Would you like to learn how to writing take place of the Japanese language, but feel intimidated or confused by the script? Using this post, you’ll learn how to read and write in this beautiful language step-by-step.

It might be one of the most difficult, but also most enjoyable parts of learning Japanese to write. There is no alphabet in Japanese. In Japanese, there are three types of script: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Writing is done by combining all three.

You’ll need to get to grips with the script sooner or later if you’re serious about learning Japanese. Then you won’t be able to read or write anything useful, and that’s no way to learn a language. If you have a friend who is learning Japanese, you might want to share it with them. Let’s get started

Learn To Read And Write: Japanese Language With Two Systems And Three Scripts

You may mistake Japanese writing for Chinese if you are a complete beginner.

Learn Japanese Writing
Learn Japanese Writing

However, if you examine it closely, you’ll notice that it doesn’t just contain complex Chinese characters. There are also a lot of simpler ones.

Here’s what you need to know.

\(\color{red}{\mathbf{それでも、\longrightarrow Nevertheless, the}}\)
\(\color{orange}{\mathbf{日本人 \longrightarrow eating\ habits}}\)
\(\color{red}{\mathbf{の \longrightarrow of}}\)
\(\color{orange}{\mathbf{食生活 \longrightarrow Japanese\ people}}\)
\(\color{red}{\mathbf{も \longrightarrow are\ also}}\)
\(\color{orange}{\mathbf{急速 \longrightarrow rapid}}\)
\(\color{red}{\mathbf{に \longrightarrow ly}}\)
\(\color{orange}{\mathbf{変化 \longrightarrow chang}}\)
\(\color{red}{\mathbf{してきています \longrightarrow ing}}\)
\(\color{orange}{\mathbf{。\longrightarrow .}}\)
\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{ハンバーグ \longrightarrow Hamburgers}}\)
\(\color{red}{\mathbf{や \longrightarrow and}}\)
\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{カレーライス \longrightarrow curry\ rice}}\)
\(\color{red}{\mathbf{は \longrightarrow are}}\)
\(\color{orange}{\mathbf{子供に人気 \longrightarrow popular}}\)
\(\color{red}{\mathbf{がありますし \longrightarrow with}}\)
\(\color{orange}{\mathbf{、都会. \longrightarrow children.}}\)
\(\color{red}{\mathbf{では \longrightarrow In\ cities}}\)
\(\color{orange}{\mathbf{、\longrightarrow ,}}\)
\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{イタリア \longrightarrow ethnic}}\)
\(\color{orange}{\mathbf{料理、東南 \longrightarrow restaurants\ serv}}\)
\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{アジア \longrightarrow ing}}\)
\(\color{orange}{\mathbf{料理、多国籍料理 \longrightarrow Italian}}\)
\(\color{red}{\mathbf{などを \longrightarrow cuisine}}\)
\(\color{orange}{\mathbf{出 , \longrightarrow Southeast Asian}}\)
\(\color{red}{\mathbf{す \longrightarrow cuisine}}\)
\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{エスニック \longrightarrow and}}\)
\(\color{orange}{\mathbf{料理店 \longrightarrow multi-national\ cuisine}}\)
\(\color{red}{\mathbf{がどんどん \longrightarrow keep}}\)
\(\color{orange}{\mathbf{増 \longrightarrow increas}}\)
\(\color{red}{\mathbf{えています。\longrightarrow ing\ more\ and\ more.}}\)

This sample shows how three different scripts are interwoven within one Japanese text. To make it easier for you to distinguish them, we have color-coded them.

Interestingly, each color represents a different type of word – a part of speech – and tells you a great deal about what the three scripts are used for.

What is the difference between complex characters (orange) and simpler ones (red and blue)?

The complex characters are called kanji \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{(漢字}}\) lit. They were borrowed from Chinese characters. Each symbol corresponds to a block of meaning in what’s called a ‘logographic system’ (\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{食}}\) ‘to eat’, \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{南}}\) ‘south’, \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{国}}\) ‘country’).

