The Japanese language uses three different writing systems: hiragana, kanji and katakana. We use each of them for a different purpose. Of the three systems, Japanese learners are the most familiar with hiragana, probably realizing that mastering that script is crucial to learning Japanese. This is because the hiragana script is composed of traditional Japanese characters developed in the Heian period. Also, Western students love to learn kanji characters since they look mysterious and intriguing.
Katakana was developed in the ninth century by Buddhist monks. They designed the characters to resemble sections of existing kanji, and katakana was subsequently used for translating Chinese texts. Nowadays, the katakana script is mainly used for foreign words, such as country names, the names of foreign people, etc. Because of this, for many Westerners katakana is not as interesting as hiragana or kanji, and for a time I thought that it was not necessary to teach katakana to my students.
However, when I went to a coffee shop with one of my students one day, I realized how important katakana is. She had learned hiragana and some kanji but had never learned katakana. She was hardly able to understand any of the words on the menu. Surprisingly, we use a lot of katakana in our daily life.
Let’s take a look some words on a menu:
- ホットコーヒー/アメリカン hot coffee/American
- レモンティー/ミルクティー lemon tea/milk tea
- アイスコーヒー/アイスティー iced coffee/iced tea
- カフェオレ/ミルク café au lait
- ホットココア hot cocoa
- アイスココア iced cocoa
- トマトジュース tomato juice
- オレンジジュース orange juice
- グレープジュース grape juice
- コーラ cola
How many could you recognize?
Katakana is used not only for food, but for quite a number of other things which are collectively known as katakana English. Even though we have traditional Japanese words to identify most common things, we often prefer using katakana variations instead because katakana English sounds cool to Japanese people (not unlike the practice of using a French or Italian word as a substitute in the United States). And sometimes, the nuance implied by certain katakana words better matches what we want to say or even expresses meanings that simply don’t exist in Japanese.
In particular, katakana is used in the business world. I’m not quite sure of the true reason behind this, but it is apparently supposed to sound more “international.”
- アポ appointment
- クライアント client
- ミーティング meeting
- マネージャー manager
- セグメント segment
- アジャイル agile
- クラウドソーシング crowdsourcing
Lately, these words have entered into widespread usage in office environments, but their overuse does cause some people annoyance. Plus, I hear more complaints about abuse of English from my students than from other Japanese natives. The pronunciation of katakana words can sound jarringly different from their original English counterparts, and what’s worse, they are sometimes used in completely different ways or situations. Japanese people tend to use katakana English when they talk with foreigners because they believe it’s easy for them to understand, but unfortunately it often has the opposite effect: it makes them confused!
When I was working as an assistant at an elementary-school English class here in Japan, the Japanese teacher and students said ファイト！(Fight!) during a simple number game. The ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) was quite taken aback by this, because it was just a simple guessing game. What he didn’t yet realize is that in Japan, we use the word ファイト to mean something like “Go get ‘em!” or “Try hard!”
Some kitchenware that might have unexpected meanings:
- レンジ microwave
- ガステーブル gas range
- ジャー rice cooker
And as if katakana English wasn’t confusing enough, Japanese people like to shorten katakana words:
- パソコン personal computer
- エアコン air conditioner
- スマホ smartphone
Also, Japanese natives often mix katakana and hiragana together when constructing adjectives or verbs from words that are not technically part of the Japanese lexicon. If they are adjectives, they end in い. If they are verbs, they end inる.
The use of katakana is widely prevalent in comics. There are no clearly defined rules of usage for this, but in general writing words in katakana has a certain visual effect, such as using bold or italics in English writing (a way to express special emphasis).
In many comics, the following words are written in katakana:
Sometimes, casual speech is almost entirely written in katakana:
Students often insist on attempting to say sentences such as this all in Japanese:
Technically, the second sentence is also correct. But the majority of Japanese natives wouldn’t say it like that.
So remember, using katakana makes your Japanese sound very natural!