ELI5, The Japanese Writing System


ELI5, The Japanese Writing System

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Short answer there isn’t one, since it’s a mash up of different systems. Each serves its own purpose and has its own history just as we sometimes write “four”, sometimes “4” sometimes “IV” and if you can tell me when you use “IIII” you can have a small prize.

Many years ago the Japanese discovered their rivals the Chinese had a writing system. So they ‘borrowed’ it and made it their own. They call it ‘kanji’ and these characters make up the bulk of the written word in Japanese

But the phonetics of Chinese and Japanese are not quite the same. So to fill in the gaps, they created a new system representing all the sounds in Japanese (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, etc). They call this ‘hiragana’.

Years after that, Western Culture arrived and introduced new words to the Japanese language. To differentiate these new words, a new writing system with the same phonetics as hiragana was created, and all ‘western’ words are written using it. They call this ‘katakana’

There’s three systems that are in normal use:

Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Hiragana and katakana are phonetic, meaning the characters represent sounds instead of entire words. Kanji are symbols borrowed from Chinese.

You can write any sentence entirely in hiragana, for example

わたしははんばあがあをたべました (this means: I ate a hamburger).

But for certain words, it’s more common to write them in the other systems. Katakana, for instance, is usually used to write words that were borrowed from other languages(so in our example sentence, hamburger would be written ハンバーガー instead of はんばあがあ). And certain words are written in kanji if they have one. In our example, I is written わたし in hiragana and 私 in Kanji. And ate is たべました in hiragana and 食べました in kanji. In that example, most of the word is still written in hiragana. This is common for verbs, where you will write the first part in kanji and use hiragana to describe how it’s conjugated. So past tense is 食べました and present tense is 食べます.

So the better way to write the sentence is


There’s a lot more you can go into, but that’s the basic idea. Katakana is loan words, kanji is certain words that happen to have a shorter Chinese symbol and everything else is hiragana.

The short version is:
You got kanji (漢字), which are “appropriated” chinese characters. They are used for your content words (nouns, verb-roots, adjectives).
You got hiragana (へらがな), where each character corresponds to a syllable, mostly for grammatical bits (verb-endings and particles), sometimes words are spelled out in hiragana.
Then you have katakana (カタカナ), which make the same sounds (ish) as hiragana, but are mostly used for foreign words, especially names.

Mix all three together and you got your self a sentence.

Has katakana: ラーメン – Ra Me N
Kanji: 好
and hiragana: が (particle), き (verb ending)

There are 2 writing systems is japanese, sound based and meaning based.

There are ~50 sounds in japanese language so when the writing system was originally created they assigned a Chinese character to each of their sounds. 安=”A” etc.

it was pain in the ass to write those Kanji and only noble male were using them so over time they developed something simpler call the kana 安->あ/ア

Hiragana is used for native japanese words and katakana is used for foreign words,

Kanji (Chinese characters) is used to decrease the number to characters they have to write and based on context can mean different things i.e.

最中 is a type of snack (meaning based-monaka) or currently (sound based -saichyu)

Japanese has three writing systems that are used at the same time. All of them are based on Chinese in some form. They have pretty specific uses within a certain sentence.

Hiragana is based on phonetic Chinese and mimics the pronunciation of certain Chinese words. It is predominantly used for grammatical terms, but also certain words which are usually more basic or more native. Imagine the sentence: “I have a computer and a dog”. Hiragana would be used for the word “and” because it’s grammar, and “have” because it’s a more basic word. You can recognise Hiragana because it looks really round like ひらがな

Kanji are actual Chinese words that are nearly identical to their Chinese counterparts. It is used predominantly for nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Kanji adjectives and verbs rarely occur as just Kanji and usually need hiragana to give them grammar patterns like tense, however, nouns are just fine on their own as Kanji. In the above sentence, the words “I” and “dog” would be in Kanji. You can recognise Kanji because it is basically just Chinese words and looks complex like 漢字

Katakana is also based on phonetic Chinese (but a different one used by monks) and also mimics Chinese pronunciations. It is used mostly for expressing foreign words. In the above sentence “computer” would be in Katakana. You can recognise Katakana because it looks kinda sharp like カタカナ

This is a really crude explanation but should roughly work