About Japanese Writing
Posted 3/24/08
About Japanese Writing

There are four basic character sets used in writing modern Japanese, katakana, hiragana, kanji, and romaji. If you're reading this page, I assume you've already got a pretty good grasp of romaji, because it's the Roman alphabet used in one way or another for most of the Western European languages. I think we can safely skip romaji.


Katakana is a very angular script, and for me was the easiest to learn. Composed of 46 basic yet very distinctive characters, katakana can be used to express any sound in the Japanese language. The first 5 characters correspond to 5 vowels common to many languages.

A sounds like the a in the English word father.
I sounds like the i in the English word machine.
U sounds like the u in the English word truth.
E sounds like the e in the English word prey.
O sounds like the o in the English word most.

Katakana is most commonly used to express

* Foreign names, like mine--Blake Sterzinger.

* Borrowed foreign words, like computer or beer.

* Company names, like Toyota or Yamaha.

* New words in Japanese, like pachinko or karaoke


Hiragana is a much smoother script, full of loops and curves. I found hiragana more difficult to master than katakana because a) the characters are sometimes very close in appearance to one another, and more importantly b) the loops and curves are difficult to write correctly and smoothly without a confident hand. That is why I think a lot of guided repetition should be helpful in learning to write legibly in hiragana.

There are 46 basic hiragana characters, each one having a counterpart in katakana. As such, all sounds in the Japanese language can be expressed with just hiragana. These two basic writing systems share most rules, but lengthening vowel sounds and making consonant sounds harder are done differently in the two sets.

Hiragana is most commonly used to express
* Simple words, like the verb aru or the noun neko.

* Conjugations at the ends of verbs, like mimasu (I see) and mimashita (I saw.)

* Particles of speech, such as wa, e, and o. Note that the particle wa is the same as the hiragana ha, eis the same as the hiragana he, and the particle o is different from the normal hiragana o.

* Hiragana is the first writing system taught to Japanese children, so low-level children's books are written exclusively in hiragana, and even in more advanced level texts, difficult kanji will have the pronunciation written above in hiragana.


Kanji is the most complicated script in Japanese. First brought to Japan by Buddhist monks more than 1200 years ago, these Chinese ideograms number in the thousands, each one representing a different idea, not necessarily a different sound as is the case with katakana, hiragana, and romaji. In fact, most of the characters have more than one possible reading. The ideogram for person can be read as jin, nin, hito, bito, ri, and several other sounds.

Kanji is most commonly used to express

* Place names, like Tokyo or Osaka.

* The names of people, like my wife.

* Most nouns, as well as verb and adjective stems.

* You should notice, though, that over the years the Japanese system has diverged from the Chinese, often simplifying characters, as in the Chinese and Japanese characters for country.

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