Japanese (Nihongo) is a fascinating language because of its distinctiveness, cultural depth, and fascinating writing system. However, the Japanese letters’ beauty and complexity make studying this language pleasurable, even if mastering spoken Japanese is easier.

The Japanese writing system is a fascinating mixture of ancient heritage and modern inventiveness, from the mysterious realm of Kanji symbols to the distinctive syllabic letters of Hiragana and Katakana.

Brief History Of The Development Of The Japanese Writing System

While the Kanji characters used in Japan are borrowed from China, the actual roots of the Japanese language are still a mystery. Even though the Chinese introduced a writing system to Japan in about 50 AD, most Japanese people learned to read and write in the fifth century AD (the literacy rate in Japan is now close to 100%).

The usage of Kanji to express Japanese words began with the introduction of Chinese characters, and by 650 CE, a script called Man’yōgana had been developed that utilised Chinese letters for their sounds rather than their meanings to represent Japanese. Man’yōgana paved the way for the development of Kana, which was spoken primarily by women who were excluded from formal schooling at the time.

However, each kanji character is built up from several individual strokes. We’re sure you’ve already observed that writing them takes more time. These ideograms proved so challenging to write that they were eventually reduced to the simpler kana alphabets of Hiragana and Katakana. Since each Kanji represents a different sound in Japanese, refer to syllabograms. Historians say Buddhist priests were behind the shift because they believed a phonetic alphabet would more authentically represent the Japanese language than Kanji.

Katakana is used for foreign words, loan words, often used for onomatopoeia, used to show the difference between a (Kunyomi; Japanese reading) and (Onyomi; Chinese reading), to show emphasis, some company names, etc., while Hiragana is used for writing Japanese words that have no kanji and words for which Kanji cannot be remembered or have not yet been learned.

Kanji: The Chinese Characters in Japanese

Even for native Japanese speakers, Kanji is often the last writing system to be mastered. Kanji, derived from Chinese characters, were the first characters used in Japan. They were brought to Japan around 1,500 years ago and eventually evolved into the Hiragana and Katakana we use today.

The foundation of the Japanese writing system is made up of Kanji, which are complicated letters representing words or ideas. Some sources put the number of kanji characters at over 50,000, albeit only a tiny subset of those are utilised daily.

Reading Kanji

In contrast to the simpler Hiragana and Katakana scripts, Kanji allows various pronunciations for a given character. This is because both the Chinese on-yomi and the Japanese kun-yomi exist for each character. When native Japanese words were written with Kanji, new pronunciations were added to the on-yomi. So now you know why some characters are pronounced one way in one word and another in another!

Writing Kanji

One or more radicals make up every Kanji. A radical is a simple symbol that forms a kanji character alone or in combination with others. Consider, for example, the radical. The Kanji means “one” (ichi) when used alone. But when combined with the radical 亅, the kanji 丁 is formed. In total, 214 radicals are used over 13 positions to create Kanji; however, some are utilised more frequently than others. All Kanji may be broken down into these simpler radicals, making them easier to memorise.

Kanji can be broken down into roughly four categories determined by the arrangement of their radicals.

1. Pictograms

These kanji originated from drawings, with the simple act of drawing the object being used as a symbol for it. It’s the equivalent of today’s emojis, which use “😀” to symbolise a “smiling face”. Consider the word yama 山 (mountain): doesn’t the shape of the 山 character make you think of the mountain’s sharp peak?

2. Simple Ideograms

These kanji were developed to “represent numbers or abstract concepts” using lines and dots. Therefore, rather than depicting a physical object, you would aim to represent the concept you wished to express visually. For “up”, one might draw a dot above a line to indicate “up,” and for “down”, one could draw a dot below a line to indicate “down.” This is the origin of the words “up” 上 (ue) and “down” 下 (shita)!

3. Compound Ideograms

These Kanji are composites made up of two or more individual characters. For instance, the Kanji used in the verb “to rest”  休む (yasumu) is derived from the words “hito” 人 (person) and “ki”  木 (tree). The two simpler kanji are often chosen because of their proximity to the final character. Since a person resting against a tree would have their back against it, the combination of 人 and 木 was chosen to represent this character 休.

4. Phonetic-ideographic Characters

When a character’s initial on-yomi sounded like a native Japanese word, but the Kanji associated with that sound didn’t convey the word’s meaning, these kanji were created. Therefore, an extra character was added to clarify the meaning in the past. These Kanji result from a combination of the Kanji for the sound of the word and the Kanji for its meaning.

