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This Question Came to My Inbox: "What are the writing styles of Japanese, and what are they each used for?"

There are four writing styles in Japan:

The hiragana is the basic Japanese alphabet. Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

1) The most common one is hiragana, it is the basic Japanese alphabet. They are not letters like we are used to, but they are letters. They are syllables. Each one has either just a vowel sound or a consonant plus a vowel sound in one letter. Here is a word written in hiragana: こんにちは (konnichiwa) which means “hello.” This alphabet was invented because the ladies of the court wanted to write poetry, and at that time all they had was kanji. Kanji takes many years to learn, and they wanted to simplify it for the ladies, so they came up with hiragana. Hiragana isn’t that hard to learn, and if you learn any Japanese writing at all, it is a basic, so learn it. It is used in conjunction with kanji now a days because the kanji can’t express everything, so hiragana fills up the gaps.

Anything word didn’t originally come from Japan is written in katakana. There are English words, German words, Portuguese words, etc. written in katakana. Photo by Sittisak C on Pexels.com

2) Another writing system katakana. Katakana is the alphabet made for writing foreign words. Each katakana symbol has a counterpart in hiragana. Your name would be written in katakana. Words like “ice cream” came from another language, so they would be written in katakana. Here is how they would write “ice cream”:アイスクリーム (a-I-su-ku-ri-mu). Sometimes, the foreign words are hard to decipher because they all have the Japanese slant or pronunciation to them. These are used in the sentence along with the hiragana and the kanji.

The Portuguese were the first westerners to spend any time in Japan, and they had influence on Japan. Photo by Fox on Pexels.com

3) Still another writing system used in Japan is romaji. These are the letters we are used to, but they are not pronounced like English letters. I have assumed they borrowed these from the Portuguese because the Portuguese were the first foreigners to spend any time in Japan. They pronounce these letters as if they are from a Latin language. You can find influence from the Portuguese here and there in Japan. The word they use for bread was even originally from Portuguese. The vowel sounds of hiragana and katakana also have the same sounds that the Latin vowels have. These aren’t usually used in the sentences with the hiragana, katakana, and the Kanji, but you can see them written on signs or books.

This is the oldest form of writing used in Japan, kanji. Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

4) The oldest writing system the Japanese use is the kanji. The kanji are called “Chinese Characters,” and they aren’t letters. The Japanese actually got the kanji from the Bekjae people from old Korea. The Bekjae people were down at Busan in S. Korea, the closest point of the mainland to Japan, and they shared a lot of things with the Japanese. Now a days, there is a ferry that goes between Busan and Japan because they are so close. When Bekjae fell, their royal family went into Japan and intermarried with the Japanese royal family, and the Japanese emperor is part Korean. It makes sense that the Bekjae people were also the ones who shared the kanji with the Japanese people.

Japan and Korea are so close down at Busan, Korea, there is a ferry boat that takes cars across all the time. Japan used to think Korea should be part of them because they are so close and the culture is so similar, the Koreans are separate from Japan, and they want to stay that way.Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS on Pexels.com

China, Korea, and Japan have used these symbols for centuries. However, Korea is using them less and less now to simplify their books. The kanji don’t have sounds, only meaning. That is how people from these three countries could read one another’s signs without studying the language of the other country. If you have a kanji, it means the same thing regardless of what language you speak. These things takes years to master. That is why the Koreans invented the Korean alphabet. They had a king that realized only the upper class people of Korea could read because they were the only ones who had enough time to sit and study for years to master the Chinese characters. That is why hirgana was invented, because they didn’t think it was necessary for the ladies of the court to learn kanji just to write poetry. The Chinese have never simplified them, and they use more than Japan does.

The kanji for mountain is: 山 (yama), and 山口 (yamaguchi) is a common name in Japan. How would you like to be called “mountain mouth”? Photo by Adrien Olichon on Pexels.com

The kanji actually makes sense if you study them. Here are some examples to help you understand: 口 (kuchi) is the symbol for “mouth.” 言います (iimasu) is the word for “to say.” This word is made up of kanji and hiragana. The 言 part is a mouth on the bottom with something coming out of it above it. The います (imasu) is the hiragana part that tells you this is a verb in simple present tense. As you can see, the word 言います begins with the kanji 口. It is the foundation.

The kanji for “forest” is 森 (mo-ri), it is made up of several trees. If there is just one of these trees, it is said “ki” which means “tree.” Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If you want to say “word” or “language,” you can go on and use this kanji as a foundation again: 日本語 means “Japanese language.” The first two kanji are: 日本 (nippon) which means “Japan.” The first kanji in “nippon” means “day” or “sun,” and the second one means “book.” The kanji for tree. “Tree” in Japanese is written without the horizontal line in the middle of the bottom of 本. That line added, means a “root” of the tree, and a book is made from a tree, so 本 becomes “book.” Now that I have explained the first two kanji, I will explain the one at the end that has two 口’s in it: 語. You can see the 口 at the bottom of the first part. Above it, you can see the lines were added saying something is coming out of that mouth, so it means “say.” The second part of this kanji has 口 on the bottom again. Above that, there is a symbol that means “5.” So, in essence, 語 means “five people talking, “ a language.

Japan is called “the land of the rising sun.” It makes sense that one of the kanjis in the name for Japan means “sun.” Photo by Public Domain Photography on Pexels.com

This kanji is also used for other languages: 英語 means “English language.” If you want to write England, though, you have to use katakana: イギリス (I-gi-ri-su). A Japanese person is: 日本人 (nihon jin), and an Englishman is イギリス人(I-gi-ri-su-jin). As you can see, the last kanji is the same in both, and that kanji means “person.” If you want to say “American,” you have アメリカ人. The first part are katakana saying “a-me-ri-ka,” and the last part has that kanji again meaning “person.”

この人は日本人です。(kono hito wa nihon jin desu.) (This person is Japanese.) As you can see, the same kanji is used for “hito” and for “jin” because they both mean “person.” Photo by Yuliya Strizhkina (Cartier) on Pexels.com

They mix these three alphabets in all their sentences, and the romaji is used separately.

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