Here’s Part 2 of my ongoing Fundamentals of Japanese post series. In Part 1 I went over how to pronounce Japanese and read it using English letters (romaji). Now I’m going to discuss how it’s read using the three Japanese alphabets…
The Japanese language is written and read using three writing systems – hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana, which together are called kana, represent the sounds of the Japanese syllables I went over in Part 1 and don’t have any particular meaning on their own. Therefore, there’s one hiragana character and one katakana character for each Japanese syllable, making it possible to write the entire Japanese language in kana if one doesn’t know any kanji. Kanji are also pronounced with the syllables of the Japanese language, but unlike kana, kanji represent meanings rather than just sounds and most of the roughly 2,000 kanji characters in modern use today have more than one reading.
Let’s take a look at each writing system:
Hiragana – ひらがな
Hiragana is the most basic of the three alphabets and is used to write Japanese words that don’t have kanji characterｓ. Some Japanese names, usually first names, are written with hiragana. It can also be used if one doesn’t know the kanji for a particular word. Typically hiragana is used for anything that’s not a noun and not the stem of a verb or adjective. It’s mainly used for Japanese grammar particles and as the conjugated bases of verbs and adjectives (all of which I’ll cover in later sections).
Here are the hiragana characters for all the Japanese syllables:
And here are the syllables that use combinations with や(ya), ゆ(yu), and よ(yo). The や, ゆ, and よ are written smaller for these.
Words with double consonants that I mentioned in Part 1 are simply written with a small つ before the doubled consonant. So “kekkon” would be けっこん and “issho” would be いっしょ.
Katakana – カタカナ
Katakana is most commonly used for foreign words and names, including loan words from another language that have been adapted into Japanese. For example, any Western name such as John (ジョン) would be written in katakana as would anime (アニメ) because it’s a loan word adapted from the English word “animation.” Basically any word that sounds like English or another language that doesn’t adhere to Japanese syllables, such as the word for “hamburger” in Japanese, “hanbaagaa” (ハンバーガー), is written in katakana. A lot of fictional words not assigned kanji by the creator are written with katakana, such as Evangelion (エヴァンゲリオン), Death Note (デスノート), and the names of all the Pokemon. Occasionally katakana is also used to give emphasis to certain names or words to make them stand out even if they’re Japanese in origin. Naruto’s (ナルト) name is always written in katakana as is Shinji’s (シンジ). Katakana is also used for sound effects such as the Japanese equivalent of “meow,” “nyaa” (ニャー).
Here are the katakana characters for all the Japanese syllables:
And here are the syllables that use combinations with ヤ(ya), ユ(yu), and ヨ(yo). Like with hiragana, the ヤ, ユ, and ヨ are written smaller for these.
Also like hiragana, words with double consonants in katakana are written with a small ツ before the doubled consonant. So “kappu”(cup) would be カップ and “shokku”(shock) would be ショック.
Unlike hiragana however, long vowel sounds are indicated with an additional character, ー, in katakana. So the word for “taxi” in Japanese, “takushii” (obviously adapted from the English word) would be written as タクシー not タクシイ and “kouhii”(coffee) would be written as コーヒー and not コウヒイ.
Because katakana is used to write foreign words that don’t adhere nicely to the very vowel-centric Japanese language, sometimes liberties are taken with katakana to enhance pronunciation. For example, although the “v” sound doesn’t exist in Japanese, sometimes a voiced ウ(u) (written as ヴ) is used for it, as in Evangelion (エヴァンゲリオン). Other examples include combing a フ(fu) with a small オ(o) to make the フォ(fo) sound in “California” (karuforunia/カルフォルニア) and a テ(te) combined with a small イ(i) to make the ティ(ti) sound in “party” (paatii/パーティー). There are more examples like this and they’re something best picked up through experience.
