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Introduction to the Japanese Writing System

August 10, 2012
By
This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Japanese Writing System
  • Introduction to the Japanese Writing System

Note: I originally intended this all to be one post, but it was becoming far, far too long. So, I’m splitting this up into a series. This is the first article in the “Japanese Writing System” series.

To the untrained eye, Japanese writing looks like chaos. A friend of mine (who speaks fluent Japanese ^^) once told me her father refers to written Japanese as “chicken feet”, or the marks they’d make on a page if dipped in ink and turned loose. All of these symbols are mixed up all over the place in a seemingly random fashion (to the untrained eye, anyway). To top it off, there are no spaces between words! How is anyone ever supposed to learn that?

I answer that question with another question: How did anyone learn English? It’s complex, too! Sure, there are only 26 characters. However, sometimes big letters are used and other times small letters are used. Sometimes they look alike, sometimes they look completely different. Look at the letter ‘g’. The uppercase form (“G”) looks a lot different from the lowercase version (“g”). To the untrained eye, they are totally unrelated. Sure, not as complex as Japanese – but it’s not as simple as some people (particularly those who only know English) make it out to be, either.

Besides, it can’t be all that complex. The Japanese learn and use it every day, all the time.

As I’ve alluded to previously, the Japanese writing system is a complex beast made up of 3 sets of scripts (also called “symbols”, “characters” or “syllabaries”), all used in tandem with one another. Before we jump into the details, let’s take a few steps back and look at it from afar. Consider the following snapshots. Note these photos aren’t my originals, they are from various places around the web.

Shinjuku

新宿 (しんじゅく / Shinjuku) at night. Credit: lamijapan.com

Japanese Street Signs

Japanese Street Signs – Credit:signx.info

Even if you can’t read it, take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the written language. You have to admit, it looks pretty cool. Think about how cool it would be if you could understand it? Let that thought serve as the initial motivation to dive into learning the Japanese writing system if you don’t have one already.

With all that said, let’s take a dive into the first aspect of the written language…

The 3 scripts of Japanese writing

As mentioned before, Japanese is comprised of 3 sets of characters – Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. Let’s break them down. I’ll begin with Hiragana and Katakana, since they are the simpler of the 3. These 2 scripts are something I call “syllabaries” – that is, each character represents a specific sound. There is no such thing as an “alphabet” in Japanese. However, each “kana” symbol typically represents a 2-3 letter syllable in English (hence the term. Think of it as the building blocks of forming written words. So, the character か is pronounced “ka”. The only exception is the character for “n”, which is the only consonant sound that can go on its own.

They both have 46 distinct characters, one for each sound in Japanese. Each character is associated with a different sound, but both sets contain the same set of sounds (for the most part – more on this later).

For example, the Hiragana character for “chi” is ち, where as the Katakana character for the same character is チ. We’ll go into why there is a difference later, but for now just accept the fact that they both exist. For samples of what these characters look like, check out the Kana Tables.

Moving right along, let’s begin with…

Hiragana

Hiragana is the first set of characters Japanese children learn because they are much simpler than their Kanji counterparts. It is technically possible to write everything in Hiragana, though doing so will make you look foolish since children also begin learning Kanji in grade school. There are also many reasons to recommend against doing this, so I won’t go any further into it. Of the two “syllabaries”, Hiragana is the most used since it is used strictly for Japanese words, unlike Katakana. Hiragana is used when a word can’t be written in Kanji, or if the Kanji character is not part of the “common use” set of Kanji (more on this in a bit). There are some other exceptions to this as well, but I’m going to table that discussion for now. This can also happen if the writer can’t remember the specific Kanji they want to use. Particles are also written in Hiragana. There will be another entire post on the use of particles in Japanese.

Hiragana

Some hiragana is at the top, with some kanji in the middle. Credit: scriptsource.org

One more thing worth pointing out is that some of the symbols look the same, but with a circle or two small lines above it. These each have their own purpose. The two marks signify that the pronunciation of the consonant portion is different, while the vowel sound remains the same. For instance, while か is pronounced “ka”, が is pronounced “ga”. The circle is a plosive mark, which can be thought of as an “explosive” motion of the lips when pronouncing. For instance, ほ is pronounced “ho” where as ぽ is pronounced “po”.

One additional note is the occasional combination of 2 sounds, such as きゅ (kyu), which is a combination of き (ki) and ゆ (yu). Notice the second character is smaller to demote the combined sound.

There are many, many more details to go into about Hiragana, but I think those might be better suited to a separate post.

Refer to the kana tables for more examples.

Katakana

Katakana is the other of the two syllabaries, and follows many of the same rules as Hiragana. Katakana, however, is for use with foreign words (or loan words) and proper non-Japanese and non-Chinese names, such as mine: トラビス (Torabisu), or ニュース (nyusu/news).

Since Japanese is so limited on sounds, foreign words must be converted to use those sounds as best as possible. For example, “spaghetti” becomes スパゲッチ (“supagetti”).

Katakana Signs

Some Katakana Signs – Credit: sljfaq.org

Kanji

Now for the big boy. This is the part that scares most, including myself in the beginning. But don’t be scared. You’ll pull through it just like I am, maybe even better and more efficiently.

Kanji is the third and final set of script characters to make up the Japanese language. Kanji characters come from Chinese and typically can have two or more pronunciations depending on context. Furthermore, there is a subset of these known as the “common use” kanji, which means that the Japanese government has chosen these kanji as the ones to be included in major publications.

Why are there “common use” kanji? Simply put: there are well over 50,000 kanji out there – there’s no way anyone could ever learn all of those and actively use them. So, from that, the “common use” kanji is a subset of 2,042 kanji. There are some outside of this set that are used, but it’s somewhat rare and will typically be accompanied by “furigana”  (small Hiragana characters located above the kanji in question to tell you how to read/pronounce it). More on furigana later.

These 2,042 kanji are covered in James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji 1, where he gives an excellent method for remembering these kanji for use down the road.

As mentioned before, since Kanji are originally from Chinese, they can be read one of two or more ways. The “Japanese” way (kun’yomi), or the “Chinese” way (on’yomi). Take, for example, the kanji for “sun” (or “day”), 日. Depending on context, it can either be read にち (nichi) or び (bi).

Japanese Kanji

Example of Kanji – Credit: blogs.japanesepod101.com

How do you know which way to read it? The answer is that there isn’t any way to be 100% sure, but there are some hints along the way that could help. These rules don’t always apply, but should work about 10% of the time.

  • If the kanji stands alone in the sentence, it is typically read the kun’yomi way.
  • If the kanji is next to other kanji, it’s typically read the on’yomi way.
  • People and proper place names are usually read the kun’yomi way.

Of course, there are always exceptions to these rules – just like in any other language. We may touch on some of these exceptions at a later time.

 

I’m going to go ahead and wrap up this article here, and jump into more detail about each of these in future posts. If you have any questions, comments, etc., please feel free to leave a comment below!

 

 

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