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Japanese: One Language, Three Writing Systems

Charlie Bodsworth

Friday, 12 April 2024

Japanese is one of the linguistically furthest languages from English, and its three writing systems are no exception. Let's take a quick walk through the history behind them and how they work harmoniously together.

While there are a handful of languages out there that use more than one writing system, Japanese takes this idea to a whole new level. It uses THREE writing systems simultaneously, having been intricately woven together over the course of history.


Take a look at this simple sentence, for example:




watashi wa piza wo taberu no ga suki desu.


I like eating pizza.

The red parts are kanji. The blue parts are katakana. The rest are hiragana. So why are there three, and how do they all fit together like this?


Kanji 漢字

Literally meaning “Chinese characters”, the kanji writing system is - as you can probably now guess - derived from the Chinese writing system. Japan had its first contact with Chinese in the 1st century, but continued to be a predominantly illiterate area until kanji’s importation around the 5th century. Over time, there have been some adaptations to these characters, as well as several kanji that are unique to Japan, called kokuji (国字 - meaning “national characters”). While it is now estimated that there are around 50,000 kanji characters in total, only 2,000-3,000 are in common everyday usage.


Kanji is used for writing nouns, verb stems, and other key semantic information. Due to the lack of spaces in Japanese sentences, kanji helps to make the key information stand out and speed up reading. Most kanji have two readings, dependant on context - a kun-yomi 訓読み and an on-yomi 音読み. The former is the original Japanese pronunciation, and the latter is derived from the Chinese pronunciation of the character.


As for the writing itself, the characters are usually pictographic or ideographic - in some way visually representing its semantic meaning. For example, mountain 山 (yama) has a peak in the middle, kind of like a mountain itself. Similarly, some kanji are modular and expand on one another to show a connected meaning, such as tree 木 (ki) and forest 森 (mori). See how it basically contains three little trees!


Hiragana ひらがな

Next up are the kanas: hiragana and katakana. In the 6th century, Japanese poets developed a writing system called man’yōgana, which utilised kanji’s phonetic values, rather than semantic values. This system evolved into today’s hiragana - a writing system that was first created and used by ladies in the Japanese imperial court during the Keian period by visually simplified man’yōgana.


In hiragana, each symbol represents a sound - usually a consonant followed by a vowel (e.g. ka か, sa さ, ta た), with the sounds a, i, u, e, o, and n being exceptions. Hiragana is mostly used for grammatical indicators, such as particles and verb endings. It can also be used in place of kanji, where the specific kanji is unlikely to be known, such as in children’s books.


While there are several nuances to this writing system, one important feature of note for the two kanas is what is called dakuten 濁点 and handakuten 半濁音. These are little marks that are placed in the top-right of certain kana characters to indicate slightly different voicings. For example, ひ (hi) has no mark, び (bi) has a dakuten, ぴ (pi) has a handakuten. This feature was first introduced in the 16th century by travelling Portuguese missionaries who wanted help differentiating these sounds.


Katakana カタカナ

Katakana is a further simplified phonetic alphabet, based on Man’yōgana and created by Buddist monks during the 9th century. It functions almost identically to hiragana, but is primarily used for foreign loanwords or names (so your name would be written in katakana!). It can also be used for things like onomatopoeia and emphasis.


While Japanese is certainly complicated to wrap our English-speaking and Latin-writing heads around, there is so much culture and history to how its writing systems work together and complement each other. So if you want to learn more, don’t let it intimidate you, just enjoy the learning process!


ありがとうございます! Arigatō gozaimasu!


About the Author

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Japanese language writing alphabet Charlie Bodsworth


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