Learning Japanese should be regarded as a personal achievement. If you are a Japanese learner, everything you need to know about the Japanese alphabet and writing system is right here. Stop assuming that it is hard to learn Japanese characters and get yourself immersed in this guide to get some valuable insights.
Japanese (日本語) is a truly exotic, one-of-a-kind, and fascinating language. Because it is easier to speak than write, the Japanese writing system and, naturally, the Japanese alphabet are “guilty” of making Japanese, along with Chinese, Korean, and Arabic, the most difficult language to learn by a native English speaker.
According to the US Government’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the average English speaker would need approximately 2200 hours of study to achieve fluency in the Japanese language. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
Depending on your learning goal – whether it’s to learn enough Japanese to communicate during your trip to Japan or to know it perfectly so you can work there – you can adjust the amount of work you’ll need to do to achieve the corresponding level of Japanese.
You can look for a good Japanese tutor at italki. This learning platform is highly efficient as it has a wide variety of teachers with exceptional language abilities and fascinating teaching styles. No matter what your learning goals are if you want to learn Japanese, italki is the right place for you. Book your lessons online and start learning at your own pace.
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An overview of the Japanese alphabet
There’s a reason why learning Japanese should be regarded as a personal achievement. While English has only one script, the Latin script, Japanese has three: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. You will need to learn three scripts if you want to write in Japanese. If we include romaji (the Romanization of the Japanese language), we can say that Japanese has four writing systems.
These three scripts – hiragana, katakana, and kanji are used in conjunction with one another. That may seem unimaginable to someone who only uses the Latin script, but Japanese rarely use only one script. Books for children, for example, are an exception. Children’s books only use hiragana and katakana characters because kanji characters are the most difficult to master.
If you want to go beyond just speaking and writing in romaji, kana characters (hiragana + katakana) can be mastered in 2-5 days, depending on your level of commitment and learning capacity. Once you understand katakana, you will be able to read thousands of Japanese words.
On the other hand, if you want to move to Japan and possibly get a job there, this will not be easy. You will need to learn kanji. The kanji Japanese symbols, as you may have heard, were “loaned” from China. There are approximately 50,000 of them in total. But don’t worry! In Japan today, only 3,000 characters are commonly used. Before we get into the specifics of each writing system, it’s worth noting that the Japanese language has no spaces, cases, grammatical genders, or articles.
Kanji in Japanese
It is assumed that Japan first encountered Chinese characters in the 1st century AD when Emperor Guangwu of Han gave a Japanese emissary the King of Na gold seal – a solid gold seal inscribed with 5 Chinese characters that are now designated as a National Treasure of Japan. However, many sources claim that the Japanese imported the Chinese alphabet sometime in the third century and used it in writing for the first time in the fourth century.
Each kanji character stands for an idea or concept. That is, kanji characters are logograms (pictures representing words or, better yet, symbols that each represent an entire morpheme). You now understand why there are over 50,000 kanji characters, despite the fact that very few native speakers are aware of even a fraction of this number.
Japanese people only know about 2,000 kanji by the time they are 16-17 years old. But don’t be concerned. According to studies, the 500 most common kanji already account for 80% of all kanji in a regular text corpus (newspaper). As a result, knowing 500 kanji will help you understand a large portion of almost any written text.
Let’s have a look at an example:
The kanji character 山 means “mountain” and it is pronounced “ya-ma” or “san.” Now, there is also the word 火山 which means “fire” + “mountain”. If you think about it, it shouldn’t be too hard for you to realize that this actually means “volcano” (ka-zan).
When to use kanji characters
Kanji characters are used for words with a lot of content, such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. As a result, kanji characters are more common in actual Japanese texts than kana characters.
Researchers concluded in a 2000 study of the Asahi Japanese newspaper that kanji characters covered 41.38% of all printable characters in the newspapers over the course of one year. Hiragana and katakana had percentages of 36.62 and 6.38, respectively.
