Japanese Writing Systems: How Significant Are They Individually?

Introduction

Those of us who have learned or are still learning Japanese would be aware of the various writing systems in the Japanese language. Some of us were even taken aback and overwhelmed by the number of characters in just the hiragana writing system, let alone all three! At one point during our studying period, we probably wondered if it’s even necessary to learn all three of the Japanese writing systems. I mean, surely a language wouldn’t need that many characters.

I bet we go back and forth with ourselves on whether or not it’s worth memorizing every single hiragana (ひらがな), katakana (カタカナ), and the infinite kanji (漢字) characters. How significant are each of the Japanese writing systems, actually? Let’s find out!

The Japanese Writing Systems: Hiragana, Katakana & Kanji

The Japanese writing system sounds very technical, doesn’t it? Well, the term is unavoidable — it is the very basics of the Japanese language. In English, there is only one script: the Latin script. In Japanese, they have three: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Technically four, as the romaji (ローマ字) is also a kind of writing system but the Japanese don’t use them as often as this system is just the Romanisation of the Japanese language.

Hiragana and katakana writing systems are native to Japan. The characters for these scripts are syllable sounds. Kanji, on the other hand, is borrowed from China and is made up of logograms where each character represents whole words instead.

In just one sentence, you’ll see all three of the writing scripts. Just by introducing your name in a sentence like “私の名前はアズラです” (this translates to “My name is Azra”) already has hiragana, katakana, and kanji in it!

Bonus point: the combined name for hiragana and katakana is called kana (仮名).

Hiragana

Let’s take a look at the first Japanese writing system, the hiragana. The system has 46 basic characters and each one of them has its own sound. The main vowels are a, i, e, o, and u — similar to the English language. They’re written as あ, い, え, お and う.

The hiragana was created by the women as a simpler alternative to the kanji back in the 8th century. During those days, only the men were allowed to be educated in reading and writing. Kanji was also the only writing system back then. After a while, the men realized that the hiragana is based on sounds rather than logograms, so they took up this writing system as well.

Hiragana is mostly used for particles, adverbs, postpositions, auxiliary verbs, function words, and Japanese origin words. Sometimes they are used as a replacement for kanji characters when there is no kanji for it, or even when the kanji is too high-level to be read by others. There’s also the time when hiragana is used as furigana (ふりがな), which is a Japanese reading aid where the hiragana characters are above the kanji characters to help with pronunciation. 

The word sumimasen (すみません), translating to “excuse me”, is fully written in hiragana because its origin is Japanese. This is also the same for the word yokoso (ようこそ) to mean welcome.

Katakana 

Just like the hiragana, the katakana is also a native writing system of Japan based on sounds rather than logograms. The katakana has a more angular shape compared to the hiragana which are more rounded and cursive. The katakana writing system also has the same vowels of a, e, i, o and u, but they are written as ア, エ,イ, オ and ウ. If they’re so similar, why the need for another writing system?

The katakana writing system has a similar history to the hiragana writing system — both stem from how difficult kanji is and hence the birth of these new alphabet systems. The difference between hiragana and katakana is that the katakana characters are just simplified versions of the kanji symbols themselves. After a while, they were standardized to become an alphabet. 

Back then, they were a companion to the kanji characters. Now, they are used to write words of foreign origin, modern loan words, slang, and colloquialisms. Words like kohi (コーヒ, which is coffee in Japanese) and keki (ケーキ, to mean cake) are all written in katakana as they are foreign loan words.

Kanji

Here comes the arguably hardest writing system of all of the Japanese writing system: the kanji. It is the first writing system introduced in Japan in the 4th century. The Japanese had their own spoken language but not a written one. 

The kanji characters are logograms, which means each character is like a picture that represents words or even an idea. Sometimes, one kanji character can contain various symbols, each with their own meanings! There are about 50,000 kanji characters in existence — don’t panic just yet, studies showed that 500 of the most common kanji can account for 80% of the entire kanji in a regular text script like a newspaper.

While they are loaned from the China language, the pronunciations of the kanji characters are quite different. The Japanese took the characters of the Chinese kanji and matched it to the same word in the Japanese language. The Chinese pronunciation is still used to this day, however. So there are two ways of pronouncing just one kanji: the Chinese way which is the onyomi (音読み) and the Japanese way which is the kunyomi (訓読み).

Take the kanji to mean “mountain” for example. A Japanese person will look at it and pronounce it the kunyomi way, “yama (やま)”, but a Chinese will look at it and pronounce the onyomi pronunciation, which is “san (さん)”.

Kanji characters are used when there are content-heavy words — nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives are all possible to be written in kanji. Because of that, you’re more likely to see kanji characters than kana characters in Japanese texts. 

Are All Of Them Significant in Japanese Writing?

So the question remains: are all of the Japanese writing systems significant in the language? The answer is: yes! 

Having all three of the Japanese writing systems in a sentence creates easier readability, especially the kanji characters. They create natural pauses and breaks in a sentence for the reader to separate which ones are nouns and which are verbs. Having a hiragana-only sentence is like having an English sentence without the spaces — extremely difficult to read and more-than-borderline confusing!

The katakana adds an extra specialty to the Japanese sentences. In my opinion, it adds that unique notion — sometimes the katakana words look classier and more modern, don’t you think? 

Conclusion

It might be easier to convince yourself that one (or two) of the Japanese writing systems is not significant enough to include in your Japanese studies — I mean, one can pull off a full sentence with just hiragana alone, right? However, why put in half the effort into the Japanese language learning when you can hustle just at the start by memorizing a couple more characters and have it easier later on — especially now that we know all three of the Japanese writing systems are extremely significant individually and together!

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