The word “sei” (clean) is written with such a character. The Kanji for water 水 (mizu, often written as ⺡ ) is combined with the character for blue 青 (sei) to form the Kanji for clean 清 (sei).

Kanji are unquestionably more complicated than Hiragana or Katakana, but don’t let that scare you off; many Kanji are also easy to learn. Learning and memorising kanji will be facilitated by familiarity with radicals and kanji kinds. Learning the stroke order, or the specific procedures used to create each character, can also aid in memorisation.

Hiragana: The Foundational Japanese Syllabary

When first starting with Japanese, Hiragana is the script of choice. To be precise, Hiragana is a syllabary, or a system of writing, in which symbols represent entire syllables (such as “ba” and “to”) rather than single sounds (such as “b” or “t”). Since all Japanese words are built from these simple units, spelling down individual sounds is unnecessary.

In Japanese, there are 46 basic syllables:

  • The basic vowels: a, i, u, e, o.
  • The k-line: ka, ki, ku, ke, ko.
  • The s-line: sa, shi, su, se, so. (Notice that the “si” sound is instead replaced by “shi.”)
  • The t-line: ta, chi, tsu, te, to. (Notice that the “ti” and “tu” sounds are instead pronounced closer to “chi” and “tsu.”)
  • The n-line: na, ni, nu, ne, no.
  • The h-line: ha, hi, fu, he, ho. (Notice that the “hu” sound is said as “fu.”)
  • The m-line: ma, mi, mu, me, mo.
  • The y-line: ya, yu, yo.
  • The r-line: ra, ri, ru, re, ro.
  • wa, o/wo, and n. (These sounds are unique, so they are generally placed together. The “o/wo” symbol can be pronounced either way and “n” is considered a whole syllable in Japanese.)

There are 23 more syllables in Japanese, each constructed using special characters that we’ll go through shortly.

  • The g-line: ga, gi, gu, ge, go.
  • The z-line: za, ji, zu, ze, zo. (Notice that “ji” is used instead of “zi.”)
  • The d-line: da, ji, zu, de, do. (“ji” and “zu” are pronounced the same way as in the z-line but have different uses.)
  • The b-line: ba, be, bu, be, bo.
  • The p-line: pa, pi, pu, pe, po.

Writing Hiragana

Hiragana characters are often rounded and have many curves and bends. Identifying hiragana characters is facilitated by this feature. Each consonant can also be made to sound like / ya / yu / yo / by adding a tiny「や」,「ゆ」, or「よ」to the  / i / vowel character.

Let’s look at these 23 supplementary sounds now:

  • The g-line: が(ga), ぎ(gi), ぐ(gu), げ(ge), ご(go).
  • The z-line: ざ(za), じ(ji), ず(zu), ぜ(ze), ぞ(zo).
  • The d-line: だ(da), ぢ(ji), づ(zu), で(de), ど(do). 
  • The b-line: ば(ba), べ(be), ぶ(bu), べ(be), ぼ(bo).
  • The p-line: ぱ(pa), ぴ(pi), ぷ(pu), ぺ(pe), ぽ(po).

G-line hiragana is identical to k-line hiragana, z-line hiragana to s-line hiragana, t-line hiragana to d-line hiragana, h-line hiragana to b- and p-line hiragana, and so on. The sole distinction is the use of diacritical marks, which are placed above the rightmost hiragana character and can take the form of either a small circle or two short diagonal marks (dakuten and handakuten, respectively). It’s convenient not to have to learn even more symbols.

Japanese also has a system of contracted sounds. They are grouped with sounds ending in “-i” and the y-line to form a single syllable. These require only the addition of a little y-line Hiragana following the primary Hiragana. (Note that the “y” is dropped from some of these syllables.)

  • The k-line: きゃ(kya), きゅ(kyu), きょ(kyo)
  • The s-line: しゃ(sha), しゅ(shu), しょ (sho)
  • The t-line: ちゃ(cha), ちゅ(chu), ちょ(cho)
  • The n-line: にゃ(nya), にゅ(nyu), にょ(nyo)
  • The h-line: ひゃ(hya), ひゅ(hyu), ひょ(hyo)
  • The m-line: みゃ(mya), みゅ(my) みょ(myo)
  • The r-line: りゃ(rya), りゅ(ryu), りょ(ryo)
  • The g-line: ぎゃ(gya), ぎゅ(gyu), ぎょ(gyo)
  • The z-line: じゃ(ja), じゅ(ju), じょ(jo)
  • The b-line: びゃ(bya), びゅ(byu), びょ(byo)
  • The p-line: ぴゃ(pya), ぴゅ(pyu), ぴょ(pyo)

That is the basic idea of the Hiragana script, so there you have it. However, Hiragana (and Katakana) include variants for representing double consonants and long vowels.

