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Writing systems – Japanese

February 19, 2012

General Remarks

English: Map of Japanese dialects (English ver...

Japanese dialects

The intent of this blog is to describe a system of language learning with a focus on reading the literature of that language much as a native speaker would do so. Along with a general description of the system itself, I intend to discuss copious examples which serve to illustrate both that system and its application to specific languages. Thus even the introduction will include examples from various languages. Most often, I am going to choose examples which are purposely complicated. The idea is that if one understands a notion in its most complex form, then simpler forms of the same notion ought come more easily. Thus, to illustrate the learning of a writing system, I choose to discuss Japanese– a language for which the normally educated native speaker will employ not one but four different writing systems, all of which could in principal represent the Japanese language by itself.

Whenever one approaches a new language, placing that language in its philological and linguistic context will be useful. Doing so helps one know which similarities to other languages are likely to be reliable and which are not. For the time being, I am going to skip the discussion of this aspect of Japanese, although certain references will be unavoidable. In those cases, I will try to keep this discussion self-contained.


Kanji is the word in Japanese for those characters borrowed in antiquity from Chinese but which are used for writing Japanese. Depending on context, they can be used for both meaning and sound. Generally they have two pronunciations or reading which occur in different contexts– one derived from ancient Chinese ultimately but influenced by Japanese and one purely Japanese. Numerous rules exists for when to use which reading and numerous exceptions, and these rules are essentially treated as grammar in most cases, although for the purposes of this blog they belong under the heading of pronunciation.

Kanji examples

Kanji examples

These examples (taken from the site they link to) show the different pronunciations associated with the specific kanji, meanings, etc.

My own recommendation is that one learn kanji in the course of learning vocabulary. I’ll go into more detail about learning vocabulary though in another blog post, one of that topic. While it’s true that Chinese characters have elements which can and should be analyzed for meaning and pronunciation, I find this method works less well in Japanese because an intrinsically foreign writing system from an unrelated language is being adapted. This instance just highlights that one needs learn the various aspects of any given language together as works best for one’s own goals, knowledge/aptitudes and target language.


An ideographic writing system works well for Chinese (especially in its most ancient form) because Chinese is a totally uninflected language. In other words, the form of a word never changes with usage– not for number, not for tense, not even for function in the sentence. Thus, in Chinese, each word only needs one form to represent it, but Japanese like most languages other than those of the Sino-Tibetan language family does have inflections so that the specific form of a word does change with usage. From antiquity, this difference was recognized, and from attempts to address the issue evolved the kanas– both hiragana and katakana.

Their usage in standard modern Japanese differs. Most often, hiragana is used in conjunction with kanji to denote inflections, although an increasing number publications written without kanji do in fact exist. Roughly speaking, hiragana is syllabic (as C-V or V) but closed syllables (C-V-C or V-C) will sometimes take two characters to represent. One will need therefore learn pronunciation rules here too.


Katakana plays a role analogous to italics in English orthography. While in principle the same apart from stylistic differences as hiragana, katakana is largely used to represent foreign borrowings and onomatopoeia.

A chart of katakana can be found here.


Finally romaji (notice the word has no n, although it does ultimately derive from the word Roman) is used in contexts where foreigners are common, as well as in some directionaries. Thus it will be found on many signs and in airports.


A learner of Japanese should in most cases learn all these systems. I’d recommend starting with memorization of hiragana, then of katakana. At most, spend a few days doing each. Then start learning grammar and vocabulary in conjunction, learning kanji as one learns vocabulary. At some point, I’d then spend an afternoon at most learning romaji but I would treat remoaji as the lowest priority.

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