Introduction to the Japanese Writing System

Perhaps you've heard about Japanese having four "writing systems", as if there are four separate ways to write Japanese. This is simply false. There are three native and two nonnative scripts (for a total of five) used together in one cohesive Japanese writing system. This isn't so weird considering that even English uses two: the Latin alphabet and Arabic numerals (Roman numerals being the original complement to the Latin alphabet).

This lesson is an overview of what each of the Japanese scripts is and how they are used. If you're already looking to learn the actual characters, see the pages for Hiragana and Katakana and Kanji.

Kana

First and foremost are the syllabaries Hiragana and Katakana, known together as Kana. A syllabary is much like an alphabet, except that each symbol represents an entire syllable like "ka". (More specifically, each Kana symbol represents one mora, a distinction that we'll examine in greater detail.) So Hiragana is spelled hi-ra-ga-na and Katakana as ka-ta-ka-na.

Hiragana and Katakana each have 46 symbols, representing the same 46 basic syllables. Additional sounds are derived from these using several additional conventions. This works well in languages like Japanese that have a small inventory of sounds and a simple syllable structure. In fact, any Japanese word can be written using Hiragana or Katakana alone.

So what's the difference? Quite simply, Hiragana is used for writing native Japanese words (ひらがな/Hiragana, かたかな/Katakana) and Katakana for borrowed words (テレビ/terebi/television), sounds effects (ドン/don/"boom"), emphasis (like English italics), and the like. Other than the basic syllables and a couple of conventions for creating voiced ("da" vs "ta"), lengthened ("so-o" vs "so"), and combined sounds ("hyo" vs "hi-yo"), you can count the remaining spelling rules on one hand.

Kanji

Kanji (漢字), the Chinese characters, make up the final (sort of) native Japanese script. Originally, the Japanese had no writing system of their own, and instead wrote in classical Chinese (this being around the year 700 AD). Later, Kana syllabaries were derived from a small set of characters being used for their phonetic value (called Man'yougana), Hiragana from cursive versions and Katakana from pieces of the originals. Over time the Japanese developed a method of writing their language using Kanji to write the roots of nouns, verbs, and adjectives and Kana to write inflections of verbs and adjectives, grammatical elements unique to Japanese, and words having no Kanji.

Today, there are about 2000 Kanji recommended by the government for for general use, the Joyo Kanji; it takes this number of Kanji to be able to read a Japanese newspaper, and is the basic literacy requirement in Japanese. This is in contrast to the more than 5000 characters used in modern written Chinese and the 30,000+ total characters.

But why use Kanji at all when you can write anything in Japanese using just Kana? The answer is too long to get into at the moment, but the basic idea is this: modern Japanese has a large number of homophones (words with the same or very similar pronunciation but different meanings). This isn't a problem in speaking, where context clues and intonation can resolve an ambiguity, but in writing this is a major issue. But since Kanji are ideographic characters, meaning they represent meaning rather than sound, the writer simply chooses the Kanji or Kanji compound that matches their intended meaning. So while Kanji are without a doubt more difficult to learn and write, they make Japanese easier to read.

Western Scripts

Finally, you'll also find two western scripts used in modern Japanese: Rooma-ji (often spelled Romaji), the Latin alphabet, and Arabia Suuji, the Arabic numerals (1,2,3…).

Contrary to what many beginners seem to think, Japanese people almost never write Japanese using Romaji, and when they do they tend to use a different romanization system than the Hepburn system generally used by English speakers. Rather, they use Romaji to write English, or at least "Japlish", the pseudo-English words and phases plastered over everything in modern Japan with the intention of making it look "hip" or "international". You'll also find Romaji used in abbreviations like CD (シーディー/shiidii).

Arabic numerals, then (I won't make you remember the Japanese word), are generally used to write numbers in horizontal writing, whereas Chinese characters are usually preferred in vertical writing and compound words.

