Exploring the Japanese Writing System

“BEWARE: Brown bear tracks identified, 26 October 2009. City of Sapporo.” By 野鳥大好き (熊出没注意) [CC BY 2.1 jp], via Wikimedia Commons.

Japanese is a rich and fascinating language. Among its many extraordinary qualities is its uniquely complex script, which combines two parallel phonetic syllabaries (kana) with Roman letters (rômaji), Arabic numerals (Arabia sûji), and of course Chinese characters (kanji). With five scripts used simultaneously, Japanese is often called the world’s most difficult writing system. As some wit said about his demanding Japanese teacher, “OK class, now you’ve learned Chinese characters. On to page 2!”

Does this mean that visitors to Japan must resign themselves to becoming lost amid a sea of unintelligible print? Not quite. For one thing, anyone reading this has already mastered two of the script systems listed above! Indeed, the kinds of things that foreign travelers need to read – menus, tickets, street signs, and so forth – are most likely to be bilingual, and prices are written in Arabic numerals more often than not. Moreover, it is possible to gain basic proficiency in both kana syllabaries in perhaps 8-10 hours of study. In another 20 hours or so, one can master 100 kanji and 300 kanji-based words. And of course, thanks to Google, one can always point one’s smartphone camera at Japanese text and translate it instantly!

If you are able, it is well worth taking some time to become familiar with kana and some kanji before setting off for Japan. With that in mind, I offer below a brief introduction to the writing system, and recommendations on where to go to learn more.

Background

The earliest effort to write the Japanese language used imported Chinese characters, irrespective of their meaning, as phonetic symbols for similar native syllables. This first, seventh century attempt at a Japanese syllabic script (or kana) was known as the man’yôgana.

As these complex Chinese ideographs proved unsuitable for transcribing a polysyllabic tongue, the Japanese soon invented a pair of purely phonetic kana symbols: the relatively curvy hiragana (adapted from cursive man’yôgana), and the more angular katakana (adapted from fragments of man’yôgana). These derivations, offering a window into the earliest development of Japanese writing, can be seen here.

Though the Japanese stopped using Chinese characters (kanji) for phonetic writing,  they retained them for the countless words they borrowed from Chinese, or invented on the Chinese pattern. They also began using kanji to denote native Japanese words of similar meaning, this time without regard to phonetic similarity, so that many kanji came to have both a Chinese-derived pronunciation (the on-yomi, used in reading words borrowed from China) and an unrelated native pronunciation (the kun-yomi, used in reading native words). Having thus become associated primarily with meanings rather than sounds, kanji could be used to represent the stem of a polysyllabic Japanese verb or adjective, whose inflected portion could be represented by kana. In this way Japanese came to be written in a mixture of kana and kanji.

Today kanji are used mainly for Chinese-derived nouns, proper nouns, and the stems of native verbs and adjectives. Hiragana are used for all types of native words not written in kanji, and for the inflected endings following a kanji stem, known as okurigana (for example, the く in 巻く). Katakana are used mainly for Western loanwords, scientific names (such as names of species, like ヒグマ in the photo above), sound-mimicking words, and emphasis (like italics). In modern Japanese, most numbers are written in Arabic numerals (except in vertical text), and rômaji appear fairly frequently, primarily in alphabetical abbreviations (like “NHK”) and foreign names.

Picking up the basics

If you have some spare time, there’s no reason you can’t learn kana and some kanji before visiting Japan. Given the prevalence of Western loanwords in Japanese, it makes sense for foreign travelers to prioritize katakana. Knowing katakana makes it possible to sound out many useful words such as タクシー (taxi), バス (bus), and ホテル (hotel), and provides a kind of key for comprehending the many loanwords used in Japanese speech. Unlike words written in hiragana, most words written in katakana are likely to be intelligible to English-speaking travelers who have learned to read the individual katakana characters.

If you are embarking on serious language study, simply learn the kana scripts in whatever order they are taught in your textbook. Thoroughly mastering kana will be your essential first step, meriting top priority so that you can study the other aspects of the language by means of kana, rather than via the ill-advised expedient of rômaji transliteration.

To learn the kana, please take full advantage of the Kana Learner’s Course mobile app (the free version is very thorough but excludes tests).

To try your hand at some kanji for travel, I recommend Read Japanese Today by Len Walsh (Tuttle, 2008). Don’t take the title literally. If you interpret “Read Japanese” to mean “Be Able to Make Sense of Some of the Chinese Characters Used in Japanese”, you won’t be disappointed.

For those planning to study Japanese in earnest, I recommend you go straight to my much more comprehensive Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Course, and its companion volume, the Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary (both Kodansha USA, 2013). Both are appropriate for learners from novice through advanced levels. Warning: These hefty books are not suitable for light packing!

If you have any questions at all about learning kana or kanji, feel free to post them via the forums on this website. To learn more about how to make the very most of your trip to Japan, be sure to get yourself a copy of our favorite guidebook to Japan (or anywhere else for that matter!), Gateway to Japan!

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