Additionally, each kanji has its own pronunciation, which must be learned – you cannot “read” an unknown kanji like you might an unknown word in English.

The other two sets of characters are much simpler!

Above, the red characters are called hiragana, and the blue characters are called katakana. As syllabic systems, katakana and hiragana correspond to single sounds, unlike the kanji. For example, \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{そ}}\)= so, \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{れ}}\)= re; \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{イ}}\)= i, \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{タ}}\) = ta.

Japanese learners love hiragana and katakana because they’re easy to pronounce. You can say it if you see it!

At this point, you’re probably wondering:

Why do you need three different types of scripts? What could have caused that?

In a piece of Japanese writing, each of these scripts plays a very specific role, and all of them work in harmony to represent the Japanese language.

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How To Write Japanese Kanji

As a general rule, kanji represent blocks of meaning (nouns, adjective stems, and verbs). Around 500 CE, Chinese characters were brought over to Japan, which influenced the style of the characters. Japanese readings and Chinese readings became mixed in the pronunciation of kanji. In some cases, the words are pronounced as they were originally written in Chinese.

Kanji characters do not sound like their modern-day Chinese counterparts if you are familiar with Japanese. Unlike modern-day Chinese, the pronunciation of kanji is based on ancient Chinese spoken around 500 CE.

The Origin Of Kanji
The Origin Of Kanji

It is possible to pronounce kanji using two different methods: on-reading and Kun-reading. On-reading (On-yomi) refers to the Chinese reading of a kanji character. Kanji characters were pronounced by the Chinese at the time they were introduced, as well as from the area in which they were imported.

A native Japanese reading associated with a word’s meaning is Kun-reading (Kun-yomi). The difference between on-reading and Kun-reading is explained in what is between On-reading and Kun-reading.

There are thousands of unique characters in kanji, making it challenging to learn. Learn the top 100 most common kanji characters used in Japanese newspapers to build your vocabulary. Recognizing frequently used characters in newspapers is a good introduction to practical words we use every day.

How To Write Japanese Hiragana

The other two scripts in Japanese are hiragana and katakana. Kana is a syllabic phonetic system similar to the alphabet. Each character corresponds to one syllable in both scripts. As opposed to the kanji script, one character can be pronounced with more than one syllable.

A hiragana character represents a grammatical relationship between two words. Consequently, hiragana is used to inflect adjectives and verbs as well as sentence particles. Additionally, hiragana is used to convey native Japanese words that do not have kanji counterparts or to simplify complex kanji characters.

To convey a more casual tone in literature, hiragana can be used instead of kanji to emphasize style and tone. Hiragana is also used as a guide for pronouncing kanji characters. Furigana is the name of this reading aid system.

In the hiragana syllabary, there are 46 characters: 5 singular vowels, 40 consonant-vowel unions, and 1 singular consonant.

Hiragana Katakana Comparison Chart
Hiragana Katakana Comparison Chart

When hiragana was first introduced to Japan, it was written in the cursive style of Chinese calligraphy. Initially, Japanese-educated elites looked down on hiragana and used only kanji.

Due to the lack of education available to women in Japan, hiragana first became popular among women. Due to this history, hiragana is also known as onnade, or “women’s writing”.

Follow these stroke-by-stroke guides to learn how to write hiragana correctly.

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How To Write Japanese Katakana

As with hiragana, katakana is a form of the Japanese syllabary. The katakana system was developed in 800 CE, During the Heian period, katakana consisted of 48 characters, including 5 nucleus vowels, 42 core syllabograms, and 1 coda consonant.

Foreign names, foreign places, and loan words with foreign origin can be transliterated using katakana. Modern Chinese words are transliterated using katakana instead of kanji, which are borrowed words from ancient Chinese.

Onomatopoeia, the technical scientific name for animals and plants, is also written in Japanese script. Katakana, like italics or boldface in Western languages, emphasizes a sentence.

