There are three types of writing systems in Japanese, and each one of them serves a specific purpose in a text.
This is one of the main reasons why the language is often touted as being one of the most notoriously difficult to master, especially when it comes to reading comprehension and written ability.
The complex list of characters can seem like a confusing blur of lines on a page, and this isn’t helped at all by the lack of spaces in written Japanese.
The three Japanese writing systems are called Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana. While each of them uses very different characters, they are used together to form words and sentences.
While this might sound like a huge headache and a big obstacle to learning how to write in Japanese, each system is relatively straightforward to identify and can be easy to use once you know the rules.
Origins of Japanese Writing Systems
Before take a look at the different types of Japanese writing, or scripts as they’re commonly known, we’re going to explore the origins of this peculiar writing tradition.
The history of the Japanese language and its writing systems is a bit of an enigma. With a written form that is so complex, it has proven difficult for linguists to pin down exactly how each script came about.
It’s one of the only languages of a major nation which has its roots shrouded in mystery, meaning there isn’t too much information about how it originally came to be.
There are many different theories and debates surrounding the history of the Japanese language, and these are divided up into the spoken and the written elements.
Many consider the modern form of Japanese writing as an adaptation from Chinese. This is because the Kanji script uses many ideographs or characters that are common in Chinese. This overlap is clearly recognisable to speakers of both Chinese and Japanese, but the origins of the other writing systems are less clear.
In fact, the first recorded examples of Japanese writing which date way back to the 5th and 6th centuries A.D. are of the Chinese language. That is to say, Chinese was written in Japan before a writing system was developed for the Japanese language. Over time, words were used to capture the nuance of the Japanese spoken word, and so the Chinese text evolved into a new one fit for the Japanese language.
Kanji can convey a lot of meaning, but the development of two other writing systems was necessary to express nuance in Japanese writing. Interestingly, Katakana was thought to have come about as a result of priests who would read Chinese texts, translate them into Japanese, and would need something to help them remember more readily.
The Hiragana writing system and the Katakana writing system fall under the label of ‘kana’, which means that they are both syllabic scripts. Curiously, while Hiragana works closely with the Kanji to form many parts of speech, Katakana is largely used for foreign borrowed words, onomatopoeia, and slang.
So to summarise, how exactly the Japanese writing systems came to be is still somewhat shrouded in mystery. However, what we do know is that the Kanji system was borrowed from Chinese, and the two kana systems were developed to fill in the gaps and capture the nuance of the Japanese language.
The Kanji writing system in Japanese consists of characters which are borrowed from the Chinese language.
This script is made up of ideograms. Ideograms are characters which each have their own meaning, and can stand alone to represent an object, action, or concept.
As a result, if you were to only learn the Kanji in Japanese, you would still be able to understand and communicate effectively.
To mirror the fact that Kanji can have a complex meaning attached to them, each ideogram can be made up of anywhere from 2-20 strokes of the pen. This means that they will take more time to master than the kana, at least as far as memorising and writing them out goes.
It’s thought that if you know 3000 of the 45,000 or so Kanji, then you can understand the vast majority of common texts. Better still, if you just learn 100 or 200, you will be able to recognise about half of what you see in most newspapers and other everyday texts.
This is great to know, since it makes the daunting task of learning all the Kanji seem less intimidating. You can get by with just a couple hundred in the beginning, and this will serve you very well. This of course assumes that you are learning the most commonly used Kanji.
Common Uses for Kanji
Kanji are largely used to form the main parts of speech, which includes everything from nouns and verbs to adjectives and adverbs.
However, unlike in English, the Kanji often require assistance to form the words.
In many instances, the Kanji acts as the stem of the word, and the Hiragana acts as the ending.
This means you’ll need to learn the two scripts together to give yourself a real chance of solid Japanese reading comprehension and writing skills.
Hiragana is one of two syllabary scripts in Japanese, which together with katakana is grouped under the kana category of writing.
Unlike Kanji, the characters used in the Hiragana system of writing each correspond to a single sound or syllable, rather than an entire word or complete meaning.
While the Kanji script is responsible for the main parts of speech, the Hiragana script covers everything from suffixes to function words and particles.
There are 46 characters, with 5 vowels and 41 consonants. This will likely come as a relief to know, since there are far fewer characters than there are with the Kanji script.
It’s a good idea to think of the Hiragana script as the second most important writing system behind the Kanji.
As we touched upon earlier, if you know a few hundred Kanji, you can get by when it comes to basic reading and writing in Japanese.
If you add the most common Hiragana characters to that, then you will be well on your way to being able to communicate effectively.
Common Uses for Hiragana
The primary purpose of the Hiragana characters is as suffixes for Kanji stems.
This process, referred to in Japanese as Okurigana, accounts for the majority of instances where you will find Hiragana as you read Japanese texts.
If you find this hard to imagine, think of a verb in the present continuous, for example ‘watching’. In Japanese, the stem of the word ‘watch’ is covered by the Kanji stem, while the suffix ‘ing’ is covered by the Hiragana character.
While this may seem confusing at first, with a bit of practise you will start to recognise clearly when and how to use Hiragana in a sentence.
The katakana script is the least commonly used of the three, so you shouldn’t need to dedicate as much time to studying it as Kanji and Hiragana.
Nevertheless, Katakana is still very useful, and can be used to express foreign ideas and sounds.
Like Hiragana, the Katakana script is syllabary and is formed from characters that each take on a single sound like a vowel or consonant.
The characters are generally simple to write, as they often only require a few strokes at most.
There are 48 characters in total, with 5 vowels, 1 consonant, and 42 syllabograms.
A syllabogram is a sign you write for a syllable, and can be a mix of both vowels and consonants.
Common Uses for Katakana
The Katakana writing system is primarily used to refer to any words or concepts borrowed from a foreign language.
A good way to think of this is to imagine the words that would usually appear in italics in a text, as these will be the ones represented by Katakana. It is used sometimes in the same way we would use italics in a text too, that is to say to represent that something is important.
It is also used commonly for onomatopoeia, so it certainly has its place in creative writing and poetry. This is worth knowing if you plan on studying the popular Haiku, or writing your own short Japanese poems.
You will also find the Katakana used for scientific or technical terms, animals and plants, as well as slang and colloquialisms. Plus if you have ever visited Japan, you will surely have seen some written on billboards or advertisements, even if you didn’t recognise it at the time.
While these kinds of uses won’t be of interest to the beginner language-learner, later down the road they will be what helps distinguish good Japanese from great Japanese.
That means the sooner you familiarise yourself with them, the better. A good way to start is reading Japanese comics, as you’ll find plenty of onomatopoeia written in the Katakana script.