Friday, December 29, 2017

Katakana Looks Cool, Kanji: Serious, Hiragana: Chummy

Because of how Japanese works, some words can be written with any of the Japanese alphabets: they can be written with kanji, without kanji, with hiragana, or with katakana. And sometimes the reason why they're written with one instead of the other is a purely aesthetic choice.

This doesn't happen on whim, though. We're talking design here. Srsbsns. One script naturally looks different from the other. In a word:
Hiragana vs. katakana vs. kanji aesthetics and style. Comparing them to Kemono Friends, Ninja Slayer and Aoi Bungaku respectively.

Katakana Looks Cool

The reason why katakana looks cool, aesthetically speaking, isn't just one, but multiple.

Edgy Katakana Folded 1000 Times

To begin with, katakana is edgy. I mean, literally. Literally edgy. The kana of the katakana alphabet all have sharp corner when compared to the smoother-curved hiragana.

For example: か vs. カ, or き vs, キ

So right from the start it has this modern, slightly futuristic-looking type. In English we'd need to look up some cool font on the internet to achieve this effect on the Latin alphabet, but in Japanese that design is just a whole alphabet. Weird, but true.

I Was Made to Hit in Amerikatakana

Second, katakana is often used to write western loan-words, the gairaigo 外来語. I want to repeat this: western loan-words. The kind of loan word that got more common as globalization went on.

When they're brought into Japanese, English words get katakanized, foreign names, be it of brand, product, or person, and so on. So there's a strong association between katakana and fads brought into Japan from foreign countries.

It's like, nobody would eat raw fish if someone told you it was just raw fish. Would someone order "raw fish" if "raw fish" were on the menu? Probably not. But give it a fancy foreign name like "sushi." Then everyone wants it. Give it a french name, then, and you're rich.

With katakana, however, it's not just being foreign. It also denotes being modern. Because, before globalization, was the past. And the past, without globalization, had fewer katakana words. Therefore, more katakana words means that more globalization has happened and therefore implies it's more modern.

Why Are All Programming Languages in English?!

An extra-effect of this is that katakana is also strongly associated with computers and technology. Futurism. Internet. Cyber stuff. Etc. This happens pretty much every computer word comes from English, and they've been all katakanized for Japanese.

For example, most computer-ish words are written with katakana. A "blog" is a burogu ブログ, a forum "thread" is abbreviated as sure スレ, a "personal computer" is a pasokon パソコン, and the "internet" is the netto ネット.

Brand New Modern Names

Be it for one reason or another, a lot of products, magazines, etc. will include a katakana word, an English word, even it makes absolutely no sense or it's gibberish, just to look, you know, cooler.

Notorious example: shounen jampu 少年ジャンプ, the famous shounen manga publication that has "jump" in its name for some reason. Why jump? Does that make sense to you? "Boy jump"? "Boyish jump"? "Underage jump"? "Few years jump"?

There's no way to interpret this that makes sense. Someone was trying to make a cool name and chose a cool word for it, and it was a katakana word. It's like calling something "Google." What the fuck does "Google" even mean? It's just a word someone thought sounded cool.

Hiragana Looks Chummy

Next we have hiragana. It looks, for a lack of a better word, chummy. But since this is a section of the article and not just a bullet point or headline, I think it deserves a description longer than a single word.

Basically, hiragana looks familiar. Friendly. Innocent. Childish. Childlike. Buddy-buddy. (let me look some more synonyms...) uh... "unpretentious." Anyway, it doesn't look intimidating, it looks bright, happy, and young.

A Bunch of Kanji Illiterates

The biggest reason for this is that children can't read kanji. I mean, young children can't read kanji. They'll mistake the word akeguchi あけ口 with akero あけロ and stuff. So, obviously, a complete and total lack of kanji is preferred by such children.

Because of this, one can associate the usage of hiragana with children. It's like, kanji is the teen and adult version, and hiragana is the child version. Imagine something like that.

Consequently, in manga, for example, the dialogue of a child character may have more hiragana than other, non-child characters. With this stylistic choice the author would be implying that the character speaks like a child, because they're a child.

Yotsuba no habla kanji. A sample from manga Yotsubato! where Yotsuba speaks in hiragana instead of kanji

The lack of kanji implies that the child hasn't firmly associated the word to its meaning, (kanji have meanings, so a lack of kanji denotes a lack of meaning), and is instead simply pronouncing the word phonetically, syllable by syllable, kana by kana. That is, the character doesn't have full grasp on the vocabulary and is just repeating the words they've heard before.

Furthermore, a child character that speaks in hiragana too much gives the impression they can only use basic words (because such words are frequently written with hiragana) and can't use complex words (kanji are more complex than kana, so a lack of kanji implies a lack of complexity).

