Japanese language logo with kanji

Japanese writing system(s)

I get asked about the Japanese writing system a lot: “How do many symbols are there?” “It’s like Chinese except easier, right?” It’s actually pretty complicated, but here’s the crash course.

There are three systems in simultaneous use today, called hiragana, katakana, and kanji. They are each used for different purposes, and look differently too. Compare the upper-case and lower-case alphabets of English: we use both in nearly every sentence.

History lesson

The best way to explain their purposes and features is through history. Way back when, the Japanese had no way to write their language. One day, a ship came over from the Asian mainland, and it brought (among other things) Buddhist documents written in Chinese.

There are two things you should know at this point. First, Chinese and Japanese are completely unrelated languages. Their grammars have little in common, and there is no overlap (at least at this point in time) in their vocabularies. Second, Chinese writing is only ideographs – where each character represents an idea. A familiar analogy is Arabic numerals in English: the character “1” has a particular meaning associated with it, rather than a pronunciation. Derivatives of it, like “1st” and “13” sound nothing like “one”, but all share a meaning related to one-ness. Because there are a huge number of ideas out there – many more than there are sounds in a language – there are countless characters.

Okay, back to the story. The Japanese learned how to read and write Chinese, and actually spoke Chinese in their courts. Compare this to the Czar’s family, who spoke French with one another. At first, the nobility carried on with this two-language lifestyle, a phenomenon known as diglossia.

Eventually, though, this became too cumbersome. Some of the women in the court came up with shorthand derived from these characters. Some created a code of syllables based off of certain pieces of characters. For example, they created the letter ヤ ya from the Chinese character 也 (which is pronounced ya), and ク ku from 久 ku. This is the origin of the katakana syllabary. And other court ladies did something slightly different: they created a code of syllables from the cursive forms of Chinese characters. Some examples include ほ ho from the character 保 ho, and わwa from the character 和 wa. This is called the hiragana syllabary.

Another transformation that took place is the application of Chinese characters to Japanese native words. So, if you’ll recall, Chinese and Japanese didn’t have related vocabularies. So the Japanese took all the Chinese characters for all the different concepts, and mapped their own words onto the appropriate characters. Here’s an example. The native Japanese word for water is mizu while in Chinese it is shuǐ.  The Chinese write water as 水 and read it shuǐ. So what the Japanese began to do is write 水 to mean water, while pronouncing it as the word they’d always used for water: mizu.

Confusing enough? Apparently not. The Japanese also decided to go ahead and start adopting Chinese pronunciations of certain words and roots into their own language. Let’s go back to the example of water to illustrate: up until now, the Japanese were simply pronouncing 水 as mizu. Now what they began to do is give it a second, Chinese-derived pronunciation: sui.

So today, when a Japanese reader sees the character 水, they need to quickly assess whether the word calls for the Chinese-derived pronunciation or the Japanese native one, e.g. 水中 suichū “underwater” vs. 水色 mizuiro “aqua colored”. Another pair of perhaps more familiar examples uses the character 神 “god” (shin from Chinese and kami in native Japanese): 神道 shintō “the way of the gods” vs. 神風 kamikaze “divine wind”.

It is these characters, initially from Chinese, which are called kanji – regardless of which pronunciation scheme is used.

How they’re used today

Now we’re at the present, and you’re probably wondering, “how do these all fit together?” This is also not totally simple.

Katakana is used much in the same way we use italics in English: for foreign words, for species names, and for onomatopoeia.

Most adjectives, verbs, and nouns are written in kanji. Some kanji are obscure or too difficult to write, so they are substituted with hiragana. But because of their compactness and visual clarity of meaning, kanji are generally preferred when usable.

Hiragana is the catch-all system: it’s the default for cases where the other two don’t apply. It’s for grammatical particles and conjugations, and for words with obscure kanji. It’s also used for children and foreigners studying the language.

Sample sentence

Let’s see all 3 systems in action with this example I made up. Blue indicates hiragana, red indicates katakana, and black indicates kanji.

レストランで友達と昼ご飯を食べました。

Japanese Information レストラン 友達 べました
Transliteration Information resutoran-de tomodachi-to hiru-go-han-wo tabe-ma-shita
Gloss Information restaurant-at friends-with midday-honorific-
rice-dir.obj
eat-formal-past
Translation Information I ate lunch with my friends at a restaurant.

Hopefully this was clear and you learned something. Please leave comments below or contact me using the contact buttons! To explore the world of linguistics more, check out my resources page.


Image source: https://www.oia.hokudai.ac.jp/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/nihongo.jpg

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