Japanese Characters: What You Need to Know

If you have been to Japan before, you might have found that sentences are composed of various characters. Some of the words seem to be presented in complicated Chinese characters. And others seem to be written with much more simple characters.

The modern Japanese writing system is consist of kanji, hiragana, and katakana. For Japanese beginners, except for using romaji to learn the pronunciation, at the same time, it is also recommended to recognize the kana, including hiragana and katakana. With remembering the writing and the pronunciation of kana, I am sure it can be helpful to learn new vocabulary.

In this article, I will introduce the three writing systems. In the last part of this article, I provide you with a table with the graph I made to help you recognize hiragana, katakana with romaji.

History and relationship between Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana

In ancient ages, it is said that there is no writing system in Japan. Not until around the 6 or 7 century, Chinese characters were introduced to Japan.

Kanji 漢字

Man’yōgana is the writing system then being developed that “borrowed” the words from Chinese characters. Man’yōgana is derived from a poetry collection called Man’yōshū (万葉集, literally “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”). Every Chinese character represents a phonetic value.

Take the Japanese word “山”(やま, ya-ma) which means “mountain” for example. According to Man’yōgana, this word was written as “也麻”. Though the words were pronounced in Japanese, the writing was all presented in Chinese characters. As a result, it causes reading and writing troublesome for people.

Katakana カタカナ

In order to make the characters easy to read and write, Katakana was then developed from Man’yōgana.

The table below provides you with Katakana on the left and the corresponding Man’yōgana character that Katakana is originated from on the right. With this table, not only you can have a better understanding of how Katakana came from, but also might be a great way to remember some Kanji at the same time! (Table derived from Wikipedia page: Man’yōgana)

It is also said that Katakana was mainly used by males at that time. Therefore katakana was called 男手”otoko-de” or 男文字”otoko-mo-ji”, literally means men’s writing.

By Pmx – Own workCreated using the info from Image:Katakana origine.png, CC BY-SA 3.0,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1561310

Hiragana ひらがな

As you might have noticed, Hiragana characters are composed with soft lines, while Katakana is with straight lines. Hiragana is also derived from the Chinese words in man’yōgana. With the process of writing those words in the grass script style of Chinese calligraphy, here we have the hiragana used nowadays! The table below shows the corresponding Chinese words and Hiragana.

Traced back to when Hiragana was first created, it was not widely accepted by the people. Compared to Katakana, which is popular among educated males, Hiragana was mainly written by females who are not allowed to receive high education. Therefore, it was called 女手 “onna-de” or 女文字 “onna-mo-ji”, which means “women’s writing”.

There are some well-known works written by the females with hiragana at that time, such as The Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.

As hiragana is comparatively easy to write, as time goes on, it became widely used. In modern days, Hiragana is the main kana being used, while Katakana is mainly used to present foreign loanwords.

By Jeannebluemonheo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92551960

Basic knowledge about Kana and Kanji

After we have the background knowledge of how the characters come from, let me explain the practical knowledge that you must know for each writing system.

五十音 ”Gojūon”

Gojūon

Gojūon, literally “fifty sounds”, is consist of basic kana that can be written in both hiragana and katakana. There are 5 vowels (a, i, u, e, o), and 10 consonant (a, k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w). Currently, there are only 46 of them are being used, including a special kana ん ”n”.

Though gojūon has all the basic kana, there are other variation characters.

  • 濁音dakuon : Also known as voiced sound. There are 20 of them. Dakuon characters have two dots on the upper right of kana. (For example, Hiragana: が, ざ, だ, ば; Katakana: ガ, ザ, だ, ば)
  • 半濁音 handakuon: Also known as semi-voiced sound. There are 5 of them, which have a small circle one the upper right of kana. (Hiragana: , , , , ; Katakana: , , , , )
  • 拗音 yōon: , , , which are the small form of や, ゆ, よ.
  • 促音 sokuon: also known as “small tsu” or “silent tsu”, derived from つ .

Why Japanese needs three writing systems?

Nowadays, in a sentence, you can find three writing systems appear at the same time. But why? Is that necessary? Let’s start with what is normally written in hiragana and katakana.

Hiragana

  • Original Japanese words
  • Gramatical words: (Particles) に, は, が, を, へ… (Conjunctions) しかし, でも, それで…

Katakana

  • Foreign loanwords: チョコレート (chocolate), テレビ (television), ヘア (hair)
  • Scientific name
  • Onomatopoeia: ビリビリ(sound of ripping up something)
  • Mimetic words: ツルツル (smooth, polished)
  • When want to emphasize anything when writing: コレはなに? (WHAT is this?)

Take this Japanese tongue twister for example.

買った肩叩き機高かった

The English translation is “The shoulder-tapping machine I bought was expansive”.

If we write this sentence all in hiragana: かったかたたたききたかかった

It is extremely hard to know which part is the verb, noun. Even more, we would have difficulty with pronunciation since we don’t know where to put the stress on.

Rōmaji

Most Japanese beginner starts learning with the assistance of this romanized Japanese. With rōmaji, learners can remember the pronunciation of kana characters or kanji.

With modern education, although most of the Japanese are able to read and write rōmaji. Different from those who learn Japanese as a second language, Japanese native speakers do not learn the pronunciation with rōmaji.

When do Japanese use rōmaji?

  1. Street sign: sometimes the name of the place is consist of difficult or rare kanji that even native Japanese are not sure about the pronunciation.
  2. Name: on passport or any data that require romanized name
  3. Typing

Three rōmaji systems

In modern days, there are three rōmaji systems, which are Hepburn romanization, Kunrei-shiki romanization, and Nihon-shiki romanization. Among them, Hepburn romanization is the most frequently used. Since it can be a long explanation, let me introduce it in a brief way.

If you want to know the difference between the three systems, please check the Wikipedia page for the “Differences among romanizations” section: Romanization of Japanese

Hepburn romanization comes from English phonology. Since it makes it easier for non-native speakers to learn the pronunciation, it is widely used nowadays. There is a Revised Hepburn system developed after the previous system. There are two main features as below.

❶ Using a macron to present long vowels

➼ English: sugar  ➼ Kanji: 砂糖  ➼ Hiragana: さとう “sa-to-u”  ➼ Revised Hepburn: satō

➼ English: speed  ➼ Hiragana: スピード “su-pi-do”  ➼ Revised Hepburn: supīdo

Using an apostrophe or hyphen between characters

The reason for the modification made is that sometimes two different pronunciation Japanese words are written with the same rōmaji. Without a hyphen or apostrophe, students can make mistakes in pronunciation. Especially when encountering a ん”n” followed by a naked vowel or semivowel.

Summary

Thank you for finishing this article. If you have just begun your studying in Japanese, I suggest you first remember all the pronunciations of the corresponding kana. Because it can save your time from checking up the kana chart when learning new words or reading context.

Below is a Japanese kana table made by me. I left a space for you to write a word that can help you memorize the kana. Please feel free to print it out and practice!

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ABOUTこの記事をかいた人

Hi! I’m Yujung from Taiwan. Decided to start my career in Kansai area Japan in 2019, I’ve always considered this a right decision ever made in my life. WHY? There are way too many things waiting for me to discover, such as the charming language, spectacular nature, colorful seasons and lovely people!