Vixie’s Guide to the Japanese Scripts
What’s up folks. I got a message from the delightful @riddlemethisbatboy asking me to explain the various scripts and give some tips to learning. Now, while I suggest you learn Hiragana > Katakana > Kanji, I will be explaining them in reverse order because that’s just how I roll. Then I’ll explain romaji and furigana. Don’t worry! The last two are nothing to be afraid of.
It’s also worth noting that there is no letter L in Japanese but that’s for another time.
Let me summarise and over-simplify now for those who can’t be bothered to read the whole thing: Kanji is for meaning. Hiragana is for pronunciation and grammar. Katakana is for foreign words and excitement.
I’ll also kindly put a ‘read more’ so you can skip past this post if you know the history kanji/etc. Check it out after the break.
Ah, the dreaded kanji. With around 2200 in common use and being complicated shapes like 花 and 猫, what the heck are they all about? The word ‘kanji’ has its own kanji and is written 漢字 (China, Letter), so it means Chinese characters. Confusing, right? Well, they started off as something called ‘seal script’, which came over from China, and it evolved into Japanese from there. Every kanji has a meaning, but it’s not like you have to memorise thousands of unique characters. There are actually 214 ‘radicals’ which are the components which make up any kanji, and they’re put together in interesting ways to make the meaning. This can require a little lateral thinking, but it can be fun! Let’s take the kanji for 休 which means “rest” or “take a break” or “vacation”. On the left-hand side, you see the radical version of 人 which means ‘person’. Then you have 木 which is ‘tree’. Together they form the kanji for ‘rest’ which is when a person makes like a tree. You see? There’s a kind of logic. And the thing about those two kanji I just showed is that that some kanji are ideograms or pictograms; they look like the thing they represent. 人 is someone standing there and means ‘person’. 大 is a person with their arms out and means ‘big’. 天 is the sky above the big person and means ‘heaven’. It’s not as scary as people make out - there is logic to it. Another example would be that 日 means sun. 月 means moon. 明日 goes sun-moon-sun and it means ‘tomorrow’. Incidentally that kanji 明 means bright. So tomorrow is a bright new day! I’ll be sure to post some basic kanji info in the future.
But wait, why it is used for? There are three scripts! I hear you cry. Well, kanji is used to convey root meaning. It’s at the base of every verb and noun so you can quickly see what the word is, with the other scripts around it to convey other things like grammar.
I absolutely do not recommend learning kanji before kana (hiragana/katakana).
The final thing to note about kanji is that every kanji has several ways of pronouncing it and this is complicated so I won’t go into it, but the fact that they have pronunciation is relevant, I swear.
Ah, finally. something easier. I could lump hiragana and katakana together, but I won’t. Katakana is a very angular script. Example: アイスクリーム. Notice how much more simple it is? Katakana is a phonetic script and has only 46 characters. Each character represents usually a combination between a consonant and a vowel. Ka, ni, mu, he, ro. That sort of thing. It gets a little odd when you realise that it’s not si but shi, and not di but chi, but you get used to it. The only sounds which exist on their own are the five vowels (which are the same as you’ll have learned in English) and the letter N. Traditionally, katakana was for men and for official documents until the Heian period ~1000 C.E.
Now, you might have noticed that Chinese is entirely complicated characters. Katakana and hiragana alike developed when people were using simplified characters simply as a pronunciation guide. They were simplified until they’re what we know today. More on that in the Hiragana
That’s enough history. It’s primarily used for representing loan words, and for making things appear in bold. It stands out. Look at this (kansai-dialect) sentence: 彼女はめっちゃカワイイやなぁ～！ and I’ve bolded the katakana. It’s pointy. It stands out. It’s also used for some onomatapeia but I think that’s just stylistic choice. This means that if you see katakana you should probably start sounding it out and seeing if it sounds similar to any English words you know. For example, the Japanese slang very common in sports (and sports anime like haikyuu!) which is ドンマイ (donmai) which sounds like a Japanese word, but actually it’s a shortened and borrowed form of “don’t mind”. This slang is often used if somebody messes up like “it’s okay don’t worry about it, it happens. Shrug it off.”