Katakana: The Script for Foreign Words and Transcriptions

Learning Katakana is the next logical step after mastering Hiragana because it functions similarly to Hiragana but with distinct characters; some katakana symbols even look like their hiragana equivalents! Since Hiragana and Katakana are so similar, they are sometimes grouped under the umbrella term kana.

Writing Katakana

  • The basic vowels: ア(a), イ(i), ウ(u), エ(e), オ(o)
  • The k-line: カ (ka), キ(ki), ク(ku), ケ(ke), コ(ko)
  • The s-line: サ(sa), シ(shi), ス(su), セ(se), ソ(so)
  • The t-line: タ(ta), チ(chi),ツ(tsu), テ(te), ト(to)
  • The h-line: ハ(ha), ヒ(hi), フ(fu), へ(he), ホ(ho)
  • The n-line: ナ(na), ニ(ni), ヌ(nu), ネ(ne), ノ(no)
  • The m-line: ま(ma), み(mi), む(mu), め(me), も(mo)
  • The y-line: や(ya), ゆ(yu), よ(yo)
  • The r-line: ら(ra), り(ri), る(ru), れ(re), ろ(ro)

わ(wa), を(o/wo), and ん(n)

Let’s look into these 23 additional sounds.

  • The g-line: ガ(ga), ギ(gi), グ(gu), ゲ(ge), ゴ(go)
  • The z-line: ザ(za), ジ(ji), ズ(zu), ゼ(ze), ゾ(zo)
  • The d-line: ダ(da), ヂ(ji), ヅ(zu), デ(de), ド(do) 
  • The b-line: バ(ba), ビ(bi), ブ(bu), べ(be), ボ(bo)
  • The p-line: パ(pa), ピ(pi), プ(pu), ぺ(pe), ポ(po)

Similarly to Hiragana, the contracted sounds are written with the same stroke order. On the other hand, Katakana includes more combinations with tiny vowel characters to transcribe sounds that only existed in Japanese later. These can be spoken just like any other katakana character by combining the consonant of the more immense katakana character with the vowel of the smaller katakana sign.

Examples of this include the フェ (fe) inカフェ (kafe), theティ (ti) in パーティー (paatii), and the ウィ (wi) in ハロウィーン (harowiin)!

A noticeable difference between Katakana and Hiragana is the greater prevalence of straight lines in the former.

Difference between Hiragana and Katakana

Why are there two different Japanese syllabic scripts? If the distinction is merely one of taste, you’ll pick up on the fact that native Japanese words are written in Hiragana. Those words have no kanji because the ideogram is too old or complicated to write. Particles and other grammatical components are also written in this kana script: を (wo)、に (ni)、へ (he;e)、が (ga)、は (ha)

However, foreign words and names are written in Katakana by the Japanese. Manga fans familiar with Japanese will know that Katakana is also used to denote onomatopoeia and stress.

Do you know what a “furigana” is? The pronunciation of a kanji can be seen by looking at the accompanying furigana, which is Hiragana and Katakana printed in miniature above the Kanji. Furigana is used in children’s books and Japanese language textbooks to help students learn how to read Kanji they have never seen before.

When To Use Each Writing System In Different Contexts

When Are Kanji Characters Used?

Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, all with many meanings, are written with Kanji characters. This means that Kanji, rather than Kana, predominates in written Japanese. According to a survey conducted in 2000 by the Japanese newspaper Asahi, Kanji accounted for 41.38 % of all printable characters over a year. Hiragana was used by 36.62 % of the population, whereas Katakana was used by only 6.38 %.

When Are Kana Characters Used?

The distinction between Hiragana and Katakana is purely aesthetic. Typically, Hiragana is used instead of Kanji for words that don’t have a kanji representation or whose Kanji is deemed too difficult for others to understand. This includes particles, postpositions, adverbs, auxiliary verbs, and function words.

Foreign words, current loan words, technical terms, some animals and plants, onomatopoeia, slang, and colloquialisms are typically written in Katakana.