* – these consonants are voiced, so the only difference between them and their unvoiced counterparts are the quotation mark thingies on top, called dakuten
** – like I mentioned in Part 1, there are two different syllables for “ji”(じ or ぢ) and “zu”(ず or づ) in hiragana and “ji”(ジ or ヂ) and “zu”(ズ or ヅ) in katakana. You’re most often only going to see じ, ず, ジ, and ズ used, the others being used only in certain words
*** – these consonants are voiced with a “p” sound, so the only difference between them and their unvoiced counterparts is the small circle (maru) on top
**** – the character for “he”(へ) and its voiced equivalents “be”(べ) and “pe”(ぺ) is the same in hiragana and katakana
Kanji – 漢字
Unlike the kana characters, each of the approximately 2,000 common use kanji characters has its own meaning, sometimes more than one. Each kanji can also have a different pronunciation depending on the word it’s in. Because there are so many kanji, each with different meanings and readings, they’re not something that can be learned in a short time, unlike kana. Kids in Japan learn kana early on but continue to learn new kanji all throughout their schooling years. Since full coverage of 2,000 kanji characters would require nothing short of a dictionary, I can’t list them all here like I did with kana. However, I will go over some kanji basics:
The different readings a kanji could have is its on-reading, which is the reading based on its original Chinese reading, and its kun-reading, which is the Japanese-based reading. Any given kanji could have only one of the two readings, or more than one of each.
Let’s look at a couple of kanji. 火 is a kanji that means “fire” and it has one on-reading, か(ka), and kun-readings ひ(hi) and び(bi). By itself it’s typically pronounced ひ(hi) and means “fire.” Another kanji, 花, means “flower.” It’s on-reading is also か(ka) and its kun-reading is はな(hana). By itself it’s typically pronounced はな(hana) and means “flower.”
When used together, these two kanji make a word, 花火 (hanabi), which means “fireworks.” It’s pronounced using the kun-readings of both. Like I said before, if you didn’t happen to know these kanji, you could write “hanabi” as はなびusing hiragana instead (kanji is always preferred). Sometimes small hiragana is written on top of kanji to show how it’s pronounced, most often in text targeted at young readers who haven’t yet learned a lot of kanji such as in shonen manga. This kind of hiragana aiding for reading kanji is called furigana.
Now let’s look at another kanji, 山. It means “mountain” and its on-reading is さん(san) or ざん(zan) and its kun-reading is やま(yama). By itself it’s pronounced やま(yama) meaning “mountain.” Like 花, it can also make a word when combined with 火. That word would be 火山 (kazan/かざん) which means “volcano.” This time you see that the on-reading for 火 is used as well as the on-reading for 山.
Let’s look at a more complex kanji. 空 means “sky” but it can also mean “emptiness” or “vacancy” depending on the word it’s in. Its on-reading is くう(kuu) and its kun-readings are そら(sora)、あ(a)、and から(kara). When read by itself, it’s usually pronounced そら(sora) and means “sky.” It’s also a stem in the verb “to be empty,” “aku”(空く) where it’s pronounced with its kun-reading あ(a).
Now that you’ve seen all of the Japanese kana characters, and have a basic idea of how kanji works, let’s take a look at a Japanese sentence that utilizes all three writing systems and take each one apart.
(rainen furansu ni ikimasu.)
Next year I will go to France.
- 来: A kanji that means “to come.” Its on-reading “rai(らい)” is used.
- 年: A kanji that means “year” Its on-reading “nen(ねん)” is used.
When combined, the two kanji make the word 来年(rainen/らいねん) which means “next year.”
- フランス: “France” in Japanese, written “furansu.” Since it’s based on the word “France,” it’s written in katakana.
- に: に(ni) here is used as a particle to indicate direction (more on particles in a later section). Grammatical aspects like particles are written in hiragana.
- 行: A kanji that means “to go.” In this case, the kanji is used as the stem of the verb. It’s kun-reading い(i) is used.
- きます: The conjugated part of the word 行きます(ikimasu) written in hiragana. The kanji holds the meaning while this part shows what tense it is (polite-future tense in this case).
- 。: A Japanese period to end a sentence is a small circle. Commas, question marks, and exclamation marks are also used in Japanese to some extent. 「 and 」 are used for quotation marks.
Properly writing all of the kana and kanji characters involves knowing their correct stroke order – in which order you write the lines that make up the character. Typically it’s top to bottom, left to right, though there are exceptions, especially for the kanji. Writing Japanese with correct stroke orders and learning how kanji are classified by radicals and such is beyond the scope of this post series. With the advent of computers and cell phones, nowadays a foreigner can get by pretty well just speaking and reading Japanese. But learning how to write is still part of learning the language and I highly recommend practicing writing as you go along if you’re serious about learning Japanese.
Well, I hope this section has given you a good understanding of how the Japanese written language works. Next time in Part 3, I’ll cover some fundamental aspects of Japanese grammar, including particles. Until then, I’ll be back with an anime post next time =)