Japanese Writing Systems

Beware: This guide is work in progress!

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The Japanese Writing Systems: Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji

The writing systems

  • Hiragana – Syllabic Japanese script
    ひらがな (“Hiragana” written in Hiragana), meaning “smooth kana”.
  • Katakana – Syllabic Japanese script
    カタカナ (“Katakana” written in Katakana), meaning “fragmentary kana”.
  • Kanji – Adopted logographic Chinese characters
    Kanji are characters borrowed from China where each kanji contains both meaning and a sound. The word “kanji” comes from  kan (漢, ‘Chinese’) and ji (字, ‘characters’). Can also be translated as characters from Han where (Han comes from the Han Dynasty that united China as one country)
  • Romaji– Way to write Japanese pronunciation with the alphabet you are currently reading, the Latin alphabet. Used mainly by foreigners who study the language.

Let us first have an overview how the Japanese writing system is structured. The Japanese writing system contains three difference ways you can write Japanese. Two of the ways are through the character sets Hiragana and Katakana. The third and last element is Kanji. Solely with Hiragana or Katakana alone, you can theoretically write everything by just  using one character set. However, that is not how it works in Japanese. It would be problematic understanding without Kanji. Believe it or not, but Kanji helps reading Japanese easier. If you had to write everything with Hiragana, then the text would become really long as well.  This all three character sets are being used. What is convenient is that the Hiragana and Katakana both share the same pronunciation of each sound which means that if you learned how to pronounce the Hiragana character set, then you don’t need to learn any more syllables. Instead, you learn new characters. For example, そ (Hiragana character for pronouncing “so”) and ソ (Katakana character pronouncing “a”) are completely different in appearance but share the same sound. Some kana’s have similar appearance though such as か (a Hiragana character) and カ (a Katakana character). Characteristics for the Katakana script is that the Kana looks quite sharper compared to Hiragana which tends to be more soft and curvy.

Romaji in Japanese

Romaji is a common way to write Japanese with alphabetic letters. It is a way to present Japanese to someone who can not read any of the Japanese scripts. The word Japan (日本) and from Kanji and Hiragana to Romaji:

  • 日本 – nihon
  • にほん – nihon

As you can see, since both share the same sound, it is the same romaji writing which is what romaji’s role is. To write out the sound of Japanese. This means that all Japanese text can be written to romaji. Useful for those who are acquainted with the latin script.

Japanese and Mora – Rhythm is important for pronunciation

  • Mora consist of one consonant and one vowel

Morae plays a big role of the Japanese language. With other words, the rhythm of speaking. This is essential for understand how Japanese words are built and pronunciation. One mora is usually made of a consonant and a vowel. For example Hiragana which is written ひらがな (hiragana) is made out of 4 moras, hi-ra-ga-na. You would spend as much time for each single mora, otherwise it would sound unnatural. Another example, Tokyo, you might think morae is: To-Kyo or To-ky-o, but the Japanese pronunciation is actually Tōkyō as in To-u-kyo-u, because it is written とうきょう (Tōkyō) in Hiragana. However the international spelling of Tokyo remain just Tokyo, while in reality it should be Tōkyō for the true accuracy of the pronunciation. If it is still confusing with how mora work in Japanese, it will be easier to understand when you’ve started learning Hiragana characters.

Usage of the different writing systems

Why does Japan have so many writing systems? It’s asked a lot but is difficult to actually answer without understanding the language itself.

Hiragana

Hiragana is the most important basic component of the Japanese writing system since you could write any Japanese you wanted to with it. Hiragana can replace kanji characters and Katakana as well. However, the usage is meant for native Japanese words and grammatical words. As wikipedia explains it:

Hiragana is used to write native words for which there are no kanji, including grammatical particles such as から kara “from”. Likewise, hiragana is used to write words whose kanji form is obscure, not known to the writer or readers, or too formal for the writing purpose.

Children grown up with the language who doesn’t know kanji will use Hiragana instead. It is the “to-go” writing system if you don’t know a kanji writing if you will.