Since it is a Japanese term of origin, the word sumimasen (which means “excuse me” or “sorry”) should be written in Hiragana: すみません。 And this also applies to Yōkoso! (ようこそ!) which means “Welcome!”.

However, since it is a foreign loan word, spōtsu (meaning “sports”) should be spelt in Katakana: スポーツ。 Other instances include the use of the phrases ケーキ(kēki)= cake or コーヒー(kōhī) = coffee.

Common Mistakes to Avoid in Japanese Writing

Let’s be honest: learning to read and write Japanese is challenging. If you want to get it done correctly, here are some common mistakes to watch out for.

Mixing up Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji

As a newbie, you may get these three scripts mixed up. Understand the distinctions between them and how to use that knowledge first. Getting them confused can cause confusion and writing mistakes.

A Mistaken Stroke Order

To correctly write a Japanese character, you must memorise the proper stroke order for that character. Writing that is untidy and difficult to read is often the result of incorrect stroke order.

Particle Misuse

In Japanese, words called “particles” show how various parts of a sentence relate. If misused, they can completely alter the meaning of a sentence, making it impossible to grasp. Some Japanese particle examples are は (wa), が (ga) and を (o/wo).

Cherry blossom in springtime at the historic Higashiyama district, Kyoto in Japan.

Using The Wrong Tense For The Verb

The improper verb tense can alter the meaning of a statement or cause it to sound odd in Japanese. Not that dissimilar from other languages. Time is subject to the whims of verb tenses.

Forgetting To Use Honorific Language

In Japan, speaking honorific words when interacting with others is crucial. If you need to utilise it, you may appear impolite or disrespectful.

We all know that the Japanese place a high value on hierarchy and etiquette, especially within the family, and that one of their most recognisable traditions is the respectful bow. These principles are embedded in Japanese culture and should be respected. It is dependent upon the social setting!

Not Enough Practice

Learning to write in Japanese is the same as learning any other language. It would help if you studied more to make it easier to become fluent. Remember that repetition is the key to mastery.

Conclusion

The writing system of Japanese (Nihongo) is remarkable because it mixes ancient tradition and contemporary ingenuity. Kanji characters, Hiragana and Katakana are all used in the Japanese writing system to express words and concepts, respectively. Kanji were first used to express Japanese words when Chinese characters were introduced to Japan around 650 CE. By 650 CE, a script called Man’ygana had been developed that used Chinese letters for their sounds rather than their meanings to represent Japanese, further obscuring the language’s mysterious origins.

The Japanese writing system is based on kanji, which are complex characters used to represent words or concepts. There may be more than 50,000 kanji characters, yet only a small fraction of those are actually utilised in daily life, according to some estimates. Kanji can be read with a variety of different pronunciations because each character has both a Chinese on-yomi and a Japanese kun-yomi.

After learning Hiragana, moving on to Katakana is a natural progression because the two writing systems serve comparable purposes but use different letters. It expands the number of possible combinations using minuscule vowel symbols, allowing for the transcription of sounds that previously existed only in Japanese. The letters fe (as in kafe) and ti (as in paatii) and wi (as in kai) are just a few examples of such combinations.

Kana is used for words that are not native to Japanese, such as those that are loan words, technical phrases, names of animals and plants, onomatopoeias, slang, and colloquialisms. To say “excuse me” or “sorry” in Japanese, you would write sumimasen in Hiragana, and “Welcome!” would be Ykoso! Katakana should be used for foreign loan words like “sports,” which is spelt sptsu.

Mistakes in Japanese writing include switching between Hiragana and Katakana, using the wrong stroke sequence, misusing particles, writing in the incorrect tense of a verb, and omitting honorific words. Like learning any other language, practising writing Japanese characters requires a lot of practise.