Fun fact: Watching someone write Japanese letters is even more fascinating than learning about the history of the Japanese alphabet. shodō 書道 is Japanese calligraphy, and it appears to be appealing to many foreigners. Didn’t you see someone with a Japanese letter tattoo at least once in your life? Everything written in Japanese looks better. At least until you figure out what it really means.
You have probably figured out why Japanese writing might be difficult for someone who has only ever used the Latin script. Let’s move on to hiragana and katakana and unravel the secrets of the Japanese system of writing.
Hiragana + Katakana = Kana
Kana can refer to both hiragana and katakana. Kana characters, as opposed to kanji characters, represent sound. In other words, in the Japanese language, hiragana and katakana have characters for each basic mora (syllable). Each has only 46 basic characters or sounds, which is why you can learn kana (hiragana + katana) in a matter of days.
Kana is evolved from man’yōgana (万葉仮名), an ancient writing system that uses Chinese characters to represent Japanese phonetically. Today’s hiragana and katakana characters are simplified versions of man’yōgana.
The distinction between hiragana and katakana is purely aesthetic. Hiragana is typically used for particles, postpositions, adverbs, auxiliary verbs, function words, or as a replacement for kanji when a word lacks a kanji representation or whose kanji is thought to be too difficult for others to understand. Katakana, on the other hand, is primarily used for foreign words, modern loan words, technical terms, certain animals and plants, onomatopoeia, slang, or colloquialisms.
Because they represent the same sounds, katakana, and hiragana are nearly identical. The only distinction is that the katakana characters are more angular in shape, whereas the hiragana characters are more rounded or cursive.
The main kana vowels are a, i, u, e, and o. In hiragana, you’ll see them written like this: あ, い, う, え, and お. In katakana, as mentioned before, they have a rather angular form: ア, イ, ウ, エ and オ.
What makes the Japanese alphabet complex
Now that you have learned a little bit more about the Japanese writing system, we believe you will agree that it’s both beautiful and complex, and no one can master it. Persistence is essential! If you accept the challenge and begin learning Japanese, we guarantee you will learn a lot more along the way. In the meantime, here are some more fascinating facts to round out the picture:
– When writing for an audience that does not understand kanji (such as young people) or when using kanji other than the standard set of 3,000, the reading of these characters should be added on top or to the right, depending on whether they are written horizontally or vertically. This style of writing, which includes reading kanji characters, is known as furigana (振り仮名) or yomigana (読み仮名), or rubi (ルビ).
– Kanji characters have several different readings that you will understand from the context.
– The vertical Japanese writing is called tategaki(縦書き), it is read from right to left and it is now used for novels or other kinds of “humanistic writings”. In other words, tatekagi is appropriate for all types of formal content.
– Horizontal writing is known as yokogaki (横書き) and it is read from left to right, just like English. It is primarily used for e-mails, how-to books, and scientific and language-related writings. Yokogaki is commonly used because it allows for more content to be incorporated horizontally.
– It is also worth noting that each script – hiragana, katakana, and kanji – has a specific use, and you can tell what it’s going to say just by looking at it.
Frequently asked questions
Q. Is there no plural in Japanese?
A. The Japanese alphabet lacks plurals, there is no distinction between talking about one person and a group of people.
Q. Can different sounds be represented by the same kanji symbol?
A. The Kanji alphabet deviates from the rule that each sound is represented by a single symbol. As a result, the meaning of the Kanji symbols can change depending on the context. 月 can mean “moon” or “month” and can be read as “Getsu” or “Tsuki”.
Q. Does Rōmaji has any connection with Christianity?
A. Romaji was developed by a Japanese Catholic who wanted to assist Europeans in introducing the Christian religion to Japan without having to learn the complicated Japanese alphabet.
You may feel it is hard to learn Japanese characters but if you show consistency, you can achieve your learning objective. Mastering kanji is a thorough process. You need to take advantage of different learning resources to learn the Japanese alphabet and three writing systems.
You can look for the best apps to learn Japanese. Most of these apps are user-friendly and serve as handy tools to learn Japanese. Install them on your smartphone and start learning Japanese. Wishing you the best of luck!
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