We all know that learning the Japanese language is somewhat difficult yet interesting — and one of the factors that make Japanese a complex language is the writing system. In English, we have 26 uppercase letters and 26 lowercase ones — making it really easy to determine them all. If you’re used to the Latin or Roman alphabet, you’ll possibly be overwhelmed with the Japanese writing system.
There are several main kinds of Japanese writing systems: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. These three are used together to form a complete sentence; that’s why you need to learn all of them. They work together as a team — they blend perfectly when used together.
Let’s take the English language as an example. We need to learn nouns, verbs, and articles. If you don’t know how to use nouns, you’ll probably have a hard time identifying a person, thing, or place that you’re describing. If you don’t know anything about verbs, it’ll be difficult for you to talk about what a person or a thing is doing.
What is Hiragana?
The word “hiragana” means “ordinary syllabic script,” and was originally called “onnade” which means “women’s hand” because it was mainly used by women up until the 10th century when it was finally used by everyone. Previously, there were various characters used to represent the same syllable making Hiragana a really complex one. However, it was simplified later. Now, each symbol stands for a specific syllable. If you put them together, you can pronounce the syllables to create words.
Being the basis of the Japanese writing system, Hiragana is the first alphabet taught to children. It has rounded letter shapes like the English cursive making it clear and neat.
Hiragana is used for:
- grammatical elements
- articles, auxiliary verbs, suffixes of nouns
- verb and adjective endings (okurigana)
- words that have no Kanji
- adverbs and names for animals and plants
These are some examples of words written in Hiragana:
わたし (wa ta shi) which means “I”
あなた (a na ta) which means “you”
はい (ha i) which means “yes”
いいえ (i i e) which means “no”
すし (su shi) which means “sushi”
What is Katakana?
The word “Katakana” means “fragmentary kana” since Katakana characters are made from fragments of a more complex Kanji. Developed during the Heian period, Katakana is the shorthand form of the characters of an ancient Chinese writing system called Man’yōgana. If Hiragana was originally used by women back then, Katakana was considered “men’s writing” up until the 20th century.
The Katakana characters have short and straight strokes with sharp corners — some characters really look like Hiragana’s but are sharper with fewer curves.
Katakana is used for:
- any foreign or loan words
- writing sports names, brand names, and some company names
- describing sounds which we called ‘onomatopoeia’
- scientific-technical terms
- names of animals, plants, and minerals
- emphasizing words in a sentence, similar in using bold letters in English
These are some examples of words written in Katakana:
アメリカ(a me ri ka) which means “America”
アイスクリーム (a i su ku ri- mu) which means “ice-cream”
コーヒー (ko- hi-) which means “coffee”
テレビ (te re bi) which means “television”
ザーザー (za- za-) describing the sound of heavy rain
Although some foreign words can be written in Hiragana, it’s still best and appropriate to write them in Katakana.
What is Kanji?
And now that you know Hiragana and Katakana let’s talk about the most complex Japanese writing system — Kanji. You’re probably aware of how difficult it is to learn the Chinese characters. If you can now think of some Chinese characters, then you’re thinking about Kanji. Why? Because Kanji characters are believed to have originated from the Chinese language. Even in English, Kanji is called the “Chinese language.”
As for being the major alphabet of the Japanese language, Kanji has about 8,000 characters which represent a general word, a name, or an abstract concept. Once you combine individual Kanji characters, you’ll come out with phrases or sentences similar to the way of the English language.
Kanji is used for:
- most nouns
- verb, adverb, and adjective stems
- traditional Japanese names
These are some examples of words written in Kanji:
川 (kawa) which means “river”
学校 (gakkō) which means “school”
見 in 見る (mi-ru) which means “see”
白 in 白い (shiro-i) which means “white”
速 in 速く (haya-ku) which means “quickly”
上手 as in 上手に (jōzu-ni) which means “masterfully”
And if we’ll talk about the level of difficulty here, then I would probably say that Kanji is the hardest Japanese writing system to learn. Currently, it has about 3000 characters which will probably need a lot of time to study. But what’s interesting here is that nearly all Kanji characters have a meaning, for example:
真 which means “truth”
愛 which means “love”
美 which means “beauty”
大和 which means “strong and masculine”
凛 which means “a smart, well-mannered and balanced girl”
Looking back at Hiragana and Katakana, we know that they’re both phonetic. Meaning, each character represents a single syllable and that the pronunciations can’t be done in any other way. But Kanji is different. It is a system of symbols which represent words or ideas. They can have different meanings and pronunciations which depends on how you’re going to use them. Kanji can be used as a word all by itself OR can be a part of another word, for example:
木 which means “tree”
木造 which means “wooden” or “made of wood”
Check out this video to learn more about the Japanese writing systems:
What should I learn first? Hiragana, Katakana, or Kanji?