Content Summary

  • Japanese (Nihongo) is a fascinating language because of its distinctiveness, cultural depth, and fascinating writing system.
  • The Japanese writing system is a fascinating mixture of ancient heritage and modern inventiveness, from the mysterious realm of Kanji symbols to the distinctive syllabic letters of Hiragana and Katakana.
  • While the Kanji characters used in Japan are borrowed from China, the actual roots of the Japanese language are still a mystery.
  • However, each kanji character is built up from several individual strokes.
  • These ideograms proved so challenging to write that they were eventually reduced to the simpler kana alphabets of Hiragana and Katakana.
  • Since each Kanji represents a different sound in Japanese, refer to syllabograms.
  • Kanji: The Chinese Characters in Japanese Even for native Japanese speakers, Kanji is often the last writing system to be mastered.
  • The foundation of the Japanese writing system is made up of Kanji, which are complicated letters representing words or ideas.
  • Some sources put the number of kanji characters at over 50,000, albeit only a tiny subset of those are utilised daily.
  • When native Japanese words were written with Kanji, new pronunciations were added to the on-yomi.
  • So now you know why some characters are pronounced one way in one word and another in another!
  • A radical is a simple symbol that forms a kanji character alone or in combination with others.
  • All Kanji may be broken down into these simpler radicals, making them easier to memorise.
  • Kanji can be broken down into roughly four categories determined by the arrangement of their radicals.
  • These kanji were developed to “represent numbers or abstract concepts” using lines and dots.
  • Therefore, rather than depicting a physical object, you would aim to represent the concept you wished to express visually.
  • These Kanji are composites made up of two or more individual characters.
  • For instance, the Kanji used in the verb “to rest”  休む (yasumu) is derived from the words “hito” 人 (person) and “ki”  木 (tree).
  • The two simpler kanji are often chosen because of their proximity to the final character.
  • When a character’s initial on-yomi sounded like a native Japanese word, but the Kanji associated with that sound didn’t convey the word’s meaning, these kanji were created.
  • These Kanji result from a combination of the Kanji for the sound of the word and the Kanji for its meaning.
  • The Kanji for water 水 (mizu, often written as ⺡) is combined with the character for blue 青 (sei) to form the Kanji for clean 清 (sei).Kanji are unquestionably more complicated than Hiragana or Katakana, but don’t let that scare you off; many Kanji are also easy to learn.
  • Learning and memorising kanji will be facilitated by familiarity with radicals and kanji kinds.
  • Learning the stroke order, or the specific procedures used to create each character, can also aid in memorisation.
  • Since all Japanese words are built from these simple units, spelling down individual sounds is unnecessary.
  • The sole distinction is the use of diacritical marks, which are placed above the rightmost hiragana character and can take the form of either a small circle or two short diagonal marks (dakuten and handakuten, respectively).
  • It’s convenient not to have to learn even more symbols.
  • Japanese also has a system of contracted sounds.
  • They are grouped with sounds ending in “-i” and the y-line to form a single syllable.
  • Similarly to Hiragana, the contracted sounds are written with the same stroke order.
  • On the other hand, Katakana includes more combinations with tiny vowel characters to transcribe sounds that only existed in Japanese later.
  • If the distinction is merely one of taste, you’ll pick up on the fact that native Japanese words are written in Hiragana.
  • Manga fans familiar with Japanese will know that Katakana is also used to denote onomatopoeia and stress.
  • Furigana is used in children’s books and Japanese language textbooks to help students learn how to read Kanji they have never seen before.
  • According to a survey conducted in 2000 by the Japanese newspaper Asahi, Kanji accounted for 41.38% of all printable characters over a year.
  • Since it is a Japanese term of origin, the word sumimasen (which means “excuse me” or “sorry”) should be written in Hiragana: すみません。
  • However, since it is a foreign loan word, spōtsu (meaning “sports”) should be spelt in Katakana: スポーツ。
  • Understand the distinctions between them and how to use that knowledge first.
  • Getting them confused can cause confusion and writing mistakes.
  • The improper verb tense can alter the meaning of a statement or cause it to sound odd in Japanese.

FAQs

Should I Learn Hiragana Or Katakana First?

Start with Hiragana, then go on to Katakana and Kanji. Unlike Katakana and Kanji, Hiragana appears to be written in cursive. The native Japanese language, as well as its ends and particles, are written using this script. Each of Hiragana’s 46 characters stands for one syllable.

Do Japanese Prefer Hiragana Or Katakana?

Hiragana is the primary and most often used script for Japanese.

Can You Learn Katakana In A Day?

Hiragana and Katakana may usually be learned in a week or two. If you’re dedicated, you can finish it in a few days.

What Kanji Should I Learn First?

In Japan, the first kanji students learn is the jouyou. These are the most frequently encountered characters; mastering them will allow you to read at least 80% of all written Japanese. That’s a significant change!

How Many Years Does It Take To Master Kanji?

Actual Fluency estimates that “if you learn 25 kanji a day and have no prior experience with Japanese, you should be able to read kanji within three months,” even though “by most standards,” it takes up to three years to acquire the basic kanji that make up most Japanese sentences.

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