On the other side, this kind of usage of hiragana may be creepy in some instances. For example, if the dialogue of a very ugly, very evil monster is written like this, you'd understand the monster talks like a child, which can be a really terrible thought.

Warm, Fuzzy Hiragana Feelings

Following the association of hiragana with children, comes the association of hiragana with something that's familiar and light-hearted.

This is specially true in titles of manga and anime. As well as pretty much the title of anything else.

When you have a title that can be written with kanji, but is deliberately written without kanji, and with hiragana, that might hint the fact that the nature of the work is lighter, and friendlier, and not serious stuff.

For example: handa-kun はんだくん. This anime is about the character, well, handa 半田, whose name can be written with kanji, as most Japanese names can, unless you're named after a pokémon or something, then I'm sorry for you.

But why is handa-kun's title written in hiragana?

Why handa-kun はんだくん instead of handa-kun 半田君?

That's because the anime is a comedy, not a mystery drama thriller, so instead of those boring kanji, it wants those colorful, happy hiragana transmitting that aspect of the content in its title.

Some other examples include:
  • Gakkou-Gurashi がっこうぐらし
    (normally Gakkou-Gurashi 学校暮らし, they're all jouyou kanji so the usage of hiragana was definitely deliberate.)
  • Furaingu Wicchi ふらいんぐうぃっち
    (normally Furaingu Wicchi フライングウィっチ, words loaned from English are normally written with katakana)

Hiragana: Super Simple Stuff

On top of that, there's the fact that hiragana is just simpler than kanji. Specially since kanji have meanings associated with them.

When you see a kanji, you might understand it without reading it. You just look at it, and your brain is used to that symbol, so you know what it means without needing to spell out the word the kanji is for. That requires a bit of thought because it's an abstraction.

On the other hand, if a word is written with just hiragana, you're forced to spell it out, and that act feels easier on the mind, because it feels like you've just heard someone say that word, you didn't just try to interpret its symbol.

So hiragana is easier. And that aspect is sometimes considered.

Kanji Looks Serious

Finally, we have kanji. What's special about kanji? Well, kanji means business.

There's not much to say about kanji, though. Normally, words are written with kanji. So there are basically two cases we can talk about.

Not Edgy Nor a Clown

First, when words are written normally.

This gives an air of authority, and of basic decency. Because you aren't writing stuff with just hiragana, for example, you aren't trying to look too chummy, childlike, too intimate. You're keeping your distance. Looking professional. And you aren't using katakana either, so your text doesn't look like it's trying to advertise and market to the modern web-teenager.

So by simply not trying to look different, you already look serious enough.

I Know Over 2000 Kanji

Second, when words which are normally written without kanji get written with kanji. That is, there's more kanji than there should be, more kanji than normal. And this can happen for a number of reasons.

*Cleans Monocle*

For example, it can make something look well-cultured, a literary piece, of noble quality. Just like books often contain words you wouldn't see in your daily life, but that the well-read would know about. Stuff written with kanji that you wouldn't see in your daily life implies it's well-written and appeals to the monocle-bearing bookworm.

So, in manga, using too many kanji can give a more serious, classical tone to the work. Or simply make it look like it's a cut above from manga for children.


Following that, sometimes writing these rare kanji where they aren't usually written can be seen as pretentious. Because it's sorta pompous, isn't it? Why are you writing this stuff with kanji? Just write it with kana like everybody else! Who are you trying to impress? Are you a chuuni?! Stop with that.

And there's also the times when a lot of kanji is used ironically.

Wait a Second... This Isn't Japanese?! Wait a Second Second, It Is?!?!

Names of laws often feature extremely long sequences of kanji compounds. For example:

So one can end up associating a lot of kanji at once without kana with something of official nature, or something that's actually written in Chinese instead of Japanese. And satire can make use of this.

Giving something a long name with a dozen of kanji often makes it look like it's some hyper-serious, ultra-official thing. This can be seen, for example, in names of fictional organizations, plans, weapons, etc. in anime, and, also, to a certain extent, in names of secret techniques.

So these are ways where the choice of script is stylistic and based on aesthetic instead of anything more meaningful.


  1. Thanks for explaining this. The first time I had a question related to this topic, was when I asked, "Why would someone use the kanji 可愛い?" Then one 日本人 said the author might be trying to show how serious the speaker is through the kanji. So if the speaker was giving a more sincere compliment, kanji might be more appropriate than hiragana (sometimes, anyway).

    And then how you said katakana looks cool, I think the same is true for the Roman alphabet, too. I could be wrong, though.

  2. This does help to understand it better.


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