While not always the case, currently, the Japanese use three different alphabets for writing plus the Latin alphabet. These four different scripts are often mixed together. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see all of these alphabets on the same page. The three Japanese alphabets are hiragana, katakana, and the borrowed Chinese characters called kanji. Japanese can also be written in the Latin alphabet. This romanization is often used by foreign speakers who haven’t mastered hiragana, katakana, and kanji. It’s also often used when working on a computer.
The word order of Japanese is determined by the kana, or the pronunciation of words, rather than the symbols. Overall, there are 46 sounds in Japanese, each represented by its own katakana and hiragana.
Combinations of Alphabets
Look at any piece of Japanese writing and you’ll see mostly sentences made up of both hiragana and kanji. Kanji, the borrowed Chinese symbols, are used mainly for nouns, adjective stems, and verb stems. These verb stems will have hiragana attached to them for verb tense. Hiragana will also appear throughout the sentences as particles, words that are, more or less, the equivalent of English prepositions (although they do serve other purposes as well).
You may see katakana used on the page as well. Katakana is generally only used for loan words, or words that have been introduced to Japan from outside languages. Brand names like “McDonalds,” foreign foods like “taco,” and foreign terms like “déjà vu” will be written in katakana.
Besides these uses, you’ll also see kanji used for names, hiragana used for Japanese words that don’t have an associated kanji, and katakana for onomatopoeias, words whose kanji aren’t often used, and for scientific terms. Also, you may see small hiragana written over a kanji. These hiragana, called furigana, are used to indicate how to read and pronounce the kanji. Many kanji have different meanings and pronunciations depending on context, so furigana are often necessary to avoid confusion.
The Latin alphabet is used only for acronyms, the use of Japanese names and words meant to be read by non-Japanese speakers, and company/product names. There are exceptions to all of these rules, of course, and sometimes Japanese writers will use hiragana or katakana instead of kanji to call attention to a word, to prevent any confusion, or simply because they prefer it over the kanji.
Japanese is traditionally written vertically and from right to left. However, typed or computer-printed Japanese is usually done horizontally since it’s easier for printers and computer programs to work horizontally.
The modern Japanese writing system has its beginnings in the fourth century. It was around this time that written Chinese, the kanji characters, appeared in Japan. Before this, there was no true native Japanese writing system—there were some scrapes of records, but nothing definitive. Most were pictographs found on cave walls or on various primitive forms of pottery.
While the Japanese aristocracy originally learned kanji to read Chinese, over the years, a form of writing called kanbun developed. Kanbun was loosely based on Chinese grammar, but it involved some special marks to indicate the Japanese meaning of some kanji. The Kojiki, the earliest history of Japan, was written using kanbun.
However, it wasn’t until sometime around 750 AD that a true form of Japanese writing emerged. The man’yugana made use of kanji, but only the phonetic aspects of them, not their actual meaning. Man’yugana was used to write poetry originally. Over time, Man’yugana actually branched off into two different systems. The two systems would evolve into the hiragana and katakana alphabets over time.
Many words from China had no Japanese equivalent, so these words entered Japanese with little change. However, some kanji and Japanese words meant the same thing or concept. When this occurred, the kanji ended up with two readings, the on-yomi and kun-yomi reading. The reading depends on the word and the context it’s used in.
The first major language reform can in the Meiji era during the nineteenth century. Thanks to a number of education reforms, literacy was quickly growing among the Japanese. At the same time, many new words were entering the language. Because of the increased literacy rate, many of the new words were written in colloquial styles instead of the classical style that the aristocracy and courts often used.
Because many of the lower class were just learning kanji during this time, one of the most debated issues was the complexity of written Japanese. With thousands of kanji to learn just to be able to read basic books, many thought kanji use should be limited.