Japanese katakana is just one way of writing the Japanese language. Three different systems render the spoken language onto the page. The first and most traditional system is kanji. The other systems fall under the umbrella term of kana. Kana consists of two systems: hiragana and katakana. These are syllabic renderings of the language. Together, these three form the Japanese written language.
Kanji is a writing system based on Chinese logographic characters that were adopted by the Japanese. Each kanji symbol stands for a specific word. This system is in contrast to an alphabetic system, for instance. In an alphabet, each symbol stands instead for a sound, rather than a word. The word kanji itself means “Han characters” and is written using the same characters as the Chinese term, which is “hanzi.”
These Chinese characters were introduced into Japan around 57 CE. The written words came to Japan on letters, seals, coins, and decorative items and goods that were imported from China. However, this writing system was not adopted in Japan until sometime in the 5th century. Up until that time, Japanese actually had no written form.
The Chinese logographs were adopted and marked up with diacritical marks to adapt the words to fit Japanese grammar. These symbols were simply phonetic representations of similar sounds, regardless of the meaning. For instance, the word “yama” – or “mountain” in Japanese – used the Chinese characters “ya” and “ma” which do not correspondingly mean mountain in Chinese.
Thus, later, the Chinese characters came to be used ideographically. That is to say, each character began to represent single words or ideas with similar meanings in Chinese and Japanese alike. One might be able to read a word in Chinese and Japanese both, but not pronounce it. The kanji characters represent nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verb roots.
There are several thousand kanji characters for literate Japanese speakers to use. Each one has a meaning, or meanings, and most have more than one pronunciation. The pronunciation can depend upon context.
The kana system is a syllabic writing system, where each written character corresponds to a spoken more, or sound, in the Japanese language. A kana can be a vowel, a consonant and vowel combination, or the “n” sound. (It can sound like m, n, ng in English, or like nasal vowels in Portuguese in French.)
Hiragana syllables are used to write down Japanese words, mostly those not covered as individual kanji. They can be used to write inflected adjective and verb endings as well. Every Japanese word – even those with specific kanji – can be rendered using the kana systems.
Katakana is used to transcribe non-Japanese words, such as loan words from foreign languages or scientific terms, or to represent onomatopoeic sounds. When written, the katakana are composed of short and straight lines with angular corners, and are thus the easiest Japanese characters to write. Katakana literally means “part of kanji.”
Both systems came from manyogana writing, which emerged around 650 CE. This marked the first time the kanji were used to represent sounds, not ideas. Some 970 kanji represented the 90 sounds of the Japanese language. There were, thus, multiple kanji to represent the same sound.
Hiragana is derived from the cursive writing style, and was popular with women who did not have the same educational resources as the men who could read kanji. Katakana was developed by Buddhist monks as shorthand system of writing.
The kana systems – hiragana and katakana – are derived from the kanji but have been simplified considerably. There are just 46 basic characters, which expands to be 71 if you include the diacritic mark variants. Each syllable sound in the language is represented.
Using All Three Systems
The Japanese writing system – as you might now be thinking – is very complex. There are numerous kanji in addition to the kana symbols. A given sentence can contain a mixture of all three systems: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Japanese writing is one of the most complex in the world.
As if that were not enough, romaji – or Roman letters – are occasionally used as well. They might be used on computer keyboards, to write acronyms and abbreviations like “a.m./p.m.” or “FBI” and by foreign speakers.
Most native Japanese words, or those with historic origins in Chinese, are written using kanji. For instance, there are individual kanji for “river” (kawa), “white” (shiroi), and “Tokyo.”
Context can also change the kanji used. For example, “naosu” can mean “to fix” or “to cure” and is written with different characters whether you are fixing an object or curing a person. The girl’s name Yoko – depending on the kanji used – can have different meanings, ranging from “ocean child” to “sunshine child” to “sheep child.”
As an additional complication, some kanji have more than one possible pronunciation. The kanji for “tree” can be read as moku, boku, or ki. Some of these differences in pronunciations results from the original Chinese way of saying the kanji conflicting with the Japanese way of saying the word before writing appeared.
The hiragana are used to write inflectional endings for adjectives and verbs, in combination with kanji. Small words – or joshi – like prepositions are written in this way. Words with no corresponding kanji – or very obscure kanji – can be written in hiragana, which is especially useful for young readers who are still learning the system. Furigana – phonetic renderings of what a kanji means placed above or next to it – are also written in hiragana script. These are helpful as clarifications of meaning for non-native speakers and young readers alike. The author’s tone can differ whether he or she is using kanji or hiragana to write the same word.
Katakana symbols are used to transliterate foreign loan words and names, like “konpyuta” for “computer.” Names of some plants, animals, and minerals – like “tokage” for “lizard” – are written using katakana. Onomatopoeia is written using katakana – like “wan wan” which is what dogs say in Japanese instead of “woof woof.” Katakana can lastly be used to emphasize words – much like italics in English do.
Word Order and Format
Japanese is written in tategaki, a format that copies the traditional Chinese system. The characters are written from top to bottom, in columns that read from right to left. At the bottom of the column the reader shifts one column to the left and starts at the top again. Thus, a tategaki book opens at what an English speaker would consider the back.
Yokogaki is a modern format that writes the characters and words from left to right in lines, much as English does.
Japanese is written without spaces between words. The text wraps from one line to the next without consideration for word breaks. Katakana words – those borrowed from foreign sources – might be rendered with a nakaguro (“middle dot”) to help Japanese readers know where to break their pronunciation. The Japanese period looks like a small circle(。), and the comma (、) points in the opposite direction of the English one. They are used similarly to the English uses, however. There is no question mark in traditional Japanese writing; informal writing or transcriptions may use the question mark for clarifications. The exclamation mark is similarly informal. Colons and semi-colons are accepted but rare.
Japanese keyboards on computers use romanized (transliterated) kana that can then be converted into kanji with software. The keyboard can show romanized syllables and the individual kana as well.