In learning the English language, you start learning the ABC’s. That’s what you also need to do if you study the Japanese writing system — start with the basics. As we’ve mentioned earlier, Japanese kids start learning Hiragana first. So being a beginner in Japanese, we will consider you like a “kid.” That being said, you need to learn Hiragana first before you learn Katakana and Kanji.
In the Japanese language, Hiragana is the main phonetic writing system that is used to represent every specific sound. Hence, learning Hiragana first will teach you how to pronounce all Japanese sounds. No wonder it’s the first one Japanese children learn to master.
Once you’ve started learning Hiragana, you’ll unconsciously learn Katakana, too. Why? Because some of the Hiragana characters even represent the exact same sounds and look quite similar to Katakana. However, remember that Hiragana and Katakana have been used differently according to their representations.
Kanji characters are probably the most complex among the three writing systems since they are logographic Chinese characters (Hanzi) that are adapted for Japanese — but Kanzi and Hanzi aren’t totally similar. To know more, you might want to check out the article “What’s the Difference Between Kanji and Hanzi?”
And perhaps you’re aware that Chinese characters, being honest here, are one of the most difficult (or probably the most difficult) languages to write…and learn. So if you’re learning to write Japanese, then Kanji may be your last one on the list.
However, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to learning the Japanese writing system. It ALWAYS differs from one person to another. Of course, if you’re Chinese, then Kanji will be way too easy for you. It takes time and effort to know what’s the best way for you in learning the Japanese writing systems. Of course, if you’re Chinese, then Kanji will be way too easy for you.
Japanese Typography: Horizontal or Vertical?
Let’s talk about Japanese typography. You’re probably confused about the direction of writing Japanese characters since you might have encountered several Japanese texts, am I right?
Here, we have two sets of texts. Similar to the standard English text, the first one was written horizontally (yokogaki) and should be read from left to right:
I am learning Japanese.
1 2 3 4.
I want to master the language.
5 6 7 8 9 10.
Inspired by the traditional Chinese writing system, the second set was written vertically (tategaki). In this way, you should read it top to bottom, from the right column to the left:
I 5 I 1
Want 6 am 2
To 7 learning 3
Master 8 Japanese. 4
In today’s generation, we are still using these two orientations; horizontal and vertical — but should be written according to its purpose.
When do we use the HORIZONTAL orientation?
- For terms or phrases from foreign languages which can’t be done vertically
- For language-related books such as Japanese to English dictionary
- For scientific and mathematical writing, since we can’t change the ordering of an equation on a math problem to retain its interpretation/meaning
- For musical notation to keep up with the Western style, but written vertically for Japanese instruments like shakuhachi (bamboo flute) or the kugo (harp)
When do we use the VERTICAL orientation?
- For traditional and humanistic writings
- For Japanese mangas and novels
- For addresses on mailing envelopes and business cards, but the English translations are written horizontally
Just keep in mind that the more traditional and formal it is, the more it’s needed to be written vertically.
The Romanization of Japanese: Romaji
In learning Japanese, it’s necessary to know the three main writing systems. Why? Because you’ll be using them in your everyday communication. While learning this language, you’ll get by with using Romaji (or Romanji) — the romanization of the Japanese written language. Romaji simply means “Roman characters,” and it’s the representation of the Japanese sounds using the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet.
These are some examples of words written in Romaji:
inu, neko, tori, nihon, koppu
inu = 犬、いぬ which means “dog”
neko = 猫、ねこ which means “cat”
tori = 鳥、とり which means “bird”
nihon = 日本、にほん which means “Japan”
koppu = コップ which means “cup”
Pretty simple, isn’t it? You’ll be using Romaji when learning the sound of Japanese syllables! However, Romaji alone can’t function completely without the three main Japanese writing systems. That’s why every Japanese learner should learn Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.