In literature, katakana script can be used instead of kanji or hiragana to emphasize a character’s accent. Katakana is often used when a foreigner or a robot speaks Japanese, such as in the manga.

You can learn how to write a katakana script using these numbered stroke guides now that you know what katakana is used for.

Let’s take a closer look at them.

Firstly, there are two syllabic systems: hiragana and katakana.

The ‘Kana’ – One Symbol, One Sound

There are 46 characters in each of the two alphabets: hiragana and katakana.

Kana Development Chart
Kana Development Chart

There are five Japanese vowels (a, i, u, e o) and nine consonants (k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w).

Hiragana (the blue characters in our sample text) have a roundish shape, and they are used for three different purposes in Japanese writing:

Word particles (used to indicate a word’s grammatical function)

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{は \longrightarrow wa}}\) topic marker

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{が \longrightarrow ga}}\) subject marker

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{を \longrightarrow wo}}\) direct object marker

The act of changing the meaning of verbs, adverbs, or adjectives with kanji roots. “The inflectional endings”

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{急速に \longrightarrow kyuusoku\ ni}}\) rapidly

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{増えています \longrightarrow fuete\ imasu}}\) are increasing

The other two scripts do not cover native Japanese words

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{それでも \longrightarrow soredemo}}\) nevertheless

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{どんどん \longrightarrow dondon}}\) more and more

Katakana (the green characters in our sample text) is characterized by its sharp corners and straight lines. Generally, they are used for:

Words borrowed from other languages. Find out what you can find!

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{ハンバーグ \longrightarrow hanbaagu}}\) hamburger

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{カレーライス \longrightarrow karee\ raisu}}\) curry rice

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{エスニック \longrightarrow esunikku}}\) ethnic

The transcription of foreign names

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{イタリア \longrightarrow itaria}}\) Italy

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{アジア \longrightarrow ajia}}\) Asia

Additionally, they can be used to emphasize (as with italics or underlining in English) and for scientific terms.

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Where did hiragana and katakana come from?

Both were derived from kanji, which had a certain pronunciation; Hiragana was derived from Chinese cursive \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{安}}\) an →\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{あ}}\) a, whereas katakana developed from single components of the regular Chinese script \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{阿}}\) a →\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{ア}}\) a.

Those are the origins and uses of the two kana scripts in Japanese.

Let’s move on to the fun stuff, kanji!

The Kanji – One Symbol, One Meaning

Learners of Japanese face the most formidable challenge when it comes to kanji!

As we mentioned earlier, kanji is a logographic system where each symbol represents a “block of meaning”.

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{食}}\) eating

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{生}}\) life, birth

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{活}}\) vivid, lively

Since one kanji does not necessarily constitute a “word,” “block of meaning” is the best approach.

In order to make a word, and express more complex concepts, you may need to combine one kanji with another:

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{生 + 活 = 生活}}\) lifestyle

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{食 + 生活 = 食生活}}\) eating habits

The same principle applies to other languages as well.

You can break down the English word ‘telephone’ into two main components derived from Greek:

‘tele’ (far) + ‘phone’ (sound) = telephone

They are not words in and of themselves.

To make sense of all these kanji, we can categorize them in order to make sense of them.

There are several categories of kanji, starting with the ‘pictographs’ \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{象形文字 \longrightarrow shōkei moji}}\), which look like the objects they represent:

Pictographs like these aren’t very common.

Most kanji come from six other categories, where several basic elements (called radicals) are combined to create new meanings.

As an example:

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{人}}\) (‘man’ as a radical) + \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{木}}\) (‘tree’) = \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{休}}\) (‘to rest’)

These are known as \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{形声文字 \longrightarrow keisei\ moji}}\) or ‘radical-phonetic compounds’.

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There are two parts to these characters:

  • It tells you what category the word belongs to animals, plants, metals, etc.)
  • A second component completes the character and gives it its pronunciation (similar to a Japanese approximation of Chinese).

What do Japanese characters do in writing? That’s the story behind the kanji, but what do they do?

