I just finished reading a very interesting article on Why Japan Didn't Create the iPod. I was surprised and interested to see how language -- specifically, writing systems -- played a role in the adoption rate and price point of personal computers in Japan and the United States. The history of what nation shaped PC-tethered consumer products is directly related to the history of writing itself.
Latin characters are extremely easy for a computer to account for. The strokes are not too sophisticated to show properly on a display with a limited number of pixels; in fact, Latin characters even have workable sub-pixel fonts. There are only 26 main characters (with a handful of alternations for languages which have adopted it to their own needs). This means that every character can be treated individually as an atomic component of a string. For instance, an E is not represented as an F with an extra horizontal line.
The Japanese writing system is in some ways overburdened with two syllabaries and a logographic component. The amount of unique characters that would need to be stored goes beyond several orders of magnitude when compared with the amount we need to worry about for a phonological alphabet. Even a phonetic alphabet, exhaustively listing every sound a human being is capable of making (ignoring diacritics), would have a much smaller set of characters to be accounted for in memory. Let's not forget that in the '70s and '80s, memory was very expensive. While students are trained that certain types of strokes are components of kanji characters, and that there exists certain tropes among characters that represent the same bit of meaning for a word (the "crown" and "path" components come to mind), creating a way to input these into a keyboard would be considered awkward at the very least. Seeking a user-friendly method of inputting stroke components into a specific character were apparently not feasible. Early approaches either drastically reduced the amount of characters available in the system, restricted the user to using only the more limited syllabary writing system (which is more ambiguous and awkward to someone trained the classic way), or cost a fortune in order to store and display the thousands of logograms.
Reasons abound for why Japanese developed such a convoluted system to represent words on paper. Part of it has to do with their relationship with the Chinese Empire. Part of it has to do with the efficacy of representing word meaning in a pitch accent language. Part of it even has to do with the different preferences men have versus women when it comes to writing: hiragana is considered "women's script", supposedly originally an adopted set of kanji used in from letter-writing between wives. Katakana, on the other hand, is associated with masculinity, to the point where it was used in place of hiragana for particles and verb conjugations in official documents during World War II, when the country, like many countries at the time, was being run by the military and the militaristic-minded.
Western Europeans were just lucky, in truth, to have received a mystical logographic system turned abjad through the proper channels. With each transmission, from the Hebrews, to the Phoenicians and various other Mediterranean semitic groups, phonological writing became more and more language-agnostic. Ultimately, we see the Greek alphabet, vowels included, becoming the Latin alphabet. With the Latin alphabet, we have a situation where groups adopted a tool because of its usefulness. There were various logographic systems, and even some syllabaries, such as cuneiform. One of these approaches was widely adopted because people used it and liked it.
It could be argued that Japan's myriad of writing systems show the inertia of China's cultural influence on a language without any direct relatives. Even if you believe Korean and Japanese are Altaic languages -- the last remaining vestiges of the mountain-dwelling Amazon people whose artifacts join them in culture of animal art and a bow-hunting -- there is no specifically Altaic script that could have been adopted by the Japanese first. Without coming to the table with their own writing system, Japan's best choice for their language is the Chinese logographic system. It was already there; they didn't need to speak the language to recognize the symbols; as far as trade is concerned, it would actually make it easier to trade with someone who did not speak your language if you both agreed the same symbols written on paper. The syllabary components actually evolved after this adoption, using characters that sounded like particles and verb inflection to clarify tense and relationship between words.
Japan could have probably written their own alphabet and been just fine if they weren't worried about trading and interacting with China. China had a great reason to use pictures instead of sounds. It is a country with a variety of languages and dialects that are united under one writing system. To use an awkward metaphor, by associating characters with sounds, we go a bit 'closer to the iron' of language, working in some sort of assembly language, whereas a logographic writing system is actually a bit more high-level -- writing meaning in the written equivalent of Python or Ruby.
So a decision made hundreds of years ago had a drastic effect on Japan's adoption of personal computing technology. It eventually happened, but not at the rate you see in America, where it's cheaper and easier for a regular consumer to express themselves simply with a keyboard. It was easier, culturally, to wait until memory got cheap enough to exp
ress Japanese as it is than to rewrite the language, or just force everyone to use one of the available syllabaries. I imagine that it would be unwieldy for someone trained to read a in a completely different way.
What makes this story all come full circle is that now, in order to type in Japanese, the user will enter hiragana characters into a text field, and a stochastic algorithm is used to determine the kanji to be displayed. This suggests the possibility that in the future, the Japanese equivalent of American children whose minds have been "poisoned" by how they use written language on the Internet will be that the next generation of Japanese may move away from writing kanji at all. Perhaps as they become more used to typing in hiragana, what will feel clumsy will be even the display of kanji, which could perhaps get a little bothersome to read. It's not out of the question that in 100 years, Japan could cut their character down a few orders of magnitude to a scant hundred or so characters, just as English is beginning to "compress the signal" using SMS abbreviations. Someday, convenience may kill off Kanji entirely. Who knows?