One of the first things that children learn in school is the alphabet. This is fairly straightforward in English because there are no diacritical marks, cedillas, tails or accents. In English, speakers have to rely on diphthongs, vowel sounds and letter combinations to work with the 26-letter alphabet.

Did you know that Japanese also has letter combinations that influence the sound and meaning of words?

The main difference is that in Japanese there are three writing systems, does that mean that there are three Japanese alphabets?

Keep reading to find out more about the Japanese alphabet and the language's writing systems.

The best Japanese tutors available
Judy
Judy
R250
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Alexandra
5
5 (31 review/s)
Alexandra
R476
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Hisako
5
5 (22 review/s)
Hisako
R428
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Akina
5
5 (10 review/s)
Akina
R516
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Maurício
5
5 (37 review/s)
Maurício
R257
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Aiko
5
5 (47 review/s)
Aiko
R764
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Kei
4.9
4.9 (13 review/s)
Kei
R425
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
H - ikari
5
5 (62 review/s)
H - ikari
R602
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Judy
Judy
R250
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Alexandra
5
5 (31 review/s)
Alexandra
R476
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Hisako
5
5 (22 review/s)
Hisako
R428
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Akina
5
5 (10 review/s)
Akina
R516
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Maurício
5
5 (37 review/s)
Maurício
R257
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Aiko
5
5 (47 review/s)
Aiko
R764
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Kei
4.9
4.9 (13 review/s)
Kei
R425
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
H - ikari
5
5 (62 review/s)
H - ikari
R602
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Let's go!

Why Three Writing Systems?

It may seem ridiculous to have three writing systems and therefore three Japanese alphabets in one language. Unlike the simplified and traditional Chinese characters that replace each other, Japan’s writing systems actually complement each other.

As you learn the basics of Japanese, you will find that the Japanese symbols and Japanese letters of the three systems actually complement each other. Not only that, they also serve their own specific purposes and functions.

For instance, names and numbers are written in kanji, while the katakana and hiragana Japanese symbols reflect the unique sounds of the language.

The Japanese letters of katakana and hiragana are distinguished even further when it comes to what they represent. You’ll find that the Japanese symbols for Hiragana are used for authentically Japanese words like sushi (すし) while katakana are the Japanese letters or symbols that are used for imported words that have been absorbed into Japanese.

Take the word 'hamburger' for example. In Japanese, it is hanbaga (ハンバーガー) which is similar enough to the Anglo version for English speakers to understand it even though it is represented by the katana Japanese letters.

Kanji is an entirely different story because it is completely represented by Chinese characters. Here, you might be wondering why it doesn’t fall under the katakana banner.

That argument would have merit if we meant modern-day word imports; perhaps a cultural phenomenon from China that's suddenly the rage in Japan. If that were the case, then yes, the Japanese symbols of katakana would be used instead.

The Japanese alphabet is three different scripts, not just one
The Japanese alphabet is made up of three separate writing systems. Photo by Damon Lam on Unsplash

China’s famous soup-filled dumplings are a good example. In Mandarin, they are xiao long bao (笼包), but in katakana, they are 小籠包. The single difference is that the middle character, which means dragon, is written using the Japanese symbols of katakana while the Chinese word displays the simplified version of the same character.

There are also major pronunciation changes which in Japanese are called shōronpō.

Modern imports aside, Japanese and Chinese share centuries of history. While there are Japanese symbols or characters that are written in the same way, the sounds of the characters have changed over time. The best example of this can be found in Japanese numbers.

In some cases, meanings have changed too which means that a Mandarin speaker would recognise the Japanese letters of kanji, but its pronunciation would be difficult for them unless they had already mastered the basics of Japanese.

The Reason for Kanji

Japan and China have a long history, and since World War 2, they have maintained an ongoing sort of rivalry. This might make you wonder why Japan has not erased every trace of China from its Japanese alphabets. The reason is quite simple, kanji serves an important purpose and is too far entrenched in the basics of Japanese to be removed.

If it was not for kanji, it would be too difficult to determine in Japanese writing when a new word begins. Reading text in only hiragana or katakana would make determining which characters belong to which words rather difficult. Kanji, a critical part of the Japanese alphabets is what makes distinguishing a new word, easy.

You're more likely to find kanji than English throughout Japan
Kanji is used throughout Japan to indicate names, numbers and other traditional concepts. Photo by Conor Luddy on Unsplash

Unlike other Japanese letters, kanji does not have swirls or loops. While it does have slanted strokes like 八 or 刃, for the most part, it is well organised and box-like looking. By comparison, stroke combinations for other Japanese symbols, for example (katakana) shi (シ) seem aimless and almost whimsical.

As already mentioned kanji, which is used to write numbers, is also used for writing names in Japanese. Besides these functions, kanji is the part of the Japanese alphabet used for writing verbs, nouns and adjectives.

