Japanese is often regarded as a difficult second language to learn because of its large, complex, and mysterious-seeming pictographic writing system. First-time learners often become intimidated by the seemingly endless number of characters in the Japanese writing system, but learning Japanese doesn’t have to be overwhelming. In fact, Japanese is a highly logical language made up of three separate alphabets, each with a slightly different purpose. Because these alphabets are either ideograms (meaning-representative images, like a picture of a tree for the word “moku”, meaning “tree”), or phonetic, syllable-representative characters, spelling and pronunciation in Japanese are relatively simple. In short, the many visual representations of written Japanese actually correspond to a relatively small list of syllables that make up all the words in the Japanese language! This phonetic simplicity makes pronouncing Japanese much easier than a Germanic language like English, or a Romance language like French. Japanese is written in a combination of three alphabets: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Understanding the differences and uses of each of these alphabets is a fundamental step toward parsing and eventually understanding written Japanese sentences. To begin, let’s examine each of these three writing systems– called hiragana, kanji, and katakana– in a little more detail:
Hiragana is a phonetic alphabet. It is usually the first alphabet taught to children and beginning Japanese students, and is used to write some root words as well as many prefixes, suffixes, conjugated verb, adverb, and adjective endings, and particles (single-character words used to mark things like the subject and object of a sentence). Hiragana is composed of one set of vowel syllables (a, i, u, e, o) and nine sets of consonant-vowel syllables following the same vowel pattern, such as sa, shi, su, se, so. There is one exception; a separate character, n, is the only character pronounced as a single consonant. Thus hiragana is technically not an alphabet but a syllabary. Like atoms, these syllables are the elementary building blocks of all words in written and spoken Japanese– whether a word is written in hiragana, katakana, or kanji, its pronunciation will be made up of sounds from the hiragana syllabary. The characters of hiragana are relatively simple and easy to draw, it’s the written language often used in children’s books and informal writing. This makes it a great first writing system for beginning Japanese students, and because it’s phonetic, it also works as a basic pronunciation guide. Hiragana syllables can be altered with various symbols that slightly change their consonant sound (for example, the dakuten marker, essentially double quotation marks written just to the right of a hiragana character, changes an unvoiced consonant (like te) into a voiced one (de). Here’s a chart of the entire hiragana alphabet:
Kanji refers to the writing system of complex characters borrowed from Chinese that are used for most root forms of nouns, adjectives, and verbs in formal Japanese. All kanji characters have at least one accompanying pronunciation, made up of syllables from the hiragana syllabary, and most kanji have several possible pronunciations. There are well over a thousand kanji in use in Japan today, but nobody singlehandedly knows them all– rarer kanji will often have their pronunciation written in small hiragana letters (called furigana) above them as a pronunciation guide. This is also a common practice in books, which may also be partially or entirely written in hiragana, especially if they are meant for young audiences. Students in Japan start learning kanji in elementary school, and will have learned over 1,000 elementary kanji by high school, and they learn over a thousand more by graduation! While this may seem like an impossible task to those of us who are learning Japanese as a second or third language, many of the more complex kanji are made up of recognizable, often-reused elements, called radicals, so their meaning can be inferred or at least guessed at even if the kanji character itself is unfamiliar. Also, it’s not necessary to achieve a high school level of literacy to understand Japanese in daily life– you can get by as a visitor to Japan or even live there for years knowing relatively few kanji!
Here’s what kanji with furigana looks like. These are the kanji characters for “Japan” with the corresponding hiragana written above as a pronunciation guide. This is a very useful convention that makes learning Japanese much, much easier!
Katakana is Japanese’s second phonetic syllabary. Once a student has learned hiragana this third writing system comes relatively easily, as katakana characters have one-to-one correspondence with hiragana (i.e., every hiragana character has a katakana character that represents the same single syllable). Like hiragana, the characters of katakana are simple, straightforward, and easy to learn. A lot of katakana characters look quite similar to their hiragana counterparts, which is very useful for beginning learners! Katakana is useful in a lot of the situations where we might use italics in English. Many words commonly in use in Japan today are imported from other languages, especially English, and katakana converts those words into the Japanese pronunciation system. For example, the Japanese word for “blueberry” is pronounced “bu-ru-be-ri”. It’s an English word mapped onto the syllables of Japanese. Katakana is also used for things like the speech of aliens, robots, and the like in comic books, and to represent certain Kanji pronunciations in dictionaries. Let’s look at a chart of the katakana alphabet (notice the similarities between this katakana chart and the hiragana chart above!):
Broken down in this way, the initially complex and mysterious Japanese writing system starts to become a fun and comprehensive learning challenge. The three-alphabet system of hiragana, kanji, and katakana make written Japanese a beautiful, deeply nuanced, and highly useful means of communication. The learning curve of written Japanese can be a bit steep at the beginning, but taking on each alphabet one at a time can help! Starting with hiragana, a beginning learner can start to memorize the way syllables in Japanese are pronounced, and can begin to read simple materials like children’s books and low-level textbooks. Learning katakana after hiragana makes learning this second phonetic syllabary much easier, and the student can practice comprehension of katakana with recognizable words borrowed from English. Finally, through learning a few basic kanji, the student of Japanese can get a feel for the rich layers of meaning and etymology conveyed through ideograms, and can begin to read at a slightly higher level. Give it a try, and you’ll see– learning Japanese is a fun and rewarding process!