Written Japanese


Written Japanese uses three and occasionally a fourth set of characters. The basic set is called kanji, and uses Chinese characters to represent nouns, and the root of verbs and adjectives. kana characters are used for Japanese words for which there is no kanji, and to modify kanji – for instance, by providing conjugation for a kanji verb.  There are two forms of kana; hira gana is used for Japanese, and kata kana is used for foreign words.  Finally, occasionally Romaji is used, usually for a company or brand name.

Most kanji have two or more  readings – ways to say the character. One is called the On reading, and is the original Chinese sound of the character; the other is the Kun reading, and is the Japanese pronunciation. As an example, 車 means vehicle. The On reading of 車 is sha, and the Kun reading is kuruma. You can see these in the Japanese words for bicycle – jitensha and automobile – kuruma.

Sometimes there is more than one On or Yomi reading. For instance, 生 has two On readings and eight Yomi readings.

There are thousands of kanji characters, most of which are very rarely used. There are 2,000 to 3,000 in common use in Japan. The government has identified about 2,000 to be taught in schools.

It should be noted that a Chinese person today may not be able to recognize all of the kanji used in Japan. Around 1950, the Chinese government produced a set of simplified characters. The Japanese still use the old characters.

When Chinese writing was first used, it was recognized that it did not allow for all the nuances of spoken Japanese. For instance, a Japanese verb can have many endings. The verb to eat can be used for eating, ate, didn’t eat, let’s eat, and many more. The kanji character is simply eat.  Kana was invented to solve this problem.

Kana is a purely phonetic character set. It is comprised of five vowels and 10 consonants. See the table on page ?. Each character is either a vowel, or a consonant vowel combination. One extra character represents the n sound. The table illustrates the high degree of organization of the sounds of Japanese.

Every Japanese word can be written with kana characters. However, because there are relatively few sounds in Japanese, there are many homonyms, so just hearing a word does not always tell you what word is being used. But the kanji character for each word is different. So using the kanji character possibly modified by the kana characters is unambiguous.

As an example, kyuuyou means recreation and also urgent business. If you encountered it in kana alone, you might not know which meaning to use. But the kanji characters are very different (休養 and 急用), so using kanji removes the ambiguity.

In early Japan, women were not allowed to learn kanji. Kata kana, with its straight line characters, was modified go produce hira gana. This is exactly the same set of sounds, but with more graceful rounded characters.

As recently as the middle of the 20th century, kata kana was used for Japanese words. Today, Japanese words and kanji endings are written with hira gana, and foreign words and names are written with kata kana.

The table on page ? shows all of the kana sets.  It is not organized in the conventional way, so if you are familiar with kana, you will be surprised.

Some kana  characters have a little double symbol, something like a double quote (“) next to them.  It is called a tenten, and changes the consonant from one sound to another. Characters beginning with H can have a small circle, like the symbol for temperature (o); it is called a maru, and  changes H to P.


Is sounded as
K” G
S” Z
T” D
H” B
Ho P


Romaji is simply sounding out text with Roman (English) characters. It has become common practice for company and brand names, in order to sell to a foreign market. Subaru, Sony, Mitsubishi are good examples of the use of Romaji.

It is possible to have all three types of character in one sentence.  In fact, even Romaji can be included:

Sony はアメリカ市場っています。

Sony has a market in America.

The underlined characters are kanji, the bold characters are kata kana, Sony is Romaji, the rest are hira gana.

We should also mention furi gana.  It is simply kanji with tiny hira gana spelling of the word appearing over the kanji.  This is used for those who cannot read kanji, and for teaching kanji.

Printed Japanese can be in either of two formats: vertical or horizontal. Vertical printing has the characters begin top-right and go down, continuing in a new column to the left. This was at initially the only way Japanese writing was done.  It facilitates writing on scrolls, using the right hand to brush the text and the left hand to unroll the scroll.

Horizontal printing started to be popular after the Meiji Restoration due to Western influence. More recently computers, having been developed in the west, have strongly influenced the trend to horizontal printing.

Printed Japanese does not have spaces between every word. Usually there is a space after a particle (you will understand later), and after a comma or period. It is argued that the kanji in the words will help to know where a word begins. If the text is all kana, that doesn’t work too well.  Children’s books often include spaces between every word.



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