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Part 2: The Japanese Writing System

The Japanese writing system is made up of three different systems: hiragana and katakana, which together are called "kana," and kanji, which is based on the Chinese writing system.


The two writing systems, hiragana and katakana, are used together to form kana. While kanji characters represent ideas rather than specific syllables and can have different pronunciations, kana symbols, like the individual letters of the English alphabet, stand only for the Japanese syllables and have no direct meaning by themselves. For each of the 107 total Japanese syllables, there is a hiragana and katakana symbol. This makes it possible to write the entire Japanese language using only kana if the writer doesn't know kanji(though kanji is much preferred.) The differences between hiragana and katakana are described below.


Hiragana is used for any Japanese origin word that does not have a kanji reading, or if the person writing does not know the correct kanji for the word. But it is mostly used for any Japanese word that is not a noun, verb, or adjective, specifically for Japanese particles, pronouns, conjunctions, interrogatives, and honorifics. Hiragana is also used for the congugated endings of verbs, adverbs, and adjectives.

Click here to view the hiragana syllabary chart


Katakana is mostly used to write words that are not of Japanese origin, such as English names and words, or Japanese words that are adapted from English or another language. Examples would be the names "Tom" and "Linda" written in katakana as "Tomu" and "Rinda," and the word "anime" written in katakana because it is adapted from the English word "animation." So basically any word in Japanese that sounds like English(example: terebi = television, takushii = taxi, shawaa = shower, reezaa = lasar) is most likely written in katakana. In addition to writing non-Japanese words, katakana is also used to write fantasy-based words or names, made-up words, and sound effects. It can also be used to put an emphasis on certain words or make the words stand out, similar to writing words in all capital letters in English.

Click here to view the katakana syllabary chart


Kanji is definitely the most difficult of the three writing systems to master. While each kana symbol represents only one syllable, kanji characters represent ideas rather than just sounds, and each one usually has at least a couple different readings. These are the On-reading, which is the reading based on the Chinese pronunciation, and the Kun-reading, which is the Japanese-based reading(a kanji character could have more than one On- and Kun-reading.) Depending on how the kanji is used in a word or sentence determines which reading is used. Also, while kana symbols have less than 4 or 5 strokes each(strokes are the number of lines used to write the symbol), kanji characters could have anywhere from 1 to over 20 strokes! And lastly, there's one hiragana and one katakana symbol for each Japanese syllable...but there are nearly 2,000 kanji characters in general use today!

The following shows an example of how hiragana, katakana, and kanji are used together to write a sentence in Japanese.

Onto Part 3: Vocabulary and Common Phrases

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