Japanese Writing

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The modern Japanese system of writing consists of two types of characters. The first one referred to as ‘logographic kanji’ involves Chinese characters, while the other one is known as ‘syllabic kana’. The latter combines the pairs of syllabaries called ‘hiragana’ and and ‘katakana’. By means of ‘hiragana’, Japanese mark their native words and the words they have naturalized, as well as various grammatical elements. In turn, Japanese use ‘katakana’ to write foreign words and names, onomatopoeia, loanwords, scientific names, and make up an emphasis. At that, it is worthy to note that all Japanese sentences involve a combination of ‘kana’ and ‘kanji’.

Unfortunately, kanji characters and the complex mixture of scripts altogether make the Japanese writing system as one of the most difficult to learn in the world. There are more than 40,000 ‘kanji’ with 2,000 representing over 95% of characters actively used in the modern system of writing (Seeley 34) . While Japanese writing system omits spaces, ‘kanji’ is necessary to separate words in a sentence. Furthermore, ‘kanji’ helps to discriminate between homophones, considering the limited use of distinct sounds in Japanese language.

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Japanese writing system regularly uses several thousands of kanji characters while each of them bears its intrinsic meaning or several meanings. The overwhelming majority of these characters assume more than one pronunciation depending on the context. The katakana and hiragana syllabaries in the modern Japanese each possess 46 basic characters. In the Japanese language, one character in each syllabary stands for a different sound.

Compared to kanji, such characters represent only sounds and can convey a meaning being a part of words. In turn, katakana and hiragana characters root their origins in Chinese characters, though thir historical modification and simplification has been so enormous that their origins remain unknown. In addition to this, the modern Japanese writing system also uses acronyms derived from the Latin alphabet. Foreign students of Japanese language who find learning Japanese scripts difficult often refer to the so-called Romanized Japanese (Sato 115)..

Japanese language has historically encountered with Chinese characters since the First Century AD, though the Japanese did not hold any knowledge of the Chinese writing prior to the 4th century AD. Primarily, Japanese system of writing did not use Chinese characters while the concept of Japanese literacy grounded on fluent knowledge of Classical Chinese language. Over the centuries, however, Japanese managed to develop their writing system ‘kanbun’ that combined specific diacritics particular to the Japanese translation. Many modern Japanese school curricula provide kanbun courses.

Throughout the evolution of the Japanese writing system, it had borrowed a vast amount of words from China. The words without domestic equivalents directly entered into the Japanese language and had similar pronunciation as in Chinese. We know this vocabulary as Sino-Japanese, translated as ‘kango’ in Japanese. Meanwhile, Japanese language managed to develop own words that corresponded to those borrowed from kanji and established into a Japanese-derived reading style called ‘kun’yomi’. At that, kanji may apply several or none of ‘kun’yomi’ and ‘on’yomi’, while we may read the same character in various ways depending on the meaning of a word.

Compared to English, Japanese uses various synonyms derived from different foreing origins, as well as native Japanese and borrowed Chinese words. This way, linguists regard Sino-Japanese as formal and literary language.

  • Sato, Habein. The History of the Japanese Written Language. University of Tokyo Press, 1984.
  • Seeley, Christopher. A History of Writing in Japan. University of Hawai’i Press, 1991.

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