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Japanese written language

Last updated Nov 8, 2022

The written language consists of three separate character sets.

Hiragana (commonly misspelled hirigana) and katakana are phonetic syllabaries in which each character represents one syllable.1 Together, katakana and hiragana make up the native Japanese writing system known as kana. Visually, hiragana is squiggly (かすみ) and katakana is angular (ヤクザ). Native Japanese words tend to be written in hiragana, and foreign loanwords in katakana, but many exceptions exist. Your studies will likely begin with learning to read both hiragana and katakana.

Kanji are characters imported to Japan from China over many centuries. Of the approximately six thousand kanji listed in exhaustive dictionaries, more than two thousand are in daily use.2 Each kanji may have one or more borrowed Chinese readings, known as onyomi, and native Japanese readings, or kunyomi. Structurally, kanji are composed of simpler components known as radicals.3 A single kanji may represent a word individually, be combined with other kanji to form a multi-character compound word, or have a hiragana suffix with some grammatical function. Most personal names are also written in kanji. Among other reasons, kanji are necessitated by the large number of homophones in Japanese. For example, the characters 鼻 and 花 mean nose and flower, respectively, yet both are read hana.

The fact that kanji can be read in multiple ways depending on the context is a major gripe for beginners, but it’s really not as bad as all that. Consider the character 生, meaning life, which has an unusually large number of common readings:

However, take a look at the surrounding characters and convince yourself that there is essentially no ambiguity. Each pronunciation is clearly distinguishable through context.

Furigana, sometimes called ruby text, is a hiragana reading aid placed over kanji characters to assist in pronunciation—for example, 漢字(かんじ). Often used in material targeted towards children, with uncommon words or proper nouns, or in puns,4 furigana is found in nearly all native Japanese texts.

The system of writing Japanese with English letters is called rōmaji (commonly misspelled romanji), from the words rōma (Rome) and ji (letter). The process of converting Japanese text into rōmaji is called romanization, and several different standards exist. Rōmaji is used when typing with an English keyboard, but not for reading or writing in any other form. An IME (input method extension) is a piece of software that converts typed rōmaji into Japanese text—you can install one through your operating system, or use the Google IME . Make sure that you have the correct fonts5 installed as well, since Chinese fonts will render Japanese characters incorrectly.

On computers, Japanese is written left-to-right, like English. However, books are usually written vertically top-to-bottom, right-to-left, and are oriented with the spine on the right-hand side. There are no spaces between words in Japanese. You can pick apart un-spaced words easily in English, sowhynotinjapanesetoo?

Finally, a word on handwriting. Each character has a fixed stroke order, which must be memorized and followed to maintain legibility. Rules for determining stroke order exist, but each rule has its exceptions. Complex kanji may have as many as twenty strokes. The net result of the computerization of society has been considerably decreased ability to write kanji6 by Japanese natives, in spite of intensive handwriting education throughout primary and secondary school. Whether you choose to learn handwriting depends on your needs—do you need to fill out forms in Japanese? Arguments can be made for the role of handwriting in memorization, but I suggest not wasting time on it early in your studies. There are bigger fish to fry.

  1. Technically, each kana character represents one mora , not one syllable. ↩︎

  2. The 2136 kanji designated for daily use are known as the jōyō kanji ↩︎

  3. Radicals can be used to look up kanji in a dictionary. ↩︎

  4. Furigana with a different pronunciation from the actual characters’ reading can be used for puns or to imply a double meaning. See here ↩︎

  5. Due to Han Unification , the display of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters is decided by the font. ↩︎

  6. Character amnesia  ↩︎