The hardest part about learning Japanese has to be how to write in Japanese. Its writing systems, although very rich, are extremely different from the Latin alphabet. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at how Japan adopted its 3 Japanese writing systems – Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana – as well as explaining when to use each writing system. Discover the history of these systems, and find out how to write in Japanese the way the Japanese do.
How to Write in Japanese: A Look at The Different Japanese Writing Systems
Japanese has three main writing systems, Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. To learn how to write in Japanese, let’s take a look at all three of them individually and then learn how to use all three in daily life.
From Chinese Hanzi to Japanese Kanji
You don’t have to be an expert in languages to realize that Japanese uses Chinese characters (Han characters).
However, the two languages are completely different from one another: Chinese is part of the Sino-Tibetan languages, while Japanese belongs to the family of Japonic languages.
Japan isn’t the only country to have borrowed the Chinese writing system, called Kanji in Japan: Vietnam has done so (called chữ nôm) and so has Korea (Hanja). Although it has pretty much fallen out of use in the former and is marginalized in the latter.
Long ago, in an archipelago far away…
Originally, Japanese didn’t have a writing system of its own. It was solely a spoken language until the 5th century. China, on the other hand, had one for around a millennium! No need to say that the writing system eventually spread to the Japanese archipelago via objects with characters on them, something the Japanese didn’t know how to read, apart from the few who could read Chinese!
During the 5th century, diplomatic relations formed between China and Korea, and scribes had the task of establishing written correspondence in Chinese. It was then that the Japanese started wondering how they could use these foreign characters to transcribe their language.
Progressively creating kanas
At that time, some Japanese people started using some Han characters, but doing so for their phonetic properties only, without taking into account their meaning. This is now called “manyo-gana” (万葉仮名). It’s as if we would use Chinese characters to write in English.
These first Japanese characters are the first form of Kana (i.e. Modified Han characters used to write in Japanese) but are no longer used. Hiragana and Katakana, on the other hand, are Kanas that are still used today. And they, along with Kanji, are the Japanese characters we all know so well.
All Kanas are syllabaries, which means that, apart from the “final n” (ん / ン) which is a bit particular, every symbol marks an entire syllable, and not a single sound as is the case with the alphabet.
From Kanji to Katakana
Tradition attributes the creation of Katakana to Kūkai, a Buddhist monk who lived in the 9th century. What is known for sure is that katakana (片仮名) was first a compilation of symbols, not characters, to read Buddhist texts written in Kanji. But as more and more people saw how useful they were for everyday Japanese writing, Katakana began to blend together with Kanji.
Hiragana derives from cursive script. This explains why Katakana characters (right), have sharp edges, while hiragana (below) are more rounded.
From Kanji to Hiragana
For various centuries, hiragana (平仮名) were the prerogative of higher class women who were less educated than men. Men continued using Kanji and Katakana, while women used Hiragana. A rich feminine literature was developed, all written in Hiragana, including works like Genji Monogatari (源氏物語) from the 11th century. This particularity gave Hiragana its nickname, Onna-moji (女文字), which literally means “women’s characters.” Little by little, people started accepting Hiragana, and today anyone can use it, no matter their gender. People used Kanji and Katakana for official writing, and Hiragana for everyday writing.
As part of a reform to simplify Japanese writing in 1900, each syllable only corresponds to one possible Hiragana character. Prior to this, most people had a very hard time learning how to write in Japanese. The now obsolete Hiragana characters that were eliminated during the reform are now called hentaigana (変体仮名) and are only ever used for very traditional or antiquated writing.
One Language, Three Writing Systems
How many writing systems does Japanese have?
Currently, writing in Japanese includes mixing three main systems: Kanji, Katakana, and Hiragana. There are also two other secondary writing systems: Rōmaji (ローマ字), which is the Latin alphabet, as well as Arabia-sūji (アラビア数字), which are the Arabic numbers we use.
And it’s common to see some sentences that use all three systems (or more)! For example:
In September, I am going to Spain.
In this sentence, we can see Kanji (月 and 行), Katakana (スぺイン, Spain), an Arabic number, and the rest is in Hiragana.
When do we use each Japanese writing system?
Let’s look at the typical uses for each of the Japanese writing systems:
- Kanji: Japanese Kanji is the central writing system in Japan. We use Kanji for names, verb roots, and adjectives.
- Hiragana: Hiragana is used for grammar purposes, verb and adjective endings, prefixes and suffixes, etc. Some very common words are also written in Hiragana rather than Kanji. For example, you’re more likely to see どこ (doko, “where”) than 何処 (which means and sounds the same but is Kanji).
- Katakana: the main use for Katakana is for transcribing foreign words (apart from the many borrowed words from Chinese and Korean). We end up with words like パン (pan, “bread”), which comes from the Portuguese pão, and ナイフ (naifu, “knife”), which is easy for us to remember because it comes from English. Japanese people also use Katakana to describe onomatopoeia, scientific words for animals, or to make messages more visible on billboards.
- Rōmaji: the Latin alphabet is simply used to transcribe Japanese names in a writing system foreigners are more likely to understand. This system also comes in handy for acronyms, such as is the case for NHK (Nihon Hosō Kyōkai), Japan’s national public broadcasting organization.
- Arabic numbers: there are Kanji characters for writing numbers (一, 二, 三, 四, etc.). However, Arabic numerals are widely used for specific purposes, such as writing dates. For example ２０１６年１２月９日 (October the 9th 2016).
Ready to Learn How to Write in Japanese?
This article is of course just a quick overview of what the three Japanese writing systems are like. We wrote it to help you learn how to write in Japanese as the Japanese do. It is a very interesting and beautiful way of mixing writing systems in a unique way. I hope you liked this article and that it has made you want to look more and study this language. If you are looking for resources for learning this language, click here. またね!
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