Learn about the three types of characters that are the cornerstones of the written Japanese language – kanji, hiragana and katakana.

For most learners, Japanese writing looks really strange and complex in the beginning. It does take some time and training to learn to read and write, but it’s really worth it. Even learning just a little bit will dramatically help you when learning to speak the language as well as when trying to figure out things in Japan. This article describes the very basics of the Japanese written language.

For the first steps in learning Japanese, you actually don’t have to learn the Japanese characters. As most people find them hard to learn, some may be discouraged and drop out. It doesn’t have to be that way! Try to learn a little at a time, for if you do want to learn Japanese, it will become necessary to know how to read.

Japanese Sentences Include Three Types of Characters

The Japanese writing system actually consists of three different sets of letters. The three character sets, kanji, hiragana and katakana, are all mixed in ordinary Japanese. Kanji are often used for the base meaning of a word, hiragana for gluing things together to form a understandable sentence and katakana for foreign loan-words.

  • kanji – consists of picture-like characters. Forms the base of many words.
  • hiragana – simple, curvy letters representing phonetic building blocks. Used as a “glue” in the language and for many words which do not have commonly used kanji. (Used for particles, verb and adjective endings, and some prefixes.)
  • katakana – simple, blocky letters representing phonetic building blocks. Used mostly for foreign loan words.

All of the three character sets originate in the old Chinese writing system, but has changed a lot since they were imported to Japan.

Let’s look at an example. Try to guess what the sentence means. You’ll find the answer below the example.

character systems

To learn what the example sentence means, hold your mouse cursor over the light gray area below.

Answer:

Kanji

A kanji character represents an idea, and can often be pronounced in a few different ways. Kanji are often complex, consisting of many lines. Many nouns are written using kanji, as well as the base of many verbs and adjectives.

Example of Kanji:

Kanji Pronouncation Meaning   Example
. hito, jin or nin . person .. アメリカ人 amerikajin : American (person)
  yama or san   mountain   yama : mountain
富士山 fujisan : mount Fuji
  ryuu   dragon    

Not all words have kanji, and for some words there are kanji that are not commonly used. In those cases, hiragana is often used. However, kanji alone cannot make proper Japanese sentences. There is a need for some more characters to bind together proper sentences. Here is where hiragana and katakana comes into the picture.

Kanji are very similar to Chinese characters – many of them are identical to the traditional Chinese characters used in Taiwan.

Hiragana

Hiragana is the character set used in native Japanese, for grammatical constructs and for modifying words. You may guess that a character probably belongs to hiragana if it is simple and curvy (although that may not be right every time). Here are some examples of sentences using hiragana.

わたしは にほんじん です。
watashi wa nihonjin desu.
I am Japanese.

 

これ は ほん です。
kore wa hon desu.
This is (a) book.

It is possible to write anything in Japanese using hiragana characters, and it is the first character set taught to Japanese school children. As they grow, they will learn more and more Kanji, and replace more and more hiragana with the proper kanji.

Read more about hiragana in the lesson Hiragana Basics.

Katakana

The second phonetic character set, Katakana, is mainly used for loan words, but you may also see it for example in manga, used for sounds or just to strenghten a certain word. The main characteristic of katakana is the simple characters with straight lines and sharp edges. Here are some examples of the Katakana alphabet.

ホテル . hoteru . hotel
アメリカ   amerika   America
リモコン   rimokon   remote control

Read more about katakana in the lesson Katakana Basics.