Japanese can be written in the same alphabet as we use for English – this is called rōmaji (roman letters). However, the Japanese themselves do not use this system of writing; instead, they use a combination of three writing systems.
Hiragana is a phonetic system of writing.
It is made up of 46 characters which stand for a vowel sound such as /ah/, a consonant + vowel such as /ka/ or the letter n. All words of Japanese origin can be written in these characters and this is the first set of characters taught at a school in Japan. These characters have a rounded shape and are made up of no more than 4 lines.
This set of characters stand for the same set of 46 sounds as hiragana, but they are only used for very specific purposes. These are:
- writing words borrowed from other languages (other than Chinese)
- writing place names (other than those in China and Japan)
- writing personal names (other than those of Chinese and Japanese people)
- sometimes used for the names of companies and their products
- to highlight, emphasise or decorate words
These characters are quite angular and have fairly sharp corners and straight lines. They are also made up of no more than 4 lines.
The third system of writing is kanji. This very large set of characters com from China and are often called Chinese characters. They stand for particular meaning and are often read in a number of different ways depending on their place in a word. The Japanese commonly use almost 2000 of these characters. Although some of these characters are very simple, many of them are impressively complicated.
You can write all Japanese by just using hiragana and katakana, and indeed this is how young children in Japan start writing. Kanji can be included in your writing as they are learnt and they make it easier to quickly see the meaning of a passage of written Japanese.
In standard Japanese script, ひらがな,カタカナ, and 漢字 are all used together, as in the following example: