Types of Japanese Writing

March 28, 2023

If you have visited Japan or have an interest in the Japanese language, then you must have tried to read and understand the signs in Japanese. For most people though, understanding traditional Japanese is difficult because the style of the letters and the Japanese symbols are so different from what most people in the western world see. There are also different types of Japanese writing, which makes it even more difficult. However, with a better understanding and patience, it will be possible to understand all types of Japanese writing.

Writing in Japanese

The snippet of Japanese in this image uses all three of its different alphabets.

3 Types of Japanese Writing

What are the different types of Japanese writing? Modern Japanese is written with three basic scripts. They are Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. The Japanese people today, use these 3 different types of Japanese writing together often, sometimes in the same sentence as well. This is done to make it more readable.

  1. Kanji – Japanese kanji is the country’s oldest writing system. It goes back to the 4th or 5th century and interestingly was introduced from Korea because there was no native Japanese writing system at the time. Kanji symbols are basically Chinese ideographic symbols. The Japanese people used the Kanji symbol for a particular word in Chinese and then matched it with the same word in Japanese. If you know how to read and write Mandarin Chinese, it will be easier for you to understand kanji alphabets.
  2. Hiragana – In ancient Japanese culture, only men were allowed to read and write in Kanji. Women in the Heian court, which is the modern-day city of Kyoto, created a new language in the 8th century. Hiragana was a simpler alternative. With time, men also started to learn hiragana alphabets and realized that it was much simpler. It was much easier to read and write. It is phonetic, based on sounds. There are 46 primary sounds in the hiragana chart. They are organized by consonants. Today, Hiragana is the backbone of the Japanese written language.
  3. Katakana – Katakana is the third popular Japanese language and writing system. The Katakana alphabet is also simpler compared to Kanji. Like Hiragana, this is also phonetic and the 46 characters cover the same sounds as Hiragana. In fact, many of its characters even look very similar.

Hiragana alphabet

This chart shows the 46 characters of the Hiragana alphabet, used mainly for native Japanese words and Kanji conjugation.

What Are the Main Differences in 3 Types of Japanese Writing?

There are clear differences between the three Japanese writing styles. While Kanji was developed from Chinese ideographic symbols, the other two, Hiragana and Katakana are based mostly on sounds or phonetic alphabets. Also, in Kanji, there are several thousand characters, which make it very difficult for foreign learners. Hiragana and Katakana, on the other hand, both have just 46 characters.

However, there are also key differences between Katakana and Hiragana. Hiragana is used mostly for representing Japanese words or for conjugating the 'meaning' of Kanji, while Katakana is usually used to represent foreign words. Because there are many foreign loan words in the Japanese language, Katakana provides an immediate alert that a word has been imported from another language. Also, Katakana has a phonetic notation whereas Hiragana has a grammar notation.

Japanese Calligraphy

Japanese calligraphy art is very interesting and decorative. The use of brush strokes and artistic methodologies has transformed writing into an art form. If you are interested in knowing about Japanese symbols and meanings, then you will find many Japanese books that provide detailed knowledge. You can also learn Japanese calligraphy here.

japanese handwriting

This woodblock print from the Edo period shows a Japanese lady of the court doing calligraphy.

  • What is Japanese calligraphy? - Japanese writing calligraphy refers to the fine artistic style of writing that has been practiced in the country for thousands of years. It came to the country with the Chinese Buddhist monks who were good scholars and calligraphers. The locals were awed by their writing of Buddhist scriptures. With time, many Japanese Zen priests and even emperors adopted these calligraphy styles. Gradually, Japanese thinkers realized the need to have their own script and thus two new writing styles were developed with unique Japanese calligraphy symbols. Modern Japanese calligraphy art is also very artistic. It requires skill to use the traditional Japanese calligraphy brush.
  • Types of Japanese calligraphy - Like the three types of Japanese writing systems, there are also three styles of Japanese calligraphy art. They are the Block Style or Kaisho, Running Hand Style or Gyosho, and Grass Hand or Sosho, which is a graceful and flowing cursive writing style. Gyosho is semi-cursive in nature. Kaisho is the easiest and the most basic of all the calligraphy styles. This is the first style taught in school. On the other hand, it takes a lot of practice to become an expert in the Sosho style.

5 Interesting Facts about the Japanese Alphabets

The history of the Japanese language is long and very interesting. Here are some facts that may interest you.

  1. You need to know more than 2000 Kanji characters, which are known as joyo kanji, to read a newspaper according to the official list brought out by the Japanese government for reading administrative papers. This means, any student serious about learning Kanji must understand at least 2000 characters.
  2. Japanese has many words in common with Chinese as the first writing system came from the Chinese Buddhist monks. Jianzhen was one of the first Chinese monks to arrive in Japan.
  3. In Japanese, there are basically no plurals. So, 'chicken' and 'chickens' are written exactly the same.
  4. There are no articles, either. So, there is no equivalent of 'a', 'an' or 'the'.
  5. You can write a sentence using only verbs.

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