Do you remember your first day in Japanese class? I still do. All the excitement and expectations of how the class was going to be. After greeting us, our teacher’s first question was: "Why do you want to learn Japanese?"
All of us had different reasons and those answers led to another set of questions. After the Q and A session, she handed us a piece of paper. It was a list of some of the points she would cover in that class. She brought her projector and presented a slideshow — introducing us to the Japanese language.
When she got to the topic of Japanese writing, I clearly remember my classmate saying out loud: "What? Three writing systems?" Our teacher responded: "Yes, we have three writing systems, and we use them all together." My classmate, astonished, replied: “I see…..This is the first slap of the Japanese language ね～”
Japanese: What makes it different from other languages?
When I decided to learn Japanese, I knew it was different from English and my native language, Spanish. Later on, I realized I didn't know much at all.
- First, the scripts, that’s an obvious difference.
- The fact that there's basically no space between words and sentences within a text was pretty shocking, too.
- Then comes the grammar.
- The sentence structure is different from other languages, as well. While in English, French, and Spanish the order is subject-verb-object (SVO), in Japanese the order is subject-object-verb (SOV). The verb which defines the sentence's meaning goes at the end of the sentence.
- (More differences, in much more detail, are covered in this article.)
The difference between an alphabet, syllabary, and logographic system
When I was a kid, one of the first things I learned in school was the alphabet. We began with the vowels and then we learned consonants — alphabets are writing systems where each symbol represents a certain sound (phoneme). After mastering the ABC's, we saw how connecting consonants with vowels produces specific syllables. In some cases, a letter can make multiple sounds. Furthermore, sometimes a specific sound can be written in multiple ways.
In my early twenties, I started to learn Japanese. That was my first encounter with a syllabary. Unlike the alphabet, which represents individual sounds, the syllabary is a phonetic writing system made up of symbols that represent syllables. The Japanese word for Japan sounds like nihon, but whereas that requires five letters in English, it's only three syllables in hiragana: にほん (ni-ho-n).
Later, I learned about another type of script, logograms. A logogram is a symbol that represents a word (or part of one) by itself. Examples of logograms are Chinese characters and Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Chinese (and Japanese) word for Japan is 日本, and those symbols mean sun and origin (more commonly book), respectively: if you're living in China, then Japan appears to be where the sun rises.
Japanese Writing Systems
Japanese has three writing systems, and as chaotic as it might seem, those three writing systems tend to be juggled around. Each one has specific use cases, but it's common to see single sentences which include all three systems.
As a rule of thumb:
- Hiragana show grammatical information within a sentence
- Katakana are used for foreign loanwords, and sometimes for emphasis
- Kanji show the meaning of words
This is a phonetic system that comes from the simplification of the kanji characters brought from China into Japan. It is a set of 46 characters:
- 40 characters represent syllables formed by a consonant plus a vowel
- There are 5 for individual vowels ( あ a | い i | う u | え e | お o )
- Lastly, ん represents the "n" sound. This is the only consonant that can appear without a paired vowel.
Hiragana is used to spell native Japanese words and to convey grammatical elements of the language, like particles or conjugations. Children's books are written with this syllabary as well. It’s the first writing system that kids learn in elementary school. It acts as the base to introduce them to the other systems as they progress.
As a rule of thumb, remember that hiragana look softer and have pronounced curves.
The below image shows three sets of stacked characters: on bottom in black are hiragana, in the top in black is the Chinese character each hiragana was derived from, and in the middle in red is an ancient cursive rendition of that Chinese character.
This is another phonetic writing system of the Japanese language, and it also comes from simplified versions of the kanji characters. It’s composed of the same number of characters as hiragana and represents the same sounds. Katakana is used for words with a foreign origin, to write onomatopoeias, and also to highlight or emphasize certain terms.
In comparison with hiragana, katakana strokes are more angular.
The below image shows two sets of characters: the katakana in black on the left, and the original Chinese character that particular katakana was derived from on the right. The red ink denotes which part of the charcater each katakana was reduced from.
