As with many languages, picking up Japanese can be rather challenging. Throw in the several levels of formality and three different writing scripts; this language is bound to make you dizzy.
The Japanese language’s writing system consists of three character types called: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Each type has a different purpose. Hiragana is used for native Japanese function words, Katakana is used for borrowed words from other languages, and Kanji are Chinese origin characters that have been adapted to the Japanese language.
Even though these three scripts can make you dizzy; there is no doubt that this language holds a beauty that is unlike many others. Appreciation of such beauty is hard to cultivate, especially if all you’re learning is theory and language rules. Here are some interesting facts about the Japanese writing scripts you may not learn when you first enroll in Japanese classes in Singapore.
Hiragana is a phonetic writing system, which means that each character represents one character syllable. It was first developed in the 5th century and is still used today to write Japanese words. Hiragana is also used to write words that are not easily spelt using kanji or Katakana.
Since kanji was inaccessible to the women, the court ladies and ladies-in-waiting took it upon themselves to create a Japanese written language they could call their own. Hiragana, formally known as onna-de (women’s hand), was a cursive script form of kanji. This writing script allowed the court women to present their views of life and romance in the Heian court.
In fact, these Japanese court women were the authors of several core classical Japanese literature novels, namely, The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book.
For a long time, many, mainly the male elites, were not fond of this writing script. Hiragana was not only considered effeminate but was also seen as childish and unsophisticated, especially when compared to kanji. It only started gaining attraction when male authors came to write literature using this script.
Even though kanji still reigned as the official Japanese written language, many had started to use Hiragana in their unofficial writing, such as personal letters amongst friends.
Here are a few examples of how Hiragana is used:
- 日本 (Nihon) – Japan
- 語学 (gogaku) – linguistics
- 明日 (Ashita) – tomorrow
- 気持ち (Kimochi) – feelings
Here are some sample phrases are written in Hiragana:
- はじめまして。 (hajimemashite.) – Nice to meet you.
- 僕は日本人です。 (boku wa nihonjin desu.) – I am Japanese.
- 今日は何の日ですか。 (Kyou wa nan no hi desu ka.) – What is the date today?
- 大好きです。 (daisuki desu.) – I love you.
You can also check the different Hiragana characters by looking at the Hiragana chart that we’ve provided below:
Katakana was first developed in the 9th century and is used mainly to write borrowed words from other foreign languages. Just like Hiragana, Katakana has a phonetic value, and each character represents one syllable. It is written in the same way and has the same sounds as Hiragana, with each character representing a sound.
While Hiragana is used to represent a Japanese text, Katakana is mainly used for foreign loan words and onomatopoeia.
Katakana was created to allow the Japanese to write words borrowed from other foreign languages more easily. Since kanji was not suitable for representing non-Chinese loanwords, Katakana was developed as a phonetic alphabet specifically for this purpose. It was modelled after the hiragana writing style, and at first, both were used together.
However, Katakana became more popular over time and replaced Hiragana as the main writing script for borrowed words.
Since kanji was inaccessible to the common Japanese people, Katakana was developed to help represent words from foreign languages. It was mainly used by traders, merchants, or merely a Japanese person who needed to communicate with people from other countries. Today, Katakana is still used to write foreign words, but it is also used for onomatopoeia, scientific terms and company names.
Here are a few examples of how Katakana is used:
- アメリカ (Amerika) – America
- ビール (bīru) – beer
- サッカー (sakkā) – soccer
- キャンディー (kyandī) – candy
Here is some sample conversational phrases are written in Katakana:
- ビールを飲む (bīru o nomu) – To drink beer
- サッカーを見る (sakkā o miru) – To watch soccer
- キャンディーが好きです。 (kyandī ga suki desu.) – I like candy.
You can also check the different Katakana characters by looking at the Katakana chart that we’ve provided below:
Kanji is the oldest and most complex of the three writing systems in Japanese. It is a logographic writing format which means that each character represents one word. This kind of written form called Kanji has developed in China over 2,000 years ago and was brought to Japan by Buddhist missionaries in the 5th century.
At first, only privileged Japanese people such as nobles and scholars were able to read and write in kanji. However, with the spread of Buddhism and the rise in education levels, this writing method gradually became more accessible to the general population.
By the 10th century, it had become the main writing style for all official documents as it gained several thousand Kanji characters.
Today, there are about 50,000 different kanji characters, and many of these thousand Kanji characters have multiple pronunciations and different meanings. While Hiragana and Katakana are used to represent Japanese words, kanji is used to represent both Japanese words and borrowed words from different languages.
How to Write Kanji
Kanji is written in the same way as Hiragana and Katakana, with each character representing a sound. However, it can be quite complicated to write and requires a lot of practice. In order to learn kanji characters and how to write them correctly, you need to know the meaning of the character, the pronunciation of the character, and how to write the character properly.
