS written completely with hanzi (the Chinese version of kanji), so it is possible you saw a clip from a Chinese newspaper being discussed on a Japanese show.

  • Yes but I was wondering how the ancient Japanese used Kanji before inventing Hirigana and Katakana and after they immediately 'received' the Kanji from the Hanzi people. Or did they added Hirigana and Katakana immediately after 'receiving' the Kanji from the Hanzi people? – G Flores Sep 26 '18 at 9:28
  • Unfortunately I don't know much about the history. I think kanji was adopted by Japanese Buddhist monks, or rather, spread to Japan by Chinese Buddist monks... Hiragana and katakana began to take form as short-form (calligraphic) kanji, and later were simplified and adapted to represent sounds... I think the sounds they came to represent had some connection to the Japanese word represented by the original kanji... But as I say, I'm not up on my history... shouldn't be too hard to websearch though.... – ericfromabeno Sep 26 '18 at 9:36
  • @GeorgePaoloFlores see my answer for an example of how kanji were used as particles – kandyman Sep 27 '18 at 14:22
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It is not possible to write standard Modern Japanese in kanji only.

When kanji were first borrowed from Chinese, different reading systems were used experimentally, including a system in which only kanji were used. However, this created difficulties for readers, especially when trying to represent verbal inflexions and grammatical particles. For example, the particle には used to be written as 庭 (niwa), but such a usage requires the reader to understand that in this case the kanji character is to be used only phonetically and not for its meaning. Ultimately, this and other attempts proved too cumbersome and the issue was only resolved with the development of kana. From then onwards, the so called 'mixed writing' was adopted and has become standard.

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If you saw that the newspaper had only Chinese characters (specifically, no hiragana or katakana), you are likely looking at a Chinese newspaper. Modern Japanese has used hiragana in the newspaper for at least 70 years (likely longer).

This wikipedia page gives an (extremely) brief history of hiragana, but it appears to have been around since AD 500. Hiragana wasn't officially formalized into the system until much after the 500's, but you may be hard pressed to find a date.

The fact that the hiragana system was reformed in 1900* suggests to me that its appearance in newspapers could date until 1900, if not earlier. The appearance of a standard Kanji list in 1946 (Tōyō kanji) indicates to me that use of hiragana in newspapers was at least formalized at around the same time.

*The wikipedia article on script reform may be more what you are looking for in terms of information. I highly suggest you give it a look.

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