The Japanese writing system, like other aspects of Japanese culture, is complicated and fascinating. Its three main character sets are a notorious struggle for second-language learners and young native speakers alike. While many tongues have what is called synchronic digraphia (where two or more writing systems for the same language coexist), Japanese is famous for having three main character sets within one single writing system. Of interest to linguistics-minded folks, these three character sets systematically express different areas of the language’s grammar (word classes, for instance). Below is my attempt at a fun, informative introduction to the system.
The three main character sets of Japanese are kanji, hiragana, and katakana.
漢字 | KANJI
Kanji characters are logographic, meaning they cannot be spelled (sounded) out, but instead must be memorized whole. As many know, they were taken from the Chinese writing system. The term kanji literally means “Chinese characters”. If you’ve ever complained about the obtuse nature of English orthography, or remember the pain of memorizing weird word spellings as a child, consider this: a Japanese person of average education knows (i.e. has memorized) about three thousand kanji. Dictionaries contain about ten thousand kanji.
Kanji are used for content words – nouns, verb stems, adjective stems, adverbs, personal names and place names. They’re composed of radicals, graphical pieces that often have either a semantic or phonetic quality (they indicate part of the meaning or the sound of the character, respectively). There is a particular stroke order for each character, which everyone is expected to follow when writing. And as if all that wasn’t enough of a challenge, there are also two separate pronunciations – on’yomi and kun’yomi – that depend on context or conjugation.
Here are some examples of kanji:
東京 – Tokyo (place name) 長谷川 – Hasegawa (surname)
薔薇 – bara (a noun, means “rose”)
違う – chigau (a verb or adjective, means “to be wrong” or “wrong”. Only the first character, the verb stem, is kanji; the second character, or conjugation, is hiragana)
Kana characters include the two sets hiragana and katakana. They’re both phonetic, meaning they can be sounded out. Kana also originally came from Chinese, but the characters are so altered and simplified that their sources are not apparent today. Japan adopted Chinese writing in the third century, and ran into trouble since the two spoken languages were completely unrelated. They began using characters not for their meanings, but for their sound values only. Both modern-day kana sets have an inventory of 46 characters (along with two types of diacritics), and these constitute a syllabary of consonant-vowel pairings.
ひらがな | HIRAGANA
Hiragana has rounded symbols, smooth curves. The hiragana syllabary is used for native words, and grammatical elements like particles, auxiliary verbs, and inflections (e.g. verb conjugations, noun suffixes). Japanese children’s books are mostly in hiragana since younger kids haven’t yet learned many kanji. When books do include kanji, they have small furigana by the side – hiragana or katakana to help with pronunciation.
Here are some examples of hiragana:
ありがとう – arigatou (“thank you”) ください – kudasai (“please”)
です – desu (auxiliary verb, “is”) の, は, を – no, wa, o (particles)
カタカナ | KATAKANA
With katakana, you’ll notice similarities to hiragana, but the symbol shapes are clearly more angular. Katakana is used for foreign names and words, loanwords, onomatopoeia, and emphasis.
Here are some examples of katakana:
アメリカ – amerika (foreign name, “America”)
サラリーマン – sararii man (“salary man”, i.e. office worker)
テレビ – terebi (loanword, “television”)
ニャンニャン – nyan nyan (onomatopoeia, sound of cat meowing)
* * * * *
The Japanese system has TWO directions for writing: vertical (tategaki), and horizontal (yokogaki). Vertical is the traditional form, running from top to bottom, right to left on the page. Books written with vertical text open the opposite way from Western language books. Horizontal is the direction Western language readers are used to – left to right on the page. This Western style is used in more modern applications, like websites. To maximize space, newspapers, magazines, and signs frequently use both directions! Then, because we still haven’t juggled enough variables, Japanese text doesn’t include spaces between words, so readers must infer based on context where divisions are to be made.
Cool Japanese literature tangent: The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 – Genji Monogatari), written by noblewoman Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century, is frequently considered the world’s first novel or first modern novel.
I’ll leave you with some marvelously idiosyncratic Japanese words and concepts, for which there are definitely no concise words/phrases in English. You can observe how the three character sets interact in various ways. (Most of the words come from this site).
|Japanese||Pronunciation (in rōmaji)||Character set(s)||Definition||Literal meaning|
|教育ママ||kyouiku mama||kanji + katakana||A mother who is obsessed with her children’s education|
|バーコード人||baakoudo jin||katakana + kanji||Men with ridiculous comb-overs||“barcode people”|
|横飯||yoko meshi||kanji||Western food||“horizontal rice”|
|侘寂||wabi-sabi||kanji||An aesthetic that sees beauty in the ephemerality and imperfection of things both natural and manmade|
|ぽかぽか||poka poka||hiragana||Feeling warm throughout one’s body|
|口寂しい||kuchi sabishii||kanji + hiragana||When you’re not hungry but you eat anyway||“mouth lonely”|
|猫糞||neko baba||kanji||To steal/pocket and pretend innocence||“cat feces”|
|ありがた迷惑||arigata meiwaku||hiragana + kanji||“An act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favor, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude”|
 I say three “main” character sets because there are actually more, if you count Arabic numerals, rōmaji (i.e. the Roman alphabet), punctuation, etc. Also, this person argues that the focus on three+ character sets in Japanese is silly and that English and other writing systems have multiple sets as well (capital and lowercase letters in English, for example), but in order to keep things succinct here, I didn’t go into that level of detail. Additionally, I disagree with them that capital vs. lowercase Roman letters possess the same grammatical significance as kanji/hiragana/katakana and so it’s not an apples to apples comparison.
 Where each symbol represents a syllable.