The hardest part about learning Japanese has to be mastering the Japanese writing system and learning how to write. Its writing system, although very rich, is incredibly different from the Latin alphabet you’re used to. In this article, we’ll be looking at how Japan adopted its 3 Japanese writing systems – kanji, hiragana, and katakana – as well as explaining when to use each of them. Discover the history of these scripts, and find out how to write in Japanese the way the Japanese do.

Updated: 07/28/2023

Stacks and rows of colorful sake barrels with Japanese writing on them. Text reads: The Japanese writing system, explained. MosaLingua.

A Look at the Japanese Writing System: Evolution and Present-Day Use

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 how to use all three in daily life.

From Chinese Hanzi to Japanese Kanji

Chinese characters engraved on a red painted wooden pole.You don’t have to be a language expert to realize that Japanese uses Chinese characters (Han characters). These are called kanji, and they make up one Japanese writing system.

However, the two languages are completely different from one another: Chinese is a Sino-Tibetan language, while Japanese belongs to the Japonic language family.

😎 Fun fact: Japan isn’t the only country to have borrowed the Chinese writing system. The Vietnamese language has chữ nôm and Korean has Hanja. (Although this system 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 had one for around a millennium! It goes without saying that their writing system eventually spread to the Japanese archipelago via goods with characters on them. Of course, the Japanese didn’t know how to read them, apart from the few who could understand Chinese!

During the 5th century, diplomatic relations formed between China and Korea, and scribes were tasked with establishing written correspondence in Chinese. And that’s when the Japanese started wondering how they could use these foreign characters to transcribe their own language.

…a Japanese writing system is gradually established

At that time, some Japanese people started using Han characters, but doing so for their phonetic properties only, without taking into account their meaning. This is now called man’yōgana (万葉仮名). It’s as if we were using 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.

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The Emergence of Kana

Hiragana and katakana, on the other hand, are kana that are still used today. And they, along with kanji, are the Japanese characters we all know so well.

All kana are syllabaries, which means that, apart from the “final n” ( / ) which is a bit particular, every symbol marks an entire syllable, not an isolated sound, as is the case with the English alphabet. They each have 46 syllables and represent the same 46 sounds.

This is what distinguishes them from kanji, which represent whole words or concepts rather than phonetic sounds.

What is hiragana?

The hiragana syllabary is mostly used to write simple words such as pronouns, prepositions, particles, and basic nouns. Lots of Japanese children’s books are also written in hiragana, since these are the first characters kids learn.

Hiragana derives from a cursive script—Chinese calligraphy. This explains why katakana characters (above), have sharp edges, while hiragana (below) are more rounded.

A table showing all 46 basic Japanese hiragana characters and their English transcription. Text reads Japanese writing: Hiragana. MosaLingua.

For centuries, the hiragana (平仮名) kana system was the prerogative of higher-class women who were less educated than men. Men continued using kanji and katakana, while women used hiragana.

A rich body of literature was developed, written by women in hiragana, including works like Genji Monogatari (源氏物語, The Tale of Gengi) starting in the 11th century. This 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 began using kanji and katakana for official writing and hiragana for everyday writing.

As part of a reform to simplify Japanese writing in 1900, each syllable now 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.

What is katakana?

The katakana syllabary is mainly used to transcribe foreign words in Japanese, such as loan words or foreign names.

A table showing all 46 basic Japanese katakana characters and their English transcription. Text reads Japanese writing: Katakana. MosaLingua.

Tradition attributes the creation of katakana to Kūkai, a Buddhist monk who lived in the 9th century.

What we know for sure is that katakana (片仮名) was first a compilation of symbols, not characters, developed so that people could read Buddhist texts. But as more and more people saw how useful they were for everyday Japanese writing, katakana began to blend together with kanji.


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 numeral, 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: we mainly use katakana for transcribing foreign words (apart from the many borrowed words from Chinese and Korean). That means 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 easily legible on billboards.
  • Rōmaji: the Latin alphabet is simply used to transcribe Japanese names in a way 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 (December 9th, 2016).


BONUS Video: Our Teacher Explains the Japanese Writing Systems!

Sarah, our Japanese teacher here at MosaLingua, also made a quick video to explain the basics of the main Japanese writing systems: rōmaji, kanji, katakana, and hiragana. Watch it to learn more about writing in Japanese. She recorded it in English, but there are subtitles in 6 languages if you need them. Just click the gear button ⚙️ at the bottom right to toggle them on.

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Next Steps

This article is just a quick overview of what the 3 Japanese writing systems are like and where they originated from. We wrote it because we think it’s an interesting and beautiful way of mixing scripts into one unique writing system!

I hope you liked this article… Maybe it has even made you want to study this language! If you are looking for resources for learning this language, check out: