負けたら終わりじゃなくて。 やめ ... - "If you lose it's not over. If you stop, then it will be over."

The above-mentioned Japanese quote is essential, especially if you are someone wanting to learn Japanese.  Stopping yourself from learning a new language because of how taxing the language learning process may be, is the biggest loss you can incur. However, if you attempt to learn the language and fail at learning to comprehend or read in the language, your Japanese language learning journey is not at all over.

Yes, you may have heard how difficult it is to master a language such as Japanese, but that should not stop you from trying to speak Japanese!

When you start learning the language of the Japanese people, you must always start with the Japanese alphabet (which is extremely different from the Latin alphabet system that you are accustomed to).  What is the Japanese alphabet?

The Japanese alphabet is actually three writing systems that work in unison: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.

The reason that all three writing systems are used is because each system serves a set purpose in the written text. You must know that each writing system uses its own characters. However, within one sentence in Japanese, you will find characters from all three language systems.

Your head may already be spinning from the thought of having to learn three writing systems for one language, and it doesn't help to look at the complex characters on a page which may seem to you like some mysterious code, however, rest assured that each writing system is straightforward once you start learning some language rules.

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Japanese Writing Systems: The History and Origins

You may look at Chinese writing and then look at Japanese and quite frankly they both may look similar to you.  Then again when a Japanese person speaks and a Chinese person speaks, the languages sound entirely different. So you might be wondering why the similarity between the two languages and why the vocal difference between them?

Japanese temple
The history behind the Japanese writing systems is enigmatic, long, and complex.

The history of the Japanese language and its underpinning origin is difficult to pinpoint. In fact, linguists have struggled with the question of how the Japanese writing systems came about for centuries.

It is believed that around the 500's, the Japanese used Chinese symbols when compiling official documents. Thereafter a writing system called Kanbun was developed which was made up of Chinese characters but deviated from Chinese due to grammatical markings that tied in with Japanese linguistic principles. So basically, Chinese words were spoken in a Japanese dialect!

From here, a system known as Kana was developed which had adapted Chinese symbols to symbols specific to Japanese. With Kana and the older versions of the Chinese symbols being used simultaneously in Japan, a modern Japanese writing system came to be.

  • Kanji involved the Chinese characters that were interpreted with Japanese pronunciations
  • Manyogana which focused predominantly on the syllabic  form of Kanji later evolved into Hiragana and Katakana
  • Hiragana and Katakana can be said to be a fully Japanese syllabic language
  • Hiragana works in unison with Kanji to formulate many parts of speech
  • Katakana is a version of Japanese that incorporates foreign languages, certain figures of speech, and slang words

Arguably, the way in which one borrowed Chinese symbol of systems became adopted and adapted to form three writing systems is still surrounded by a cloud of mystery. However, we can take our hats off to the people of Japan who developed their own language systems so that they could capture the essence of the way their Japanese language sounds.

With such an enigmatic historical trajectory surrounding these writing systems, it is no wonder why you are still reading this post as well as feeling all the more eager to learn the language.

Learn Japanese Writing

If you are eager to learn all about the Japanese writing system, you need to keep in mind that contained in a single Japanese sentence maybe three different writing scripts intertwined. As baffling as that may sound to the English speaker, a professional Japanese tutor will tell you that not all the characters contained within a sentence are particularly complex. Kanji which are symbols borrowed from Chinese are more complex to view and say. While characters following the Hiragana and Katakana writing systems are much simpler. In fact, if you can see Hiragana and katakana words, you most definitely can speak them. Let's explore each writing system some more.

Delving into an Understanding of Japanese Characters

Japanese Characters: Kanji

Kanji lantern
Kanji is the most common writing system in Japanese, and was borrowed from the Chinese language.

When we discuss the characters used in the Japanese writing system, we have to start with the Japanese Kanji writing system.

We start by discussing the Kanji system, as Japan borrowed some of the Chinese symbols. We say that the Kanji writing system is logographic or symbolic being made entirely from ideograms.

Ideograms are characters that each have their own meaning and stand-alone to represent objects.

The Kanji system contains about 50 000 symbols. This may startle you slightly but rest assured only between 1 500 to 2 000 Kanji get used in daily conversation.

For many second language learners, starting with Kanji is your best bet. You can be considered proficient in the language if you only learn Kanji. This means that by knowing Kanji alone, you will be able to understand what is being said and communicate effectively.

Before you breathe a sigh of relief, you ought to remember that a single Kanji can have multiple meanings depending on how it is pronounced and the context in which it is used. An ideogram can also be made of 2-20 strokes of a pen so you can be sure that learning the Kanji writing system will take you far longer than learning one of the other writing systems.

It is, however, advisable to learn Kanji as all your parts of speech are formed by the Kanji symbols. Kanji words are known as the stem words or root words and to that Hiragana symbols are added to give a suffix to the root/stem word.

Perhaps you will be better off if you choose to learn both Kanji and Hiragana one after the other.

Japanese Letters: Hiragana

Hiragana blocks
Hiragana is learnt from a young age, and it’s an important writing system in Japanese.

We can say that Hiragana is the system of writing that focuses on sounds. There are 46 characters in Hiragana and your can stop holding your breath since there are far fewer characters in Hiragana than there are in the Kanji language system.

After Kanji, Hiragana is the second most vital writing system when you are focusing on learning the Japanese language.

Adding Hiragana characters to the Kanji symbols that you have already mastered means communicating effectively in Japanese.

Thus the sole purpose of Hiragana characters is to act as suffixes for common Kanji stem words.

So if you are learning Japanese, remember the verb "learn" comes from the Kanji writing system, whereas the suffix, "ing" comes from the Hiragana writing system.

That is why you gain much better when you learn Kanji and Hiragana at once.

Japanese letters:  Katakana

Japanese Katakana also comprises 46 basic characters.

However, you are least likely to use the Katakana writing system. This is because Katakana is used to phonetically pronounce more technical and slang words. You can devote very little time to studying Japanese Katakana if you want to learn all three Japanese writing systems. However, if you are based in a technical field and work with "computers," then the Katakana system will be best for you.

Each character in the Katakana writing system takes on a single sound like a vowel or consonant and the characters of this language are far easier to write.

A point to note is that syllabograms are commonly used in this writing system.

A syllabogram means a sign written for a syllable that is a mix of both vowels and consonants.

When people from Japan refer to any words, phrase, or idea that has been borrowed from a foreign language, Katakana is used. So when you think of the Katakana symbols, think of what we call "borrowed words" in English.

You would be surprised to know that Katakana is used when creating sound words that are known as onomatopoeia. Do you remember your grade 12 Afrikaans poem, "Tien Haikoes"? Well, learning Katakana is best if you enjoy reading Japanese lyrics or Haikus.

If you are keen on learning Japanese make sure that you get to grips with what each of the three writing systems entails.

How to Learn Japanese Writing?

We are aware that you are interested in learning all about the Japanese language and writing system so we have decided to give you some tips and tricks on how to go about learning the language.

Part of the reason why you could be discouraged from the idea of studying the language comes from the fact that you are afraid that Japanese will be too hard to grasp. So to help you deal with your fear, here are some tips from an experienced Japanese language instructor that you can follow:

  • While it is advisable to learn Kanji first, a fearful language learner can start by learning both Hiragana and Katakana first. With just 46 basic sounds in each of these writing systems, you will be better off starting there. In this way, you don't have to feel nervous about the demands of the Kanji writing system.
  • Once you are comfortable with Hiragana and Katakana then only move on to Kanji
  • Visualise symbols and learn words by formulating stories based on the symbol and word
  • Repeat words learned often (when learning any language repetition is key)
  • Learn to type the language before you attempt writing the language down on a paper

Do you think you could be fluent in Japanese soon? Or perhaps you want to take the language one learning step at a time. The choice is entirely up to you.

A Japanese saying states: "Be not afraid of going slowly. Be afraid of standing still."

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Laila

Laila is an enthusiastic English educator and a fun-filled freelance writer. She has accomplished her dream of getting her first book published and has managed to write over 1 000 000 words since beginning her freelance career. In her free time, she is a travel blogger who explores all South Africa has to offer.