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Japanese Writing Systems 2

How it Works

One reason some people consider reading and writing Japanese difficult is
because there are THREE sets of characters.

Another difference is that most of the letters consist of a consonant paired with a
vowel – Ka, To, Ne, Yu, etc. When pronouncing Japanese, never ignore a letter
like you often do in English. And never assume that two vowels will produce just
one sound – because that doesn’t happen! When you see two or three vowels
lined up, you need to pronounce each and every one. They may be pronounced
quickly – crunching three sounds into one syllable even – but vowels do not
combine to create new sounds.

Example 1: Aoi (the Japanese word for ‘blue’ used as an adjective) = “ah-oh-
ee”. All three sounds should be clearly pronounced but they are said quickly in
sequence making the word just one syllable.

Example 2: Namae (the Japanese word for ‘name’) = “nah/mah-ĕ” (not “nah-
Example: may”)
 Even though the Ma and E are crunched into one syllable when the word
is spoken – making ‘namae’ a 2-syllable word – the ‘a’ on the Ma and the
E should both be enunciated. Every letter gets to be heard!

Exception #1: Sometimes an ‘i’ will be inaudible. For example, Shita can be
pronounced “Shee-tah.” But it will often be slurred into one syllable and come
out as “Shtah.”

Exception #2: A ‘U’ at the end of a sentence is often ignored when it follows an
‘S’. For example, ‘desu’ will sound like “des” and ‘imasu’ will sound like “imas”
(with the A pronounced like the A in ‘father’. It is more polite and proper to
pronounce the U, but it is common practice not to.

Warning!: If you are doing Japanese lessons with Rosetta Stone, the program
is more likely to accept your pronunciation as correct if you carefully pronounce
everything and do not make these common omissions.
 Pronunciation Hint: If you have any familiarity with Spanish – Come on,
you grew up with Dora the Explorer! – then you may find Japanese
pronunciation rather easy to get used to as the sounds are almost exactly
the same as Spanish with the exception of never having to roll your R’s!

Important Points:
1. Most Japanese letters consist of a consonant+vowel sound.
2. When speaking or reading Japanese, sound out each and every letter in a

Three Sets of Characters

Hiragana ひらがな and Katakana カタカナ

As the Chinese characters alone did not fit the Japanese language very well,
they invented Hiragana and Katakana. These two sets of symbols are phonetic
(i.e., used to represent sounds). Each symbol usually represents one syllable of
a word. Unlike Kanji, these characters do not have any meaning on their own –
beyond the "sound clusters" (sometimes referred to as mora/morae) that they
There are 46 hiragana and 46 katakana characters. Both are used to represent
the same set of sounds. Hiragana came to be used mainly in the Japanese
language in conjunction with Kanji, and katakana came to be reserved for words
of foreign origin.
Because they are both alphabets, anything you can say (within the sound system
of Japanese) you could write down using either set of kana symbols (hiragana or

Kanji (Chinese characters) 漢字

When the Japanese first wrote down their language many centuries ago, they
borrowed characters from the Chinese language which are still in use in modern
Japanese. Every Chinese character has a meaning. These Kanji characters are
like pictures. In fact, they are pictures, but it takes time to get good at
deciphering what they represent. For example, the Chinese character that
means ‘mountain’ originated with a drawing of a mountain:

→ → → →
Not all things can be written in Kanji, and Kanji symbols almost always have two
or more different pronunciations.

Important Points:
3. Hiragana and katakana letters represent only sounds; Kanji are pictures
representing things and abstract ideas.
4. Any word in Japanese can be written entirely in hiragana or entirely in
katakana, but not everything can be written in Kanji.

“Examples, Please!”

Let’s take a look at a person’s name – one of the most common Japanese family
names, Tanaka, and a very common girl’s name, Yoshiko.

1) Tanaka Yoshiko (Rōmaji) Each of these shows the name, Tanaka Yoshiko,
2) たなかよしこ (Hiragana) written with a different writing system. Each one
3) タナカヨシコ (Katakana) looks different, but the pronunciation remains the
4) 田中佳子 (Kanji) same.

Above: The word ‘Kanji’ written in each of the four systems (including Rōmaji)
1) ‘Tanaka Yoshiko’ written in Rōmaji = Tanaka Yoshiko
The Latin (or Roman) alphabet is what we use to spell words in English. Several
slightly different Rōmaji (literally “Romanized character”) systems have been
developed for representing Japanese words using the English alphabet. The
Japanese use Rōmaji when typing text on a computer or a cellphone.

 Technical Points: The words ‘hiragana’ and ‘katakana’ do not need to be

capitalized. ‘Rōmaji’ should always be capitalized as it stands for “Roman
letters” and it is proper to capitalize the names of cities, countries,
civilizations, and races. For the same reason, I always capitalize the K in
Kanji as ‘Kan’ stands for ‘China’ (at least the China of the time that Kanji
came into existence (Han Dynasty). I also think it should be capitalized
because it is the coolest thing about Japanese writing!
 By the way, the line over the o in Rōmaji indicates that the O is extended
in the Japanese pronunciation. The sound doesn’t change; you just hold it
a little bit longer.

