There are three different types of Japanese characters. These are called Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. There are several thousand characters in those different character sets combined, and they’re used together in many different ways, often even in the same word…
So, all in all, the Japanese writing system can appear beautiful. But it is also rather complicated. Especially to an outside eye.In this article, we’ll learn a little about the history of the Japanese language before covering what Japanese symbols are called and the basics of the three main character sets which together form written Japanese. We’ll then talk briefly about the fourth script – the Romanised Romaji script – and why you might need it.
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History of the Japanese language
While almost every other language on the planet has been categorically identified as being part of a certain linguistic family, Japanese remains in many ways unique.
There are at least a dozen different theories about where Japanese came from. The most popular theory relates Japanese to Korean and the wider Altaic family of languages which also features Turkish, Tungusic and Mongolian. However, there is also a competing idea that Japanese arises from the same roots as the Austronesian family of languages. Some modern Japanese scholars have suggested that the pair of these ideas might be true, and Japanese is a hybrid of both. Or neither!
Until around 400-500CE the Japanese language had no written form. After this, Chinese Kanji were introduced, becoming a language known today as Old Japanese. Old Japanese was quite distinct from Modern Japanese, with a completely different grammar and morphology – and, critically, the fact that it only used Kanji rather than three scripts of Modern Japanese. The growth from one “version” of the language to the other can broadly be said to have taken place from around 1100-1500CE.
The Hiragana and Katakana character sets (see below) were developed around the 8th or 9th centuries to make it easier to write Japanese words using Chinese symbols. Hiragana seems to have come from a simplified version of Chinese Kanji, while Katakana seems to have been created by extracting part of Kanji.
As a final point, it’s worth remembering that the Ainu, a distinct ethnic group who are the original inhabitants of the island of Hokkaido, speak a completely different language from the rest of Japan. The Ainu language resists efforts to classify it even more stringently than Japanese does! That being said, many modern Ainu do not speak their own language at all having completely assimilated into Japanese society.
The basics of Japanese writing
Japanese is traditionally written vertically from right to left across the page. But, while this is the original orientation, there are a large number of places these days where you will find Japanese written in the same fashion as English, horizontally from left to right across the page.
There’s not really a strictly defined usage area for either, but there’s a definite tendency to find the more traditional vertical right-to-left writing style in more traditional forms of writing or media. This could mean in novels or some types of poetry. More contemporary, business, scientific or foreign-language related writings are more likely to be written horizontally from left to right.
A good example of the latter is online publication in Japanese. This is almost entirely done with the copy having a horizontal orientation. Whether this is due to technical restrictions or preference for left-to-right, horizontal text or because of this orientation’s associations with being used with things which are more “modern”, is largely anyone’s guess.
In a Japanese print newspaper, you will often find both horizontal and vertical orientations of copy used on the same page. Don’t let the apparently random appearance fool you here – there’s a logical system in play. Even if it is difficult to explain!
One of the most interesting facts about the Japanese language though is that it features those three different types of written characters.
What are Japanese symbols called?
Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana Though it may sound confusing initially – and in fact can remain so for a long time! – Japanese actually has three different types of characters – Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana:
- Kanji – There are around 2000 Kanji symbols which are formally accepted as being in common daily usage (though in actual fact many are not used with much frequency). They are generally nouns, or verb or adjective stems which usually need to be combined with a Hiragana character to have a meaning.
- Hiragana – There are 46 basic “gojūon” Hiragana symbols, but over 60 other variants of various types. These characters have a more rounded, gentle appearance. They are frequently used as particles, auxiliary verbs and noun suffixes, but entire works can be and are written in Hiragana and Katakana. A Japanese child will usually only start learning Kanji at elementary or primary school.
- Katakana – Again, there are 46 basic Katakana symbols as well as a number of modified forms. They are most often used for emphasis and for foreign loanwords. But again, in combination with Hiragana, Katakana characters have many uses. They have a harsher, more angular appearance.
These can all be used in conjunction with each other, and sometimes are even within the same sentence. The proportion in which these different types of characters are used in a single piece will vary. For example, the following makeup is said to be very easy to read and many newspaper editors will seek to ensure this approximate weighting:
- Hiragana – 70%
- Kanji – 20%
- Katakana – 10%
A young woman practicing kanji. Ukiyo-e woodblock print by Yōshū Chikanobu, 1897
As anyone who has tried to learn the language can attest, Chinese has one of the most in-depth writing systems in the world. The Chinese language features tens of thousands of characters. Somewhat helpfully, the Chinese
characters used as part of Japanese Kanji number less than two thousand by official recommendation:
- In 1946 – the government marked out 1850 characters as being in daily use.
- In 1981 – this was formalised as the Joyo Kanji List – “Kanji for Daily Use” – and expanded to 1945 characters.
The list of Kanji for Daily Use is required learning for Japanese children in primary and secondary schools. Newspapers will almost always try to restrict the characters they use to ones which feature in that list…
But it’s still pretty extensive! It gets worse when you consider that a single Kanji character might be pronounced in several different ways depending on how it is being used. And that Kanji characters are often used in combination with characters from the other two Japanese scripts… Hiragana Hiragana first came to prominence around the start of the first millennium as “women’s hand” (onna-de). This is as opposed to kanji, which was sometimes known as “men’s hand” (otoko-de). There are several theories as to how hiragana was developed, including by Buddhist priests, and by the women of the imperial court in the city which would become modern Kyoto.
Certainly, after the development of Hiragana, Japanese women of the time – who had previously been thought “not to need” education – soon became highly literate. The famous works the Tale of Genji (1108) and Sei Shonagon (966-1025) both had female authors.
Hiragana and Katakana are known as kana syllabaries. They consist of 46 basic letters each:
- 5 vowels
- 40 initial consonants followed by vowels
- 1 finishing “n” or “m”
The way Hiragana is used in Modern Japanese is very varied. Hiragana can be used to write nouns or to form the end of verbs. Hiragana letters also show a verb’s inflection, help indicate possession by being used as conjunctions, identify direct objects, and are used as adjectives and prepositions. Some words, like the famous greetings konnichiwa and sayonara are composed entirely of hiragana symbols.
But almost any segment of Japanese writing will contain both Kanji and Hiragana. It will often contain Katakana too. Katakana Like Hiragana, Katakana was first developed to improve the ease with which Chinese Kanji symbols could be used to represent Japanese. These days, Katakana is used in a variety of contexts. The most famous of these is when bringing foreign loanwords into the language. To the native speaker’s eye, some foreign terms look entirely unnatural when written using Hiragana.
However, that’s not where Katakana’s use ends. It is used heavily in manga – Japanese comics – where it could express the sound of an attack or be used to indicate a rise in tension. There’s also a modern practice which involves Katakana being used to phonetically spell out foreign words rather than write them as Kanji symbols. This is increasingly common, especially in certain areas such as the fashion industry. For example:
- Elegant: kanji – 上品 katakana – エレガント “E-LE-GA-NN-TO”
- Luxury: kanji – 高級 katakana – ラグジュアリー “LA-GU-JU-A-RI”
Romaji Finally, Romaji is the Latinised or Romanised version of the Japanese writing system. There are three main systems currently in use:
- Hepburn Romanisation
- Kunrei-shiki Romanisation
- Nihon-shiki Romanisation
Hepburn is by far and away the most popular.
Romaji is a great tool to use when you want to learn Japanese. Familiarise yourself with the correct pronunciation of Japanese letters in the romaji script and you’ll soon be able to pronounce a lot of written Japanese.
With it being such a complicated writing system, you may well need all the help you can get!
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