The Japanese Writing System

I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the Japanese writing system.  The thing is:

The Japanese writing system is the most difficult part of learning Japanese.

And yet…

The Japanese writing system is the most fascinating part of learning Japanese.

Japanese Calligraphy

It’s one of the first things you’ll ever study and one of the last things you’ll ever master.  But don’t get intimidated.  I can hardly study Japanese for an hour without learning something about language–the key to uniquely human thought–that seems at once perfectly obvious and absurd.

And often such an instance is sparked, for me, through the study of Japanese writing… Kanji, in particular.

It’ll take a while to be a pro-rockstar-ninja Nihongo Shark, but discipline and work will get you to where you need to be.  And, luckily, it’s pretty easy to get started.

The Three Kinds of Characters

There are two ways that you’ll see Japanese characters written on a page: (1) horizontally, from left to right, like English and (2) vertically, from top to bottom and from right to left.

If you study Japanese in school, there’s a good chance they’ll have you write horizontally, from left to right.

However, if you read a novel, or any upper-level reading material, chances are that it will be written from top to bottom and from right to left.  So, you’d start at the top right of the page and go down the rightmost column of characters.  You’d end at the bottom of the leftmost column of characters.  It’s not too hard to read like this, thanks to the way Japanese characters are written.

There are three kinds of Japanese characters:

  • Kanji (kahn-jee) 漢字
  • Hiragana (hee-rah-gah-nah) ひらがな
  • Katakana (ka-ta-ka-na) カタカナ

All three of them are used together in sentences.  It’s usually pretty obvious when to use which one.  You might hear people sometimes refer to hiragana and katakana as simply ‘kana.’

Japanese Writing System

Hiragana & Katakana

Hiragana and Katakana are not hard to learn.  They are both used to represent the sound syllables that make up the Japanese language.  So, for instance, ‘ka’ in hiragana/katakana would be か/カ.

Each of these syllabaries (alphabets) has 46 basic characters (sounds).

Hiragana is usually used to represent Japanese words and grammatical elements (e.g. particles), while Katakana is usually used for words of foreign origin.

So, for example, sumimasen, which means “sorry” or “excuse me,” would be written in hiragana, because it’s a word of Japanese origin: すみません。

However, a word like nekutai, which means (get this) “necktie,” would be written in katakana, because it’s a foreign loan word: ネクタイ。

Often these loan words will just be English words with a Japanese pronunciation, like the example just shown.  The cool thing about this is that once you learn katakana, you more or less will have learned to read thousands of words in Japanese.  This is why katakana is a great syllabary to learn if you’re just going to Japan for a short trip.  It will come in handy, I promise.

Now, for your perusal, here are the complete lists of both hiragana and katakana characters:

Complete Hiragana Chart

Complete Hiragana Chart

Complete Katakana Chart

Complete Katakana Chart

You might notice that a lot of katakana characters look just like hiragana characters, only more rigid.

Hopefully those charts aren’t too intimidating.  Below I’ll give you some tips to shark-tackling them in no time.

Kanji

Before I even start, I gotta say: If you want to learn Japanese, then learn Kanji.  It will seem impossible (it’s not).  It will seem negligible (it’s not).  You’ll meet people who are downright awesome at speaking Japanese that absolutely suck at kanji.  Don’t be tempted!

I am, of course, talking to people who are in this for the long haul.  If you’re going to Japan in a month and just want to have some conversations with Japanese people, then forget kanji.  But if you want to read manga and books, to understand random stuff that flashes in bright colors on every single Japanese show you ever see, if you want to see a new, difficult word and already know what it means (though you might not know how to pronounce it), if you want to get a job in Japan, if you want to do anything that involves Japanese professionally, then start learning kanji now.

It will be really, really hard.  And I’m sorry for that.  But as long as we keep moving forward, we can learn just about anything we want.  The trick is to study mainichi mainichi (literally, “every day every day” –> “day in, day out”).

That aside, let’s talk about kanji.

The Purpose of Kanji

Long story short, the kanji come from China.  They are, technically, Chinese characters that the Japanese adopted a long time ago in order to write their language.

Kanji represent meaning (unlike katakana and hiragana) and sound (like katakana and hiragana).  Worry about their meaning first and their sound second (though you should learn both simultaneously).

For instance, it’s more important to know that 山 means mountain than it is to know that it is pronounced “ya-ma” or “san.”  Still, ideally, you should know both of these things.  Then, when you see a word like 火山 (“fire” + “mountain”), it won’t be too much of a stretch to find out that it means “volcano.”  But it’s even more helpful if you can guess that it’s pronounced “ka-zan”.

(Ya, sometimes an ‘s’ will become a ‘z’, making ‘san’–>’zan’ in this case.  You’ll pick up lots of things like that in studying Japanese, though no one will probably ever explain it to you adequately… maybe in a future lesson!)

This might seem not all that important, but the formation of words using different kanji, to me, is super fascinating!  Sometimes, you get a little bit of a glimpse as to how we humans see the world, all through something as simple as understanding a volcano to be a fire-mountain.  More insights will follow, but I’ll leave them for you to look forward to.

Learning Kanji

Japanese people are expected to learn around 2,000 kanji by the time they finish Junior high school.  These are the characters you’ll be expected to learn if you want to enter a Japanese university, pass the JLPT tests, and read most of books, magazines, manga, and school textbooks.

Some are simple (1-3 strokes); some are complicated (20+ strokes!); some are pictographic (like how 山 actually looks like a mountain); some are symbolic.  We will learn them all!

Now, I’m sorry to do this, but here is a chart of most of the kanji you’ll need to learn to be considered shark-jouzu (“jouzu” = じょうず = 上手 = literally, “above + hand” = means “skilled, good at”… makes sense, right?)

Kanji Chart

Kanji Chart

Learning kanji is a whole crazy task that you should start tackling right now. 

Romanization

When people say ‘romaji’ they are referring to the romanization of the Japanese language.  In other words, writing Japanese words with the Western alphabet.

So, when I write ‘yama’ instead of 山 or やま, that’s romaji.

Japanese Subway Sign

STOP USING ROMAJI RIGHT NOW.

If you study Japanese with romaji you are sabotaging yourself.  It’s super-detrimental.  That’s why, after this article, I’ll never be using it again.  You must, must, must learn at least hiragana and katakana before you study Japanese any longer than a day.

It takes maybe 2-5 days to learn hiragana and katakana, so just go get it over with, ya?

There are lots of tools to learning Japanese, including a bunch of smartphone apps and online flashcards just for learning hiragana and katakana.  Plus, if you forget one online, you can always cheat with rikaichan to see what it is.

Your Character Study Plan

I guess I already got into this a little bit in the romanization section above.  Basically, I would stop everything right now and learn hiragana and katakana as soon as possible (less than a week, but ideally in 2-3 days).

James Heisig claims that in this book he can teach you them in 3 hours each:

Remembering the Kana

I’m skeptical, but James Heisig is pretty famous for his Remembering the Kanji system.

Then you can work on kanji.

Don’t forget, you are awesome.  You are awesome.  You are awesome.  You are awesome.

Author Bio: Nikolai

Nikolai has written 19 posts.

Yo! I'm Niko, the founder of NihongoShark. I almost never update this site. Sorry! I'm am shamed. Uh, what else? Well... I live in Tokyo. So if anyone wants to meet up for a refreshing nama beer, I'm probably down for that. Learning Japanese is a betch. But we're in this together. ファイト!

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