2) ‘Tanaka Yoshiko’ written in Hiragana = たなか よしこ

Here, each character represents a sound cluster (mora):
た = ta
な = na
か = ka
よ = yo
し = shi
こ = ko

3) ‘Tanaka Yoshiko’ written in Katakana = タナカ ヨシコ

タ = ta
ナ = na
カ = ka
ヨ = yo
シ = shi
コ = ko

Japanese names are usually not written in katakana, but foreign names are.
Do you think you can distinguish hiragana from katakana and Kanji? Hiragana
and katakana are both fairly simple lettering, but Kanji picture symbols often look
somewhat complicated. How do you tell hiragana and katakana apart? Take
another look at the name Tanaka Yoshiko.

たなか よしこ (Hiragana)

タナカ ヨシコ (Katakana)

Can you see how Hiragana tends to be rounder with loops? And Katakana
characters tend to have sharp angles and flat sides? It might help to think of

Katakana as BLOCK PRINT and Hiragana as cursive writing.

4) 田中佳子 Written in Kanji

As I mentioned before, every Kanji has a meaning.
First part 田 means ‘rice field’. Here it is pronounced ta.
Second part 中 means ‘inside’ or ‘middle’. Here it is read naka.
Third part 佳 means ‘good’. Here it is read yoshi.
The last part 子 means ‘child’. Here it is read ko.

The name ‘Tanaka Yoshiko’ can mean “A good child in the middle of a rice field”!
(“Is that where she was born? Or was she found there?”)

But Yoshiko can also be written with these Kanji: 美子. Though it is still read,
“Yoshiko,” the first Kanji here means ‘beautiful’ so the name means “beautiful
child (born in the middle of a rice field).”

So if someone were to ask, “What does Yoshiko mean?” The only answer I
could give is that it depends on what Kanji characters are being

By the way, my wife’s name uses one of the same Kanji used in this
second version of Yoshiko. However, in my wife’s name instead of
reading 美 as “Yoshi” it is pronounced “Mi”.

Sometimes it is difficult for a Japanese person to know for certain

how a name should be pronounced by just looking at the Kanji with
which it is written – because almost every Kanji has multiple
possible pronunciations.
Each of the following two charts shows possible pronunciations of a given name.
Chart A is a girl’s name (either Akiko or Shōko) and Chart B is a boy’s name
(Taku, Takashi or Suguru).

 Outside of names, it is usually easier to determine how to read a Kanji

based on context.

Important Points:
5. Rōmaji = English letters

6. Japanese people are very familiar with English letters because they use
them to type and to text.
7. Japanese sounds – such as parts of a name – can often be represented
by more than one different Kanji.
8. Just about every Kanji has more than one possible pronunciation.

Don’t let Kanji scare you!

Remember, Kanji are just pictures. We will practice writing some Kanji
only to become familiar with the general stroke order rules. As far as
Kanji is concerned, our focus will be on learning to identify the pictures,
and if you start with the easy ones like Sun, Moon, Water, Fire, Person,
etc., you will eventually be able to make sense of a more complicated
looking Kanji by identifying its parts.
For example, the Kanji picture for ‘introduction’ combines (1) thread, (2) bowing
person, and (3) mouth. When you introduce yourself to someone Japanese style,
you bow (bowing person), you say the phrase for “Nice to meet you” (words
coming out of your mouth) and thus you have created a new bond of friendship
(represented by the thread).

I will be presenting several Kanji lessons later with the pictures to go with them,
but for now let’s get back to our comparison of the different writing systems.

“Check It Out!”

All 4 of these writing systems are used together in writing Japanese. “NO WAY!”
you say? Check out the following examples.

Example Text 1
Examine the following text. Can you find hiragana, katakana, and Kanji?

Sometimes you will also see Rōmaji included in words like T-shirt and CD and it
is commonly used in various acronyms like イベントPR (Event Press Release).

Example Text 2
この T シャ ツ は 5千円 です。 (Translation: “This T-shirt is 5,000 yen.”)

The first 2 characters are Hiragana. ‘T’ is Rōmaji. ‘Shatsu’ is the katakana word
for shirt. The character to the left of the 5 is a single Hiragana serving as the
subject marker (you’ll learn more about that later). 5 is an Arabic numeral
followed by the Chinese number for 1,000 and the Chinese character (Kanji) for
‘en’, the Japanese monetary unit. The last 2 remaining letters are Hiragana.

How about one more?

Example Text 3
Here is another text. What is different here?

Traditionally, Japanese
was written vertically, from
right to left. Newspapers,
magazines, novels, and
formal personal letters are
still usually written
vertically and textbooks,
casual personal letters,
and business
correspondence are
usually written horizontally
from left to right, top to
Important Points:
9. Even though you can write Japanese using only hiragana, authentic
Japanese text is a mixture of hiragana, katakana, Kanji and a little bit of
10. Japanese writing may be vertical (right to left) or horizontal (left to right).


At this point you should know the difference between hiragana, katakana and
Kanji. You should also understand that Rōmaji refers to the writing of Japanese
using English letters.

Now that you know all about Japanese writing, it’s time to get started learning the
most fundamental set of characters.

“Japanese Writing Systems 3” will explain why it is always important to write

hiragana characters with the proper stroke order. It will also set forth guidelines
that will make it easy to be able to determine the correct stroke order of any
character. Only 1 of the 46 characters breaks the rules!

Take a break for now. Maybe get a bowl of ice cream and watch an episode of
your favorite show. When you come back for JWS part 3, bring a sharp mind
and a sharp pencil and be prepared to start writing Japanese!