Japanese (日本語 Nihongo) is definitely a very exotic, unique and, if I may, fascinating language. Because it’s easier spoken than written, the Japanese writing system and – naturally – the Japanese alphabet are “guilty” of making Japanese the hardest language to learn by a native English speaker along with Chinese, Korean and Arabic. The Foreign Service Institute of the US Government states that the average English speaker would need about 2200 hours of study to achieve fluency in the Japanese language.
But that doesn’t make it impossible. Depending on your objective – to learn enough Japanese to communicate during your trip to Japan or to know it to perfection because you want to work there – you can adapt the amount of work you’ll need to do in order to reach the corresponding level of Japanese you’ll need.
For instance, my objective as a Japanese enthusiast was to be able to enjoy anime and Japanese movies to the fullest. The Japanese culture fascinated me ever since I was a child. Although a little girl, my favourite series were Dragon Ball Z and Captain Tsubasa. Later, I discovered Death Note and the incredible genius of Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki. Not long afterwards, I read Shōgun for the first time even studied bits of Japanese history that left me mesmerized. It was then when I decided to learn Japanese.
That being said, let’s dive in and discover the complex beauty of the Japanese writing system and the Japanese alphabet.
The Japanese alphabet – an overview
There’s a good reason why learning Japanese should be considered a personal triumph. While English uses only one script – the Latin script – the Japanese language uses three scripts: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Yes, you read that right. If you want to learn to write in Japanese, you’ll have to learn three scripts. And if we also count in rōmaji (the Romanization of the Japanese language) – we could say Japanese has a total of four writing systems.
I won’t lie and I hate to break it to you, but yes, Japanese is really hard to master (unless you have Mondly by your side – then it gets easier). These three types of scripts – hiragana (ひらがな), katakana (カタカナ) and kanji (漢字) – are used in combination with each other. For someone that uses only the Latin script, that seems unimaginable, but Japanese rarely uses only one script. Children’s books, for example, are an exception. Because kanji characters are the hardest to master, children’s books only use hiragana and katakana characters. That reminds me – hiragana and katakana also have a joint name: kana.
An example of a Japanese sentence using all three writing systems could be:
こんにちは、私の名前はマンドリです。- Hello, my name is Mondly.
In rōmaji, that’s “Kon’nichiwa, watashi no namae wa Mondly desu.”
Kanji characters: Kanji: 私 (I), 名前 (name)
Katakana characters: マンドリ (Mondly)
Hiragana characters: the rest of the sentence
On the bright side, if you want to get further than just speaking and writing using rōmaji, kana characters (hiragana + katakana) can be mastered in 2-5 days – depending on your level of commitment and capacity to learn. My advice would be to not settle to rōmaji. It doesn’t help. On the contrary! Besides, once you know katakana, you’ll know how to read thousands of Japanese words.
On the other side, if you want to move to Japan and maybe get a job there, this won’t be japan-easy at all. You’ll really have to learn kanji. As you may have heard, the kanji Japanese symbols are the ones that were “loaned” from China. In total, there are around 50,000 of them. Don’t worry though! Only 3,000 characters are in common use in Japan today.
Before we move on to more details about each writing system, it’s important to also point out the fact that the Japanese language uses no spaces, no cases, no grammatical genders, and no articles. It does sound tricky, but I promise that’s actually good news!
Kanji – the logographic characters imported from the Chinese alphabet
It’s been said that Japan may have had the first encounter with Chinese characters sometime around the 1st century AD when Emperor Guangwu of Han gave a Japanese emissary the King of Na gold seal – a solid gold seal inscribed with 5 Chinese characters that is now designated as a National Treasure of Japan. However, many sources claim that the Chinese alphabet was imported by the Japanese somewhere in the 3rd century and used in writing for the first time in the 4th century.
As you may have heard, each kanji character represents an idea or a concept. This means that kanji characters are logograms (pictures representing words or – better yet – symbols that each represent an entire morpheme). Now you understand why there are over 50,000 kanji characters in existence – though very few native speakers know anywhere near this number. By the time they are 16-17 years old, Japanese people only know about 2,000 kanji. But don’t worry! I also have some very good news regarding kanji. Studies have shown that already the 500 most common kanji account for 80% of the entire kanji in a regular text corpus (newspaper). Thus, knowing as much as 500 kanji will help you understand a great part of almost any written text.
To help you understand how kanji works, here’s a practical example: the kanji character 山 means “mountain” and it is pronounced “ya-ma” or “san.” Good! Now, there is also the word 火山 which means “fire” + “mountain”. If you think about it, it shouldn’t be too hard for you to realize that this actually means “volcano” (ka-zan).
When are kanji characters used?
Kanji characters are used for content-heavy words like nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Naturally, this means that kanji characters are more common than kana in actual Japanese texts. In a 2000 study of the Asahi Japanese newspaper, researchers concluded that over the course of one year, kanji characters covered 41.38% of all the printable characters in the newspapers. The percentages for hiragana and katakana were 36.62 and 6.38, respectively.
