How to Write in Japanese: A Guide for Beginners

how to write in japaneseJapanese is one of the most difficult, yet most beautiful, written languages. Many people see writing in Japanese as more of an art form than just putting words onto paper. With no alphabet, four different scripts, and tens of thousand characters to potentially learn, this is one written language that certainly impresses. Read on to learn the basics of how to write in Japanese.

Before you begin writing in Japanese, you must first understand the different scripts within the language; Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji and Romaji. Having a strong grasp of all four scripts is the only way to ensure you are completely Japanese literate. Once you’ve mastered the scripts you can then move onto the technique, the grammatical relationships and the writing system that is so important to native Japanese speakers. Improve your Japanese writing skills by taking this Udemy course, Japanese – KanaBeats – Hiragana and Katakana.

Hiragana (平仮名, ひらがな)

This script is one of the first to learn, with many Japanese children learning Hiragana before anything else. Although each of the 46 characters can take some time to master, it becomes easier with practice and repetition. Hiragana is used for words of Japanese origin, and the characters are extremely useful for reading and writing while in Japan. You will find that literature such as newspapers and magazines are written using this script.

Hiragana is a beautiful script, giving Japanese writing an edge over other written words. Many of the characters are curved and eloquent, with several strokes to compose the one letter or sound. The stroke order is very important when it comes to writing in Japanese; this ensures that the characters are written correctly and the pattern is memorized easily. A stroke is where the pen touches the paper and does not leave until the full line, dot or dash is completed. Most letters will have two or three strokes.

Katakana (片仮名, カタカナ)

The next Japanese script that is needed will be the Katakana, which is the possibly the simplest of all three. This script is used for foreign words such as names, places and words stemming from a foreign origin. As an example, those who are not from Japan will have their name written in Katakana. This is the most useful script for reading street signs, ordering from a menu and writing down names.

Katakana and Hiragana are very similar in structure, however the former’s characters consist of more straight lines than curved. There are 46 characters to learn, just like Hiragana, with most people thinking that these are easier to master due to their more basic pattern. The reason many people learn this script second is probably because it seems like a breeze; especially after the curves and complex strokes seen within the Hiragana script.

Kanji (漢字)

The third most important, for those learning to write in Japanese, is the Kanji script. After a total of 92 characters in the first two scripts, this may seem like a completely daunting prospect. There are around two thousand commonly used characters in Kanji, with thousands more that are not used on a regular basis! Many children, and those studying Japanese as a foreign language, will learn 100 of the most used, before they will be able to write basic sentences.

The Kanji characters first came to Japan on imported goods from China, before being adopted by the Japanese as part of their own script. They are used for words such as adjective and verb stems, as well as nouns. Without learning, at least, the basics of Kanji it would be impossible to read or write Japanese correctly. The ‘Joyo Kanji’ is a list of 1,945 basic characters which are commonly used within official writings.

Romaji

Romaji is the Romanization of Japanese, in order for people to write using Latin script (or Roman letters). Although this script is not widely used in Japan, it is helpful for those who wish to write or read Japanese using commonly recognized characters. This script is also taught in Japanese schools, even though it is not used within textbooks or other literature. Below are some common Romaji words that you may see in text, letters and emails targeted towards non-Japanese speakers:

  • Konnichiwa – Good afternoon (also used as a greeting, such as ‘Hello’.)

  • Konbanwa – Good evening

  • Sayonara – Goodbye

  • Ogenki Desuka? – How are you?

  • Arigato – Thank you

  • Kudasai – Please (asking for something)

  • Hai – Yes
  • Iie – No
  • Watashi – I
  • Anata – You
  • Kare – He
  • Kanojo – She
  • Watashitachi – We

There are thousands of words that have been translated into the Roman alphabet, which make it helpful for non-Japanese speakers to write in this complex language. Using Romaji also makes it easier for those who wish to write Japanese words on a computer, a mobile phone, or any other device that will not necessarily have the Japanese characters installed.

The Writing System

In Japan there is a writing system which combines the most used scripts (Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji) in order to construct literate sentences. The writing system also takes into account spacing, punctuation, the ordering of words, and even the direction of writing. While each character and script is being learned it is also important for a student to learn the writing system, in order to be able to correctly structure sentences.

Around 95% of the words within the writing system are Kanji (nouns, verbs and adjectives). Next is Hiragana, which is used predominately for grammatical purposes. Last are the imported words; the Katakana. These characters and words can then be written using one of two methods:

  • Tategaki – This is the traditional writing method in which the characters are written in columns. The columns are written from top to bottom, starting with the left column first and then moving onto the right. A reader would read Japanese writing, in this form, from top to bottom and then moving onto the next column (from left to right).

  • Yokogaki – The more modern way of Japanese writing is far more commonly used now in every day Japan. Just like many other languages, including English, this is where the characters are written from left to right.

Finally, there is rarely any spacing between Japanese characters, which can make it very difficult to differentiate between words that are not commonplace. If a word compound is particularly unusual then it may be separated by a nakaguro; also known as the middle dot.

Learning To Write Japanese

It can be a tough process learning to write Japanese, however, an extremely rewarding one. Students in Japan are given character sequences to learn, using repetition and practice. It may seem like a tedious task, writing the same character over and over again, yet is the best way of memorizing the stroke patterns and writing system. Those who are studying Japanese as a foreign language may first learn words in Romaji, before trying their hand at the more difficult character scripts.

It is best to learn Hiragana and Katakana, before moving onto Kanji. However, not one script can be used by itself and so all three need to be learned in order to become a fully fledged Japanese writer. Using pictures of each character, which include stroke patterns, many people can learn how to write the most basic of Japanese from the comfort of their own home. Not to mention, there are multiple ways for you to improve, including taking these Udemy courses, How to Read Japanese for Impatient People and Learn to Read Japanese – Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. You should also read this Udemy article, The Best Way to Learn Japanese from Calligraphy to Classes.