Concrete concepts are typically represented by them.

Kanji is used for nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in Japanese writing.

Our sample text at the beginning of the article contains some of these:

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{日本人}}\) Japanese people
\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{多国籍料理}}\) multinational cuisine
\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{東南}}\) Southeast

Here’s the big question!

When you learn to read or write a kanji, how do you pronounce it?

There would usually only be one pronunciation of the Chinese character if you took it from the original.

By the time the characters leave China and reach Japan, they often have more than one pronunciation.

Using an example, let’s see how it works.

To say ‘mountain’, the Chinese use the pictograph (\color{blue}{\mathbf{山}}\) which depicts a mountain with three peaks. The pronunciation of this character in Chinese is shān (in the first tone).

Yama is the Japanese word for ‘mountain’.

So in this case, the Japanese decided to borrow the character (\color{blue}{\mathbf{山}}\) from Chinese, but to pronounce it differently: Yama.

This isn’t the end of the story, however!

It was decided by the Japanese to borrow the pronunciation from the original Chinese, but only for compound words.

So, in this case, when the character \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{山}}\) is part of a compound word, it is pronounced as \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{san/zan}}\) – clearly an approximation to the original Chinese pronunciation.

The kanji on its own is as follows:

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{山は\longrightarrow Yama\ wa}}\)- The mountain

And here’s the kanji when it appears in compound words:

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{火山は \longrightarrow Kazan\ wa}}\) The volcano

\(\color{blue}{\mathbf{富士山は \longrightarrow Fujisan\ wa}}\) Mount Fuji

To recap, every kanji has at least two pronunciations.

The first one (the so-called \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{訓読み}}\) kun’yomi or ‘meaning reading’ has an original Japanese pronunciation and is used with one kanji on its own.

The second one (called \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{音読み \longrightarrow on’yomi}}\) or ‘sound-based reading’) is used in compound words and comes from the original Chinese.

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Does that make sense to you?

In Japan, there’s an official number of kanji that are classified for “daily use” \(\color{blue}{\mathbf{常用漢字 \longrightarrow joyō}}\) kanji by the Japanese Ministry of Education – currently 2,136.

The number of actual words that can be formed using these characters is much greater, however.

FAQs

Is Japanese writing easy to learn?

English speakers often consider Japanese to be one of the most difficult languages to learn. There are three separate writing systems, opposite sentence structures, and a complicated hierarchy of politeness.

How can I learn Japanese writing?

Start with hiragana and katakana if you want to learn Japanese writing. When you are comfortable with those two scripts, you can begin learning kanji. There are 46 characters in hiragana and katakana, which are simpler than kanji. Hiragana can be used to write an entire Japanese sentence.

Which Japanese writing system should I learn first?

As the foundation of the written Japanese language, Hiragana is the most basic of the three alphabets. It is the first set of characters that new language learners and children learn when they begin studying. Compared to Katakana and Kanji, Hiragana is easier to learn.

How hard is it to learn Japanese writing?

For a native English speaker, Japanese is one of the more challenging languages. You need to dedicate a lot of time and effort to it. It is relatively easy to learn the kana and how to pronounce the syllables, the grammar is about in the middle between easy and difficult, and the kanji is most challenging.

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Conclusion

Your journey has come to an end!

See – it wasn’t as bad as you thought! Here’s a recap of what we’ve discussed so far.

There are three scripts used in ordinary written Japanese:

Kanji are Chinese characters, of which there are officially 2,136 in use (more in practice)

There are two syllabic alphabets, hiragana, and katakana, each containing 42 symbols.
Certain books, such as children’s books or simplified language learning materials, may use only hiragana or katakana.

Besides those materials, everything in Japanese is written using the three scripts together. In the Japanese language, kanji represent cultural and linguistic challenges.

Learning all three is the key to becoming proficient in Japanese!

There are many people before you who have found themselves at the beginning of their Japanese learning journey, despite how daunting it may seem.