Writing Systems

Writing systems


In Japanese, there are three writing systems. Thousands of years ago, the Japanese brought writing from China, along with other things such as Buddhism. Unfortunately, the Chinese and Japanese languages have absolutely nothing in common. In fact, sentence structure of Chinese is almost identical to English, which makes it almost the complete opposite of Japanese!


Kanji (Chinese characters) 漢字


Kanji is what the Japanese call the system of writing that they brought back from China. In fact, many basic words still are the same in Chinese and Japanese. Although both countries have simplified the characters through the years. Hong Kong and Taiwan still use the traditional characters, though.


Kanji are complex characters that can take years to master, both for reading and writing. The thing that makes them more difficult in Japanese is that most characters have multiple readings. The reading can vary greatly depending on what word the character is in.


Hiragana ひらがな

a Syllabary

This system of writing is probably the most commonly used in modern times. It is one of the two syllabaries. Each character is made up of two sounds, a consonant and a vowel. There is only one exception, the “N” sound. It’s pronunciation is a mixture of “m” and “n” that’s cut off abruptly.


Hiragana can be used to write every word in the Japanese language. Although it’s main modern function is to make words grammatically correct. Kanji are used to write the root words and hiragana is used to add the Japanese endings, such as for past tense.



(Approximate pronunciation) Kai mawsh taw


This means: Bought


The first character is the kanji. The characters that follow are the hiragana which make the verb polite form and past tense.



Another point in modern Japanese is that when it is unnecessary (meaning no ambiguity in what the writer means) or too much of a pain to use the kanji, the words are often written in hiragana. So, over the years, many kanji have fallen out of use and are now mostly written in hiragana.


Katakana カタカナ

the other syllabary

Katakana is another syllabary. It’s modern use it mostly to write the words that have been borrowed from other languages. It’s pronunciation is exactly the same, although the arrangement of syllables are being manipulated more and more to represent foreign ways of pronunciation. For example, the sound “tea” can’t be written in regular Japanese. Traditionally the “Ti” combination doesn’t exist. So, it is written as “chi.” Which can also mean “pee.” Ewwwwww! It’s funny to hear an older person order iced tea, because it sounds like they want “iced pee. ”


Nowadays though, the arrangement of the characters are being used to accommodate more foreign pronunciations. So “tea” would be テ (te) (pronounced teh) with a small イ (i) (pronounced ee.) the new combination ティ (pronounced tea.) Now you can order アイスティー (ai sue tea)

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