Kana and Kanji Together

Here's an example of a Japanese sentence using all three native scripts:

田中さんはよくテレビを見る。

The sentence reads "Tanaka-san wa yoku terebi o miru." Spaces between words are not customarily used in Japanese, but are typically added in romanized Japanese. Let's break this one down a bit further.

  • 田中 (Tanaka) is a surname (a noun), and is written using two Kanji (ta+naka). Most other nouns are written in Kanji as well.
  • さん (san) is a name suffix, a word not usually written in Kanji, so it's spelled out in Hiragana: sa-n. Likewise for よく (yoku) "often", an adverb. Many other common words are also written in Hiragana.
  • は (wa) and を (o) are particles (grammatical suffixes), so they're written in Hiragana.
  • テレビ (terebi) is a borrowed word meaning "Television", so it's written in Katakana.
  • 見る (miru) is a verb, consisting of a Kanji root for the base meaning (to look/watch) and okurigana ("accompanying kana") for the conjugation (present tense, affirmative). Most verbs (and adjectives) are written in this way.

Kanji and Katakana generally signal the start of a word, and particles the end, dividing the sentence as follows:

田中さん よく テレビ る。
Tanaka-san wa yoku terebi o miru.
Tanaka
(+name suffix
+topic marker)
often TV
(+object marker)
watches

Can you tell the scripts apart? The Kanji and Katakana are underlined, and the bold Hiragana are particles. Hiragana are rather cursive like, Katakana are more angular, and Kanji are usually more complicated in form (though some are very simple). Of course, there's also the fact that you'll quickly recognize any words you know, just like in any language.

Since beginners generally start with just Hiragana and Katakana, spaces are usually added to beginners' materials (including the beginning lessons on this site) to make Japanese text easier to read. Using the same example again:

"Real" Japanese Hiragana/Katakana
田中さんはよくテレビを見る。 たなかさんは よく テレビを みる。

Punctuation

Written Japanese uses few punctuation marks. Here are a few you should be aware of:

Symbol Name Use
kuten/maru Like the western period, used at the end of a sentence.
touten Like the western comma, but mostly optional. Used to mark natural pauses.
「」 kagikakko Equivalent of western quotation marks
nami dasshu The "wave dash", marking a range like 5:00~6:00. Also used to show a wavering intonation (わ~あ "waaa").

Question marks (?) are not generally used in formal writing, since the Japanese question marking particle か ('ka') already comes at the end of the sentence, but are often used when 'ka' is missing, such as in incomplete sentences ("And you are?"). Various other marks are used much like they are in English.

Horizontal and Vertical Writing

Like Chinese, Japanese is traditionally written vertically, with columns going from right to left. Nowadays, Japanese is very often written horizontally, in which case it is left-to-right, top-to-bottom, just like English.

Horizontal and vertical writing

As a result, rotating the text 90 degrees allows you to switch from one layout to the other – this is how a Japanese-enabled word processor works.

Continuing uses of vertical writing include novels, comics, formal letters, calligraphy, and vertical signs. Mixed text is common as well.

Learning to Write Japanese

Now that you know a bit about the Japanese writing system, you're ready to start learning Hiragana. It will take a couple weeks to get comfortable with this, but in the meantime there's no need to worry about Katakana and Kanji, since Hiragana can substitute for both. Katakana will actually take you less time to learn than Hiragana since it's basically the same thing all over again, plus a couple extra conventions for transcribing sounds that don't exist in native Japanese words. Kanji then, will be a task that's spread over the rest of your career as a Japanese learner. How far you want to go is entirely up to you.

In Hiragana and the Japanese Sound System, you'll learn about writing and pronunciation together as you learn Hiragana. This site also includes additional resources for learning Hiragana and Katakana, including kana charts, flashcards, and stroke order.

Katakana will be covered midway through the Beginning Lessons.

Kanji are covered in a dedicated section of the site.

What Next?

Hiragana and the Japanese Sound System


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