Japanese Writing for Beginners

Understanding Kanji, Hirgana and Katakana Scripts

Japanese Writing
Eriko Koga. Taxi Japan

Writing might be one of the most difficult, but also fun, parts of learning Japanese. The Japanese don't use an alphabet. Instead, there are three types of scripts in Japanese: kanji, hiragana and katakana. The combination of all three is used for writing.

Kanji

Roughly speaking, kanji represents blocks of meaning (nouns, stems of adjectives and verbs). Kanji was brought over from China around 500 C.E.

and thus are based on the style of written Chinese characters at that time. The pronunciation of kanji became a mixture of Japanese readings and Chinese readings. Some words are pronounced like the original Chinese reading.

For those more familiar with Japanese, you might realize that kanji characters do not sound like their modern-day Chinese counterparts. This is because kanji pronunciation is not based on modern-day Chinese language, but the ancient Chinese spoken around 500 C.E. 

In terms of pronouncing kanji, ththere are two different methods: on-reading and kun-reading. On-reading (On-yomi) is the Chinese reading of a kanji character. It is based on the sound of the kanji character as pronounced by the Chinese at the time the character was introduced, and also from the area it was imported. Kun-reading (Kun-yomi) is the native Japanese reading associated with the meaning of the word.

For a clearer distinction and an explanation of how to decide between on-reading and kun-reading, read what is On-reading and Kun-reading?

Learning kanji can be intimidating as there are thousands of unique characters. Start building your vocabulary by learning the top 100 most common kanji characters used in Japanese newspapers.

Being able to recognize frequently used characters in newspapers is a good introduction to practical words used every day. 

Hiragana

The other two scripts, hiragana and katakana, are both kana systems in Japanese. Kana system is a syllabic phonetic system similar to the alphabet. For both scripts, each character typically corresponds with one syllable. This is unlike kanji script, in which one character can be pronounced with more than one syllable. 

Hiragana characters are used to express the grammatical relationship between words. Thus, hiragana is used as sentence particles and to inflect adjectives and verbs. Hiragana is also used to convey native Japanese words that do not have a kanji counterpart, or it is used as a simplified version of a complex kanji character. In order to emphasize style and tone in literature, hiragana can take the place of kanji in order to convey a more casual tone. Additionally, hiragana is used as a pronunciation guide to kanji characters. This reading aid system is called furigana.

There are 46 characters in hiragana syllabary, consisting of 5 singular vowels, 40 consonant-vowel unions and 1 singular consonant.

The curvy script of hiragana comes from the cursive style of Chinese calligraphy popular at the time when hiragana was first introduced to Japan.

At first, hiragana was looked down upon by educated elites in Japan who continued to used only kanji. Consequently, hiragana first became popular in Japan among women as women were not granted the high levels of education available to men. Because of this history, hiragana is also referred to as onnade, or "women's writing". 

For tips on how to properly write hiragana, follow these stroke-by-stroke guides

Katakana

Like hiragana, katakana is a form of Japanese syllabary. Developed in 800 C.E. during the Heian period, katakana consists of 48 characters including 5 nucleus vowels, 42 core syllabograms and 1 coda consonant.

Katakana is used transliterate foreign names, the names of foreign places and loan words of foreign origin. While kanji are borrowed words from ancient Chinese, katakana is used to transliterate modern-day Chinese words.

This Japanese script is also used for onomatopoeia, the technical scientific name of animals and plants. Like italics or boldface in Western languages, katakana is used to create emphasis in a sentence. 

In literature, katakana script can replace kanji or hiragana in order to emphasize a character's accent. For instance, if a foreigner or, like in manga, a robot is speaking in Japanese, their speech is often written in katakana.

Now that you know what katakana is used for, you can learn how to write katakana script with these numbered stroke guides.

General Tips

If you want to learn Japanese writing, start with hiragana and katakana. Once you are comfortable with those two scripts, then you can begin to learn kanji. Hiragana and katakana are simpler than kanji, and have only 46 characters each. It is possible to write an entire Japanese sentence in hiragana. Many children's books are written in hiragana only, and Japanese children start to read and write in hiragana before making an attempt to learn some of the two thousand kanji commonly used.

Like most Asian languages, Japanese can be written vertically or horizontally. Read more about when one should write vertically versus horizontally.