Katakana and using random loan words is also quite popular on advertisements because English is cool and trendy. In the 80′s there was slang of a similar cringiness to if someone said “bodacious!” or “radical!”, and it was the English words “SUPER VERY GOOD”.
Please learn katakana after you have learned hiragana
Just like Katakana, it is phonetic and has exactly the same sounds, just with a different script so you don’t need to learn the rules over again. This might seem pointless, but wait and you’ll see. It’s more curvy and loopy than hiragana: Example: あいすくりーむ. Note that it’s still way more simple than kanji. Historically, it was for women. Just like Katakana, it was developed by simplifying some kanji so they could use the readings of it. Here’s a cool chart from Omniglot showing where they came from:
But anyway. Hiragana is the important one. Hiragana is used in children’s books. Hiragana is used to explain the pronunciation when someone isn’t good at kanji. You can get by with just hiragana in a pinch though I wouldn’t recommend it. Hiragana is at the very foundation of the language.
More importantly than all of that, hiragana tells you about the grammar of the sentence. Throwing kanji together is just a bunch of nonsense without grammar. Allow me to demonstate: 私は刺身を食べました. I’ll break the sentence down for you. It’s read: “watashi wa sashimi o tabemashita” and means “I ate sashimi” (raw fish sushi).
私 (watashi) is kanji. It means I, or self. は (ha) is hiragana and is the grammatical partical meaning “this is the subject of the sentence”. Words always come word > particle so you know what a word is doing in a sentence based on the particle afterwards.
刺身 (sashimi) is the kanji for sashimi. The を (wo) which follows it is hiragana and the grammatical partical meaning “this is the thing that the verb is being done to”. In this case, it is the thing being eaten.
食べました this is one word despite being a mash of kanji and hiragana. That’s because it’s a verb. The first character is kanji 食 (ta) which means “eat”. Then it swaps to hiragana and we have べ (be) which we’ll ignore because the reasoning there is complicated. Then ました which tells us that it is polite and in the past tense. Yeah, there’s grammar to make verbs more or less polite. Japanese politeness is…. complicated. Another time.
From roma as in roman, and ji as in the same as kan-ji. So, roman letters. English letters. Example: retsuko rather than れつこ or 烈子
This is hiragana which floats above kanji that the reader might not know how to pronounce and it tells you how to say it. This is very useful for kids who hear Japanese all the time. You can often figure out what age some reading material is aimed at based on which kanji have furigana.
Okay but isn’t this just wasted effort?
Why not just have one alphabet and be done with it? Well, I used to thing that. I don’t anymore. It’s hard to explain, but I find it easier to read Japanese as it is now. Reading speed can be really, really fast. It’s very condensed, and you get the meaning very quickly. I scan a sentence for kanji, then pick out the hiragana around it which are always in predictable grammatical patterns. It’s hard to learn but very much worth it.
Uhh. How to learn tho???
When I teach Japanese to beginners one on one, I start them speaking, getting basic grammar internalised so they’re using Japanese from the get-go. Then I have them start writing things in hiragana. Once that’s comfortable and they dont have to look up every single letter, we move onto Katakana and stay there for a good while. I am of the opinion that probably the best way to familiarise yourself with hiragana and katakana is to start with hiragana and drill it out. Write out every character 50 times so you get an idea. Then start getting Japanese lessons and writing out sample sentences. Anki is a great tool for flashcarding but you want to be able to write them too. Hiragana first, then katakana. I’ll do a whole other post on how to learn kanji.
Do it right. Really. I know it seems pointless but when you encounter somebody with sloppy handwriting, especially if there’s kanji thrown in there, you will thank me. Japanese readers recognise the stroke order and can see if you’re doing it wrong by looking at the letters because it really does impact legibility and speed of writing. Also calligraphy on signs will be completely lost to you if you don’t understand the stroke order.
I hope that helped. Long post, huh?
Time for a shameless self plug! I offer beginner Japanese lessons via voice for $10/half hour and can take you through to intermediate level. I will chat to you when I have time between lessons and it’ll be great. Hit me up.
Also follow/reblog/like/etc. If you found me via a tag or reblog, I post some intermediate Japanese recs, play through games in Japanese and talk about that, do grammar breakdowns, all that good stuff. A lot of my posts are aimed at lower intermediate learners but I do beginner stuff too!
Thanks for staying with the post this long!