If you're learning Japanese, what's your opinion of kanji? Answers may vary:
Once you've mastered enough kanji, reading a newspaper article, not to mention a novel, with no kanji at all is more difficult. Even a simple sentence like きっさてんでかすてらをたべた requires you to "sound it out" and parse it into words; where you might be able to read 喫茶店でカステラを食べた more easily.
Kanji is based on Chinese hanzi, the writing system the Japanese imported around the 5th century. Hiragana and katakana, both based on kanji characters, came later. This leads to a few "before" questions:
We'll take a brief, cursory look here. Some of the topics below are the subject of multiple college courses.
The "Japanese writing before kanji" question has a short answer: there was none. Japanese scholars first used hanzi to write in classical Chinese, then started to adapt the characters to express ideas in Japanese. Before that, the Japanese language was spoken only, as noted in some written Japanese documents from the 7th century.
Some researchers suggested the existence of pre-kanji script, known as 神代文字 (literally, "writing of the gods"). This theory is not accepted as credible.
The Japanese language has changed over the centuries, much like English and other languages. Grammar, vocabulary, and even the number of vowel sounds has changed. One big problem with many of the supposed 神代文字 artifacts is that, once transcribed, the result reads as modern Japanese. For this and other reasons, these examples have been exposed as forgeries.
From the 7th century, a system called kanbun (漢文訓読 or 訓読文) used annotations and marks (訓点) to show how writing in Chinese could be read in Japanese order. Initially, these marks, such as ㆖, ㆗, and ㆘, only indicated which characters needed to be switched or reversed; Japanese particles and inflections were not addressed. As many literate Japanese from the era were bilingual, Kanbun was an effective way of writing.
Let's take a toy example, letting modern Chinese stand in for classical Chinese:
I eat fish.
In grammatical Japanese (and emphasizing "I"), this would be:
I eat fish.
As a literate scholar in 7th-century Japan, bilingual in Japanese and Chinese by definition, you would know 我 is 私 (I), and 吃 is 食 (eat), and the subject-verb-object Chinese sentence differs from the topic-object-verb Japanese order. Then you would annotate the Chinese sentence with a "reverse" mark (レ) to show the reader the two characters should be reversed:
I, fish, eat.
I eat fish.
Kanbun literature is a lot more complex than this, and more than 10 different marks were employed to rearrange sentences. As kana were introduced, authors and editors added furigana and okurigana, making kanbun a little easier to decipher.
Kanbun continued into the 20th century, leaving a lot of literature requiring these skills to read. Knowledge of classical Japanese and classical Chinese is essential for older texts.
The Kanbun system used Chinese characters for their meaning; only annotations might give hints to pronunciation. The Manyougana system introduced kanji for sound as well, making it possible to write full Japanese using only kanji.
Manyougana is named after 万葉集, lit. 10,000 leaves collection, the oldest existing collection of classical Japanese poetry.
Imagine writing Japanese without hiragana or katakana, or even using kanji for meaning; instead, by using kanji for their 音読み. Here's a real single-word example from 万葉集 using 等利 for 鳥 (とり, bird):
等 (トウ) ⇒ と
利 (リ) ⇒ り
等利 ⇒ とり ⇒ 鳥
Not all manyougana was dead serious; some wordplay took place, such as 酢堅 for 姿 (figure), and even 山上復有山 (mountain on top of mountain) for 出. All of this adds a challenge to the modern manyougana reader.
Even without the wordplay, manyougana used kanji for sound as well as meaning; adding to the difficulty of distinguishing the two was the variety of phonetic kanji in use for the same sound. For "ma", writers might use 馬, which makes sense, or 万; or any of 9 other choices: 末 麻 摩 磨 満 前 真 間 鬼. Nearly 1,000 kanji were used for the 90 morae in standard Japanese. Sometimes a particular kanji was chosen for an appropriate meaning as well as sound.
Some manyougana survives today, in the traditional names for countries. France, for example, is フランス, but may also be written as 仏蘭西, 仏国, or even 仏 as an abbreviation. 仏 means Buddha; was France an especially Buddhist country in early history? No; but the 音読み of 仏蘭西 match France's katakana pronunciation. Chinese does a very similar thing, associating appropriate-sounding hanzi to spell out, for example, 馬来西亜 for Malaysia.
Hiragana and katakana originated as simplified forms of manyougana. Sometimes both scripts adapted the same character; such as the possessive marker 乃 leading to both の and ノ. They were not standardized right away; in 1900 the Education Ministry settled on the hiragana we know today, relegating the alternate forms to 変体仮名 ("variant kana") that many computer fonts do not support. (The katakana set had stabilized long ago, and did not require the standardization).
Hiragana supplements kanji as 振り仮名 (for pronunciation) and 送り仮名 (for inflection); as particles (の instead of 乃); for children's reading material; and for many common words where kanji exists but is rarely used. Below are some examples (with some kanji used elsewhere, but not usually for that word):
|有る||ある||to exist (animate)|
|居る||いる||to exist (inanimate)|
|彼||あれ||that over there|
|迄||まで||up to; ending at; through|