Cool fact: even more fascinating than the history of the Japanese alphabet is watching someone write Japanese letters. Japanese calligraphy is called shodō 書道 and many foreigners seem to be attracted by it. At least once in your life you’ve seen someone with a tattoo of a Japanese letter, didn’t you? I can’t blame them though. Everything written looks better in Japanese. At least until you learn the true meaning of it.
Back to calligraphy, Kanji characters, for instance, range from 1-3 strokes to more than 20 strokes. Imagine that! If that’s not art, I don’t know what it is.
By now, you probably understood why Japanese writing might not exactly be a piece of cake for someone who used the Latin script their entire life. Let’s move to hiragana and katakana and uncover all the mysteries of the Japanese writing system.
Hiragana + Katakana = Kana
As I mentioned before, hiragana and katakana can be called kana together. Unlike kanji characters that represent meaning, kana characters represent sound. In other words, hiragana and katakana have characters for each basic mora (syllable) in the Japanese language. Each has only 46 basic characters or sounds – this being the main reason why you can master kana (hiragana + katana) in only a matter of days.
Somehow related to kanji, kana evolved from man’yōgana (万葉仮名) – an ancient writing system that uses Chinese characters to represent the Japanese language phonetically. The hiragana and katakana characters that we use today are simplified versions of man’yōgana.
When are kana characters used?
The usage difference between hiragana and katakana is stylistic. Usually, hiragana is used for particles, postpositions, adverbs, auxiliary verbs, function words or as a replacement for kanji when there’s a word with no kanji representation or whose kanji is thought to be too difficult for others to understand.
On the other hand, katakana is used mainly for foreign words, modern loan words, technical terms, some animals and plants, onomatopoeia, slang or colloquialisms.
For example, “sumimasen”, which translates to “excuse me” or “sorry”, should be written in hiragana because it is a word of Japanese origin: すみません。And this also applies to “Yōkoso!” (ようこそ！) which means “welcome!”.
However, a word like “spōtsui”, which means “sports” should be written in katakana because it is a foreign loan word: スポーツ。Other examples include words like ケーキ（kēki）= cake or コーヒー(kōhī) = coffee.
In the end, katakana is almost exactly the same as hiragana because they represent the same sounds. The only difference is that they are written a little differently – the katakana characters have a more angular shape and the hiragana characters are more rounded or cursive.
The main kana vowels are a, i, u, e and o. In hiragana you’ll see them written like this: あ, い, う, え and お. In katakana, as I mentioned before, they have a rather angular form: ア, イ, ウ, エ and オ.
If you are ready to dive in, here are two charts with all the sounds and the characters you’ll need to master in kana.
As you can see, using only five vowels and nine consonants (k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w) you can identify all the kana sounds you’ll need to speak Japanese. Generally, consonants are pronounced the same as in English (except for “g” that is pronounced as in “get”). In addition to these syllable sounds, the Japanese language uses a single consonant – the letter “n”.
Rōmaji – the Romanization of the Japanese language
Rōmaji or the Romanization of the Japanese language actually means writing Japanese words or Japanese phrases using the Latin alphabet. In other words, this is what we also call transliteration (the process of converting a text from one script to another).
There’s not very much information to point out for rōmaji. As mentioned before, I wouldn’t recommend getting used to this type of writing. It’s not in your own best interest to use rōmaji when hiragana and katakana are actually quite easy to remember.
To give you a tangible example – when you write “yama” instead of 山 (katakana) or やま (hiragana), you are using rōmaji.
The complex beauty of the Japanese writing system
Well, now that you know a little bit more about the Japanese writing system, I think you’ll agree that it truly is both beautiful and complex and not anyone can master it. Persistence is the key! If you decide to accept the challenge and start learning Japanese, I promise you’ll discover a lot more along the way. Until then, here are some more fascinating facts to complete the picture:
– when you write for an audience that doesn’t understand kanji (like young people) or maybe you need to use kanji outside the standard set of 3,000, the reading of these characters should be added on top or to the right depending on whether they are written horizontally or vertically. This form of writing that also includes the reading of the kanji characters is called furigana (振り仮名) or yomigana (読み仮名) or rubi (ルビ);
– speaking of readings, kanji characters have several different readings (yes, there’s also that) that you’ll understand from the context;
– vertical Japanese writing is called tategaki( 縦書き), it is read from right to left and it is now used for novels or other kinds of “humanistic writings”. In other words, tatekagi is suitable for all kinds of formal content;
– horizontal writing is called yokogaki (横書き), it is read from left to right – the same as English – and it is mainly used for e-mails, how-to books, scientific and language related writings. Yokogaki is generally used because more content can be incorporated horizontally (dictionaries are a very good example for this situation);
– finally, it is also important to point out that each script – hiragana, katakana, and kanji – has a specific use and just by seeing the script, you can tell what it is going to say.
And… there you have it! This is your introduction to the Japanese writing system and the Japanese alphabet.
If you want to go even further and learn Japanese, get Mondly now and see how well you can do with an actual lesson. Good luck!
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