There are two main ways to write kanji: traditional or simplified Chinese characters. The traditional Chinese characters are more complex and are used in Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. The simplified Chinese characters are less complex and are used in China and Singapore.
Kanji: The Chinese-derived Script
East Asian countries have always had a strong symbiotic relationship. China and Japan, in particular, are only separated only by a thin narrow stretch of ocean.
This geographical proximity has allowed the two countries to be trading partners, and it has been as such for over a millennium. This relationship gave rise to the significant influence they had on each other, and one of the many things that China had a strong influence on was the Japanese writing system.
Kanji was first introduced to Japan when a scholar named Wani travelled from Korea to Japan with the intention to spread Confucianism. Prior to the formation of kanji, the Japanese had no writing format of their own.
Similar to Chinese, kanji are also ideograms. Each character has its own meaning and corresponds to a word. At the first few stages, kanji retained the original Chinese pronunciations but was also corresponded to native Japanese words and to more than one pronunciation. This then gave rise to two ways of pronouncing kanji: On Yomi (Sino-Japanese reading) and Kun Yomi (native reading).
Kanji: A Script Only For The Male Elites
It was later in the Heian period (794-1185) that the use of kanji truly proliferated. With the emergence of the kanbun system, diacritical marks were introduced to reconstruct the Chinese language.
By changing sentence structures, adding particles and verb endings following the rules of Japanese grammar, the language started to morph.
Kanji was the general writing style for official and intellectual works throughout the Heian period. This means that kanji was typically written and used exclusively for the educated and, consequently, only those in aristocracy and the imperial court. Not only was kanji inaccessible to the masses, but aristocratic women were also not able to use kanji.
Despite being in the elite class, court women and ladies-in-waiting were not granted higher education and thus, had not been trained in Chinese as had their male counterparts. Therefore, the implementation of the kanbun system and the usage of kanji were reserved only for the male elites.
Here are some example phrases using the Kanji writing method:
- 日は何の日？(What is the date today?)
- 雨が降っていま す。(It’s raining.)
- 大人になると難しい。(It’s difficult to become an adult.)
- 花を見に行きま す。(I’m going to see the flowers.)
What is the Japanese Writing System Most Commonly Used in Japan?
While there are three main writing systems in Japan – Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana – the most commonly used is the Hiragana. Hiragana has the simplest character formation and can be learned relatively easily out of the three.
Hiragana is also the main writing method taught to Japanese children in elementary school. In contrast, Kanji and Katakana are introduced in junior high school. This is because Kanji and Katakana have more complex character formations, and it is assumed that students would have a better foundation in Hiragana before moving on to the more difficult scripts.
Even so, these three should be learned concurrently if one wishes to be literate in Japanese.
Japanese Typography (Horizontal and Vertical)
Did you know that in Japan, there are two ways to write? In addition to the standard horizontal writing, Japanese can also be written vertically!
Vertical writing is often used in signage and newspapers, as it takes up less space and is easier to read when crammed on a small page. It is also commonly used for titles and headings. This is because vertical writing is more “Japanese-like” and has a traditional feeling to it.
On the other hand, horizontal writing is used in everyday correspondence used in formal letters, essays, and other official documents and is the predominant writing method taught in schools. This is because a horizontal text is easier for foreigners to read and write and more closely resembles how English is written.
Is it Easy to Learn the Writing systems of the Japanese Language?
Just like other languages, writing most characters in the Japanese language can be difficult to learn. However, with enough dedication and time, anyone can become proficient in all three scripts.
One way to make the process of learning Japanese easier is to practice writing individual characters frequently and in your own personal preference. By doing so, you will be able to remember and recall the characters more easily. Additionally, there are many online resources and apps that can help you learn Japanese writing systems.
Here are the tips to help you get started with learning Japanese writing systems:
Practice writing the characters frequently.
Once you practice writing the characters frequently, you will be able to remember and recall them more easily.
Learn the different readings of each character.
Kanji and Hiragana have multiple readings, and it is important to know all of them in order to read and write effectively.
Use online resources and apps.
There are many online resources and apps that can help you with learning Japanese and how to write in Japanese. Use all the resources and tools to your advantage, and you will be able to improve your writing skills in no time!
The three writing systems are complicated as they are beautiful. They’re imbued with a rich and vibrant history, and their beauty will never truly end. There is the history aspect to these writing systems, but be amazed once you step foot into how they are used in Japanese literature and art, especially calligraphy.
Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana are essential to learning Japanese most especially to read and write fluently in Japanese. Just like with any language, it takes time and practice to understand and be able to use the writing systems fully; but once you do, your ability to communicate with native Japanese speakers in Japanese will increase exponentially.
Keep practicing and don’t give up, and you will be able to write in Japanese like a pro! Build your appreciation for learning Japanese when you enroll in Japanese classes in Singapore today!