These are symbols or characters that originated in China. Japanese traditionally lacked a written language, but aristocrats often knew Chinese. At some point, they began using Chinese characters to write Japanese. Afterward, Japanese people made modifications to these Chinese characters, adapting them to better suit their own language.
A headache to many learners, kanjis often do not have just one type of reading, no no no... The same kanji can be read in MULTIPLE ways, depending on the word. These readings are known as On’yomi and Kun’yomi.
Generally speaking, kanji characters are more blocky and will appear more complex than hiragana or katakana. Whereas there are only 48 hiragana and katakana, there are 2,136 "daily use" Kanji that school students are expected to learn, and several thousand more characters which may appear in more specialized situations.
Japanese put into Practice
As we have seen before, the Japanese language is peculiar in that it can use 3 writing systems within a single sentence. How is this even possible? I’ll show you.
Can you differentiate the hiragana, katakana, and kanji?
Watashi wa Paeriya wo tabemasu.
I eat paella.
Kanojo wa ocha wo nomimasu.
She drinks tea.
Kare wa ongaku ga suki desu.
He likes music.
Watashi wa atarashī sofa wo kaimashita.
I bought a new sofa.
Sentences marked by a * do not include katakana.
As we can see, the Japanese language juggles syllabaries and logograms. Each system has a specific function within the language: certain things should be written in katakana, certain things in hiragana, and certain things in kanji.
Why 3 writing systems?
This is a question many learners have. What's the reason for using three systems instead of just one?
At first, I didn’t understand it either. However, after studying for some time, now I must say that the reasons are pretty valid. In the Japanese language, there are many homophones—words that sound the same but have different meanings. Kanjis allow us to differentiate these words. For example, 花 (flower) and 鼻 (nose), both words are pronounced the same—はな (hana)—even though their meanings are unrelated.
Although it might not seem like it now, you’ll quickly grow to appreciate the kanji. I actually think it’s easier to read texts that contain kanji than hypothetical texts in purely hiragana.
How should I write Japanese: Vertically or Horizontally?
Actually, there is not a definitive answer to this question! You can do either.
Originally, the Japanese language was written vertically. Nowadays, we can find texts written in both directions. When a text is written vertically, it is read from right to left, top to bottom.
Horizontal writing was introduced as Japan started handling foreign documents. This type of material would be almost impossible to assimilate if it were written vertically. For this reason, horizontal writing has become completely normalized as well. When a text is written horizontally it is read from left to right, like in English or Spanish.
- Newspapers, novels, and even manga are still being written vertically.
- Emails, text messages, and school reports are written horizontally.
There's no need to stress yourself by overthinking this. You can use either, depending on the scenario. Nowadays horizontal writing is being used more and more.
The Japanese language reflects many aspects of Japanese culture. The writing system is not an exception. Both syllabaries and kanjis play an important role within the language itself, giving it balance and structure.
Some people make the mistake of ignoring these systems and only using Rōmaji, a version of the Latin alphabet used to communicate how Japanese sounds to people who aren’t familiar with its writing systems. Initially, that’s not a big deal, but over time, it will hold you back. Without mastering these writing systems, even at a basic level, it will be really difficult to move forward —you won’t be able to consume any sort of written Japanese material, including textbooks meant for learners.
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, that’s a necessary part of the process. Practice makes perfect.
If you try, you can do it!
Interested in Japanese?
- Keigo: When, Why, and How to Use Japanese Honorifics
- Your Guide to Basic Japanese Pronunciation and Grammar
- Tiffany's Japanese Learning Lessons
- Follow us on YouTube / Instagram / Facebook
Struggling with Kanji? We're excited to say that we've recently partnered with Outlier Linguistics. If you haven't heard of them, they're the English-language experts on Chinese characters. Some of our team members personally use their dictionary. If you've tried other things but kanji just aren't clicking for you, we strongly recommend checking out Outlier's Kanji Masterclass.