The best Japanese tutors available
Judy
Judy
R250
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Alexandra
5
5 (31 review/s)
Alexandra
R476
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Hisako
5
5 (22 review/s)
Hisako
R428
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Akina
5
5 (10 review/s)
Akina
R516
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Maurício
5
5 (37 review/s)
Maurício
R257
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Aiko
5
5 (47 review/s)
Aiko
R764
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Kei
4.9
4.9 (13 review/s)
Kei
R425
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
H - ikari
5
5 (62 review/s)
H - ikari
R602
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Judy
Judy
R250
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Alexandra
5
5 (31 review/s)
Alexandra
R476
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Hisako
5
5 (22 review/s)
Hisako
R428
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Akina
5
5 (10 review/s)
Akina
R516
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Maurício
5
5 (37 review/s)
Maurício
R257
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Aiko
5
5 (47 review/s)
Aiko
R764
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Kei
4.9
4.9 (13 review/s)
Kei
R425
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
H - ikari
5
5 (62 review/s)
H - ikari
R602
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Let's go!

Learning Hiragana

Learning the basics of Japanese means that you will need to get to grips with the phonetic aspects of the language which is represented by katakana and hiragana. While one kanji character can represent a whole meaning, for instance, 国 = 'country’, hiragana are Japanese symbols on their own. This means that they do not represent whole words or concepts but that every multi-syllable word will contain an equal number of hiragana symbols.

Hiragana which is made up of 46 sounds is broken down into:

  • the five vowels which are a, e, i, o, u
  • 40 consonant-vowel pairs
    • two of which, wo (を) and wa (わ) are word order particles
  • one consonant that works only with the vowel 'a' (remember the earlier hanbaga example)

Hiragana is the nearest to what we understand to be the complete Japanese alphabet. You could write the basics of Japanese using only hiragana, however, remember that the text would be devoid of spaces between syllables making it difficult to determine which part of the sentence words belong to.

Understanding writing that only uses hiragana or the most authentic part of the Japanese alphabet, means that readers need to know hiragana and Japanese culture very well.

Writing in Katakana

As hiragana and katakana each represent phonetic aspects of the Japanese alphabets, it is only logical that they have many things in common.

Katakana which consists of five vowels and 40 main vowel-consonant pairs also includes ‘n’. The two vowel-consonant pairs: wo (ヲ) and wa (ワ) indicate word order that is found in both katakana and hiragana.

While one is a mark of the sentence's object (wo), the other (wa) is indicative of the subject or topic.

In many ways, it is much easier to master katakana than hiragana. One reason is that it is less elaborate. For instance, consider the 'mu' syllable. In hiragana, it is represented by ; while the katakana version is simpler, if not less elegant.

Most languages include some foreign influence and in terms of Japanese symbols, katakana does this job for both the English and Chinese influences.

While many of katakana's functions and sounds are the same as hiragana, the different script is a signal that the word is imported.

You won't generally see any romaji walking around in Japan
Walking the street of Japan, you likely won't see any romaji. Photo by Astrit Malsija on Unsplash

Why Not Romaji?

Anyone who has learned Mandarin, which has a completely Romanised lexicon too, knows only too well that is also one of the most difficult languages on the planet to master. Pinyin assists Mandarin students to start speaking faster without the need to know enough characters to put a sentence together.

This is not only for foreign language students, either. Chinese schoolchildren also benefit from starting out with Pinyin, only to advance to reading and writing Chinese characters later.

Regrettably, the closest Japan comes to such a universal conversion of its language is Romaji – which are Japanese words written in the alphabet used by English speakers. Still, this doesn’t mean it is not difficult.

Firstly, there is more than only one system of Romaji, but the Latin alphabet was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries during the 16th Century. Since then, many other missionaries have also left all kinds of influences on the Japanese language.

Through the centuries, Japanese scholars have attempted to Romanise the language, resulting in two additional versions of Romaji: The Kunrei and Nippon systems.

Debatably, the most widely used version of Romaji is the Hepburn System, which also includes both hiragana and katakana.

If you're a purist language student, you’ll probably want to learn the Japanese alphabet without the help of Romaji. Whether you use it or not, bear in mind that when you arrive in Japan, it is unlikely that you’ll find anything written in Romaji.

So, why not stick to learning how to read and write in Japanese?

Having said this, unless you have a keyboard with the Japanese alphabet, you’ll need Romaji to type in Japanese.

Even so, you will still need to know how to recognise characters. Are you looking for hiragana's (さ) or katakana’s (サ)?

Understandably, there are language learners who shy away from Japanese simply because it is too complicated.

Imagine having to know which writing system is used for which word, never mind all the rules, sounds and characters you have to learn?

Having said that, even though English only contains 26 letters it certainly yields an extraordinary variety of sounds and constructs too. Add to that the difference between lowercase and capitals and print versus cursive and, suddenly you see that it’s a bit more complex than meets the eye.

So if you want to learn  Japanese words and phrases, learn them in Romaji if you have to, just make sure you don’t throw out the original Japanese alphabet while you are at it.

>

The platform that connects private tutors and students

1st lesson free

Enjoyed this article? Leave a rating!

5.00 (1 rating/s)
Loading...

Niki

Niki is a content writer from Cape Town, South Africa, who is passionate about words, strategic communication and using words to help create and maintain brand personas. Niki has a PR and marketing background, but her happiest place is when she is bringing a story to life on a page.