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Japanese (日本語 Nihongo) is a unique language with a rich cultural heritage and a writing system that has captivated learners for centuries. While spoken Japanese may be easier to master than the intricacies of its writing system, the beauty and complexity of the Japanese alphabet are also what makes this language so rewarding to learn. From the enigmatic world of Kanji characters to the distinctive syllabic scripts of Hiragana and Katakana, the Japanese writing system is a captivating blend of ancient tradition and modern ingenuity. So if you’re ready to dive into the secrets of this fascinating language, let’s explore everything you need to know about the Japanese alphabet.
Whether you’re a language enthusiast, a traveler to Japan, or simply curious about this fascinating writing system, we’ve got you covered. In this ultimate guide, we’ll take you on a journey through the history, structure, and usage of the Japanese alphabet, revealing everything you need to know to master this intricate and beautiful language.
The main subjects we’re going to cover next are:
- Japanese writing includes three scripts: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji;
- Hiragana and Katakana are phonetic scripts, while Kanji is logographic;
- Hiragana is used for grammar particles, verb endings, and native Japanese words;
- Katakana is used for foreign loanwords, scientific terms, and emphasis;
- Kanji characters originated from China and are used for content-heavy words;
- Why is Japanese writing so fascinating and complex.
The Japanese Writing System: 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), Japanese 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 hate to break it to you, but yes, Japanese is really hard to master (unless you have Mondly by your side). 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 who 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: 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 for 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 hand, if you want to move to Japan and maybe get a job there, this won’t be japaneasy 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 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 in a nutshell
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 sometime 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.
Here are 10 of the most common Kangi characters:
|日||day, sun or Japan|
|人||human being or person|
|本||book, present or true|
But don’t worry! I also have some very good news regarding Kanji. Studies have shown that the 500 most common kanji account for 80% of the entire kanji in a regular text corpus (newspaper). Thus, knowing as many as 500 kanji will help you understand a significant 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 to realize that this 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 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: Japanese calligraphy is called shodō 書道
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. You’ve seen someone with a tattoo of a Japanese letter at least once in your life, 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 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 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 is 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 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 spōtsu, 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.
Ultimately, 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.
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, means writing Japanese words or Japanese phrases using the Latin alphabet. In other words, this is what we 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.
Common Mistakes to Avoid in Japanese Writing
Let’s be honest: Japanese writing is not easy to master. If you want to do it right, it’s essential to keep your focus and avoid the following mistakes. 👇
Mixing up Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji
It’s easy to confuse these three scripts when you’re a beginner. Make sure you start by learning their differences and uses. Mixing them up can lead to misunderstandings and errors in your writing.
If you need a refresher, you can always come back to this article.
Using the wrong stroke order
Each character in Japanese writing has a specific stroke order that you should follow to write it correctly. Using the wrong stroke order can make your writing messy and hard to read.
Particles are small words that indicate the relationship between words in a sentence in Japanese. Misusing them can change the meaning of the sentence and make it difficult to understand. Some Japanese particle examples are は (wa), が (ga) and を (o/wo).
Using incorrect verb tenses
Japanese has several verb tenses, and using the wrong one can change the meaning of a sentence completely or make it sound unnatural.
Not quite that different from other languages, is it? Verb tenses rule time – quite literally.
Forgetting to use honorific language
Honorific language is essential in Japanese to show respect to others. Forgetting to use it can come across as rude or disrespectful.
Many of us are familiar with the well-known Japanese custom of the polite bow, as well as the strong emphasis that Japanese culture places on hierarchy and etiquette, especially within the family. These values seem to be deeply ingrained in Japanese society and it’s important to respect them. It all depends on the social context!
Not practicing enough
Like any skill, learning Japanese writing takes practice. Not practicing enough can lead to slow progress and difficulties mastering the language. Don’t forget that practice makes perfect.
What makes the Japanese writing system so complex?
Well, now that you know a little bit more about the Japanese writing system, I think you’ll agree that it is 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”. 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 an excellent 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.
5 interesting facts about the Japanese alphabet
Although there’s no “Japanese alphabet” per se, we can safely talk about the three writing systems coexisting harmoniously together. As much as you already think you know about the Japanese alphabet, there are a few interesting facts that will catch your eye and even help you understand the language better.
1. There is a system for foreign words in the Japanese alphabet
Since Japan is a big economic power, international trade increased rapidly, and with it, words from different languages. The Japanese alphabet katakana adopted words and transformed them to be easier for Japanese people to articulate them and communicate. Foreign names and pronouns are changed and “Japanized”.
2. There is no plural in Japanese
The Japanese alphabet has no plurals, which means there is no difference between talking about one person or a group of people. This can be easy if you want to learn a new language and you are afraid of the difficulty level one might have.
3. Intonation is essential
More than in any other language, intonation can completely change the meaning of a word. For example, あめ is used for both “rain” and “candy”. To be able to differentiate between the two and for the conversation to make sense, you need to focus on the right intonation.
Another example is the word for “chopsticks” and “bridge”: はしhashi. If you want to talk about chopsticks, you will use the intonation HAshi, with a higher “HA”, and the opposite for bridge – haSHI.
4. Many sounds can be represented by the same Kanji symbol
The Kanji alphabet is an exception to the rule that each sound is represented by one symbol. Therefore, depending on the context, the Kanji symbols can change their meaning. 月 can mean “moon” or “month” and can be read as Getsu or Tsuki.
5. Rōmaji has a direct connection to Christianity
Interestingly enough, Rōmaji was created by a Japanese Catholic who wanted to help Europeans introduce the Christian religion in Japan without having to learn the complex Japanese alphabet.
In the 1800s, the first Japanese-English dictionary was published by James Curtis Hepburn.
Now, let’s finish this article by answering some frequently asked questions about the Japanese writing system.
What is Japanese writing called?
Japanese writing consists of three basic scripts: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana together are also called ‘kana’.
The Japanese writing system is widely regarded as one of the most complex writing systems in use today due to its use of a combination of scripts, as well as a vast number of Kanji characters.
How many letters are in the Japanese alphabet?
The Japanese writing system consists of 92 basic characters belonging to the Hiragana and Katakana syllabic scripts. Additionally, the Japanese writing system also uses a set of Chinese characters known as Kanji. Kanji consists of thousands of characters, but the number of characters in everyday use is around 2,000 – 3,000.
In addition, there are several modified forms of Hiragana and Katakana characters that are used to represent sounds that do not occur in the Japanese language. This brings the total number of Hiragana and Katakana characters to over 100.
Depending on how you define “alphabet”, the number of letters in the Japanese writing system can be anywhere from 92 to several thousand.
What does Japanese writing look like?
Japanese writing looks like this: 何語を勉強している？In Romaji, this reads Nanigo wo benkyō shiteiru? and it means ‘What languages are you studying?’.
If you want to see vertical Japanese writing, look closer at the image above featuring a Japanese newspaper. 👆
From 0 to conversational in Japanese
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