The Japanese written language is a combination of three entirely separate scripts. Perhaps the one foreigners are most familiar with is kanji, which is a collection of Chinese characters adopted by the Japanese during the long, overlapping history of the two cultures. The other two make up a pair of syllabaries, or symbol systems, called kana, and include both hiragana and katakana.
This might sound confusing, but once you understand the difference between the three written scripts for Japanese, learning how to read, write, and speak the language will be that much easier. If you want to begin with some kanji lessons, here’s part one of an extensive multi-part course on learning kanji. Or, you can stick with this simple guide and learn the basics of Japanese symbols before moving on to the tough stuff.
What is Kanji?
Kanji is a logographic, rather than phonographic, writing system. This means that each kanji character represents a word or idea without an inherent pronunciation necessarily attached to it. Each kanji symbol is just that – a symbol, adopted from Chinese characters (known as hanzi, in Chinese), that is read according to its meaning, but not its speech sounds.
If this is confusing, compare it to English. In English, each word is actually made up of various letters, with each letter representing a specific sound. We can write the word box, but when we read it, we don’t just look at the arrangement of the symbols b-o-x and think of the object of a box. If we do, that’s because we’re fluent in the language and can skim individual words that we’re familiar enough with and still be able to comprehend what we’re reading. What we usually do when we read a word, though, is take each letter’s speech sound individually, and tie them together. B makes a “buh” sound, “o” makes an “oh” sound, and “x” makes an “ecks” sound, at least in the word “box.” Together, we can say the word box because we know the speech sounds for each letter that makes up the word.
In kanji, we can have the symbol 日, which means either sun or day. To determine which one it means, we’d have to look at the context in which it’s being used. This context will tell us how it would be pronounced, but the symbol itself 日 has no pronunciation. It is just a symbol that represents the ideas of sun or day. If we want to know how to pronounce it, we’d look at the associated hiragana, にち, or nichi in romaji.
Kanji seems complicated, but it isn’t impossible. Learn kanji the easy way with the help of this guide, which you can use as a supplement to this course on reading and writing Japanese for beginners.
What is Hiragana?
Hiragana is a syllabary with 46 symbols. It is Japan’s phonetic alphabet, unlike kanji, which is a set of symbolic logographs. Every sound in the Japanese language is represented through hiragana symbols, or characters, making each letter a phonograph rather than a logograph like kanji.
Where to use hiragana can be sort of confusing. Essentially, hiragana is used for sound symbolism, verbs, conjunctions, and particles, as well as adjective endings and words where the kanji is either unknown, too obscure for the target reader, or nonexistent altogether.
It is less formal than kanji, and can sometimes even be used to supplement kanji when the pronunciation of the object or idea represented by the kanji symbol is not immediately apparent. In this case, the writer could write the hiragana out beside the kanji symbol, to clarify its pronunciation. Hiragana is also used in cases where grammatical structure is necessary. Learn more Japanese in this introductory Japanese language learning course.
What is Katakana?
Typically, in Japanese writing, you’re going to see a mixture of kanji and hiragana, as explained above. These are the primary writing systems. So where does katakana come into play?
Katakana is a syllabary, part of kana like hiragana, made up of 48 characters plus additional diacritic and other functional marks. Like hiragana, each character represents a speech sound, only katakana derives its letters from kanji, taking bits and pieces of kanji symbols to form its individual characters.
The katakana writing systme is used almost exclusively for transcription purposes, to translate foreign language words that might have sounds that don’t exist in the Japanese language as represented via hiragana, into a Japanese writing system. This is not always the case, but it can be. Katakana is also used to write out non-Japanese words, plus onomatopoeia, which the Japanese call giongo. These are words that describe sounds. For instance, the katakana for a dog barking would be ワンワン, which translates into wan-wan. Learn more about katakana and its relation to hiragana in this Japanese language course on both syllabaries in the kana system.
Looking for individual letters in kanji, hiragana, and katakana to research? Find them all in this extensive guide on Japanese letters.