Spaces Are Futile

Japanese writing system is hard enough by using several thousand kanji, why make it even harder? Yet it is: in Japanese there are no spaces between words.

Any text is just a string of kanji mixed with few punctuation marks and kana. Moreover, it comes in two flavors: a left-to-right horizontal string of characters, and a top-to-bottom, right-to-left vertical one.

Let’s look at a simple example.

正しい道もまったくわからない。

This is a sentence meaning “And I don’t know the right way [to write music] at all.” (it’s a quote from “Rock and Read” #23).

To an untrained eye it may seem unintelligible, but if you have a proper look at it, the sentence can be split into several parts.

  • 正しい — correct, right;
  • — the way;
  • — (equivalent to) and;
  • まったく — completely, at all;
  • わからない — understand + not.

Some rules of thumb to follow:

1. Look out for grammatical particles

In a sentence more complex than “I have tea” you are bound to find several grammatical particles, like the marker of the subject は wa or が ga, the conjuction ので (because of) and others.

2. Kana followed by kanji is the start of a new word

Japanese words usually start with a kanji, so it’s a safe guess to split the sentence accordingly.

3. Train your eyes like your ears

A great way to split a sentence into words is to read it aloud. This way you will most likely spot common words you know by ear but are not used to in writing.

Writing as speech

To round it all up: think of Japanese writing as of speech written down.

We don’t have spaces in English speech, or any other. The words are glued firmly together, yet we understand them easily.

It’s all a matter of practice. Absence of spaces becomes less and less noticeable over time. Get used to it from day one, and you’ll have no problems with it on later stages.

Good luck in your studies!

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