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Introduction to Japanese Writing

The most difficult part of learning Japanese is learning to read and write even in Japan children are still earning new characters in high school and fully literate adults will occasionally need to look up rare characters. It’s a big task but no reason to get discouraged millions of people manage to do it every day so you can too.

Traditionally Japanese is written vertically from the top right corner with text moving down the page and new lines moving towards the left of the page. Nowadays the European method of starting from the top left corner of the page and new lines moving down is becoming more common mostly because of computers and the internet.

There are 4 types of characters used in Japanese Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji and Latin characters are sometimes used as well. Each of these have their own use and a sentence still usually have at least 2 of these sometimes all 4.

ひらがな (Hiragana)

Hiragana is usually the where everybody starts to learn Japanese, it is a phonetic alphabet with a different character for each syllable used in Japanese. Hiragana is mostly used for grammar like;

  • Okurigana (verb conjugations)
  • Particles (mark a word’s place in a sentence)
  • Furigana (kana readings placed next to or above kanji to aid children or on rare kanji)
  • Japanese words that don’t have an associated Kanji or have a very rare kanji

Everything in Japanese can be written in Hiragana but it’s not a good idea to only use Hiragana as the meaning of words can be lost.

カタカナ (Katakana)

Katakana is another phonetic alphabet like hiragana with a different character for each syllable. It is not as common as Kanji and Hiragana but still used regularly for different reasons like;

  • Words borrowed from foreign languages
  • Some plant, animal and Scientific terms
  • Onomatopoeia words
  • Slang words
  • For emphasis similar to using bold or italics

漢字 (Kanji)

Kanji is a graphic writing system inherited from China with thousands of characters that have a fixed meaning but varied pronunciation. Kanji is used for;

  • Most nouns, place and personal names
  • The beginnings of most verbs
  • The beginnings of most adjectives and adverbs

Romanji (Latin Characters)

The Latin alphabet used in Western Europe and America is also occasionally used in Japanese for foreign names and words it’s rare that Japanese get written in romaji. Some situations where Romanji is used;

  • Acronyms and initials
  • Foreign names and words that aren’t commonly used in Japanese (common ones get written in katakana)
  • Personal and Corporate names for international use like passports
  • In Japanese music, TV and commercials to give a foreign flavour or to stand out.

The next lessons will cover each of the writing systems in detail starting with Hiragana.