Katakana

In contrast to Hiragana, Katakana is used for foreign words and names. It is also used for biological contexts (plants and animals) where the technical name is written with Katakana. Since there are thousands of plants and animals it makes it nearly impossible to remember the writing for each, which is why Katakana is used for this reason as well. Katakana is also often used for onomatopoeia (word that phonetically imitates, resembles or suggests the source of the sound that it describes). It can also just be used to stand out from the ordinary style seen for example in mangas (Japanese comics) where a character could be from another planet where the voice is to be robotic sound-like.

Examples:

フィッシュ・アンド・チップス – Fish and Chips – Dish that has it’s origin from Great Britain is a foreign word.
テレビ- TV, Television – Foreign word that was inherited.
バラク・オバマ- Barrack Obama- Foreign name.
イヌ – Technical term for dog (犬).
ウメ – Prunus mume, plom-blossom flower.

All these words of names and things can be written with Katakana for previously stated reasons.

Kanji

Kanji the third and last part of the Japanese writing system which are borrowed Chinese characters. Japan uses thousands of these and each has a meaning and sound. The kanji often has two readings (Kunyoumi and Onyoumi reading) or more. There are thousands of kanji and how many you “need” is hard to say, but people tend to say around ~2000 is a good number if you want to get around. It is a number based on the 常用漢字 (romaji reading: jouyou kanji) made by Japanese Ministry of Education, meaning “regular-use Chinese characters”, which consist of 2,136 kanji. The amount of difficult kanji changes depending on what you are reading were literature and classic litterateur makes the number of kanji greatly increase were as regular-use characters isn’t enough.

Why use kanji?

Even if it takes a long time to learn, it is hard to deny that kanji is convenient. If one would only write with Kana, it would be hard to read and follow since Japanese doesn’t have spaces in their texts. An example below with text from Asahi newspaper online. Since names also are recognized easy with their names written in Kanji it makes it also easier to see what it is about, while without it can become less unclear.

Normal text with Kanji:
国立国際美術館(大阪・中之島)の特別展「始皇帝と大兵馬俑(だいへいばよう)」(朝日新聞社など主催)が5日、開幕する。

With Hiragana only:
こくりつこくさいびじゅつかん(おおさか・なかのしま)のとくべつてん「しこうていとだいへいばよう」(あさひしんぶんしゃなどしゅさい)がごにち、かいまくする。

Another thing is that each kanji is functioning like an image so it would be easier seeing the meaning rather than just Kana and start think of which word it might refer to. Many words has the same sound and with the kanji you would eliminate that problem.

For example the difference between these four kanjis. They all have the sound むし (with romaji: mushi) but they have completely different meanings which can be understood help by the kanji.

  • (むし) 虫 Bug
  • (むし) 無視 Ignore
  • (むし) 蒸しー Steaming…
  • (むし) 無私 Unselfish

It would be problematic with only Hiragana indeed. Of course in context words makes more sense, but kanji helps with that too and makes it less difficult to read.

Start with Hiragana

When there is three different character sets already, which one do you pick? Hiragana is typically the recommended character set to learn first, so start with that. This is because Hiragana is used for native Japanese, and can be seen almost everywhere.

You will notice that most of the texts has a lot of kanji in them, and not just Hiragana (and Katakana), but the basics must be learned first which is Hiragana. If you choose to study Hiragana intensively it will not take long before getting them all down. However, it might take time to get used to all the combinations, but be persistent and don’t give up! Is is of course only natural that it takes time, and everyone study with their own speed. You might focus more on how to write the actual characters while others tend to only learn the sounds of each. I would personally say that learning how to write each character is not something that should be focused on too long; the important is that you’ll learn the sound of each character (Kana).

The most important is to be able to memorize most of them then use them activity so they will get stuck one way or the other. For example, you might get down the basic Kanas but when dakute, handakuten and yoon (in the next chapter) is introduced, you might feel unmotivated because it feels like many more characters need to be learned. There is no need though, because most of this does look harder than it is. When becoming accustomed of Hiragana’s basic characters everything will fall into place and snowball when getting more practical. Let’s start see the character chart and learn Hiragana right away by clicking away to next chapter.

Proceed to next chapter: Writing System: Hiragana