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The Japanese Writing System

Japanese writing can be described as a mixture of two very different systems:

    A “logographic” system in which written characters themselves represent units of meaning. In this system, one character equals a unique word or concept.
  • A “phonographic” system in which written characters represent units of sound. These units of sound are combined with other units of sound to create words or concepts.
The logographic system in Japanese writing uses kanji, which are pictorial characters. Kanji are used to convey the bulk of meaning within a sentence – for example, they are used to represent nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. There are thousands of kanji characters that can be used in Japanese writing, but the typical Japanese reader or writer only needs to know the 1,945 listed in the jōyō kanji hyō, or “list of characters for daily use.”

Japanese Alphabet

EN

a

i

u

e

o

ha

hi

fu

he

ho

 

JP

EN

JP

EN

JP

EN

JP

EN

JP

ka

sa

ta

na

ki

shi

chi

ni

ku

su

tsu

nu

ke

se

te

ne

ko

so

to

no

ma

ya

ra

wa

mi

ri

wi

mu

yu

ru

n

me

re

we

mo

yo

ro

wo

ga

gi

gu

ge

go

kya

kyu

kyo

gya

gya

gyo

rya

za

da

ba

pa

ji

ji

bi

pi

zu

zu

bu

pu

ze

de

be

pe

zo

do

bo

po

きゃ

sha

しゃ

cha

ちゃ

hya

ひゃ

pya

ぴゃ

きゅ

shu

しゅ

chu

ちゅ

hyu

ひゅ

pyu

ぴゅ

きょ

sho

しょ

cho

ちょ

hyo

ひょ

pyo

ぴょ

ぎゃ

ja

じゃ

nya

にゃ

bya

びゃ

mya

みゃ

ぎゅ

ju

じゅ

nyu

にゅ

byu

びゅ

my

みゅ

ぎょ

jo

じょ

nyo

にょ

byo

びょ

myo

みょ

りゃ

ryu

りゅ

ryu

りょ

(ja)

ぢゃ

(ju)

ぢゅ

 

Japanese writing’s phonographic system, on the other hand, uses Kana (literally, “syllabic writing”). The kana is subdivided into two different sets of characters: katakana and hiragana. Each of these distinct sets of syllabic characters can independently represent all the sounds in the Japanese language; however, each is used for completely different reasons within the Japanese writing system.

    Katakana characters are angular in appearance and were developed through the abbreviation of Chinese characters. Katakana is mostly used to form loan words from other languages, for copy in print advertising and for forming certain onomatopoeic expressions
  • Hiragana characters are rounded in appearance and are used to represent particles of speech in a Japanese sentence (prepositions and conjunctions, for example). Hiragana is also used to create inflectional endings for kanji characters, indicating case, gender, number, tense, etc. Depending on the audience for a particular Japanese text, hiragana is also used a substitute for kanji (in children’s comic books, for example), or is placed next to kanji characters not included in the jōyō kanji hyō to convey meaning to the non-specialized reader.
With the details of the Japanese writing system in mind, one can view a typical Japanese sentence metaphorically like a chain-link fence. The kanji characters act as the fence posts, providing the weightier, more foundational part of a sentence’s meaning, while the kana (specifically, the hiragana) act as the chain-link, connecting the various kanji characters through the various particles of speech and inflectional endings.

For more information on The Japanese Language, please see our Japanese Quick Facts Library or follow one of the links listed above.

http://www.ontopia.net/i18n/language.jsp?id=japanese

http://www.omniglot.com/writing/japanese.htm

Find more Japanese translation and localization resources in our translation blog:

7 Insights into Japanese Website Localization

For information on The Japanese language and translation, please see our information on Japanese Translation services.