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The Japanese ABCs: Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana

July 1, 2010

My cousin Katie in New York left me a comment the other day asking me if I could post the Japanese alphabet, and I’d be happy to.  I’ll give a little bit of explanation first.

Everyday use of the Japanese written language contains three different types of characters: Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana.

Kanji are the intricate characters that a lot of people associate with Asia (especially China) where an individual character can represent an entire word or idea.  Japanese Kanji originally came from China about 2,000 years ago when Japan had no actual writing system.  Over time a lot of the characters’ meaning changed as well their pronunciation.  Even in Japan, each Kanji still typically has multiple meanings and pronunciations.  There are currently between 2,000 and 3,000 Kanji characters in use in Japan.  In elementary school Japanese schoolchildren learn 1,006 Kanji characters.  Throughout junior high school and high school they learn an additional 1,945 characters.

"Book" Kanji

The japanese Kanji meaning "book", "writing" and "calligraphy"

Hiragana is where there start to be some similarities between the Japanese writing system and many Western writing systems.  There are roughly 45 distinct characters in Hiragana, each representing a syllable.  Some characters can also be combined to make slightly different sounds, similar to “th” and “ch” in English.  Because of this its actually called a “syllabary” instead of an alphabet where various characters combine to make syllables.  Hiragana is used to spell out Japanese words that there is no Kaji for, and also for beginners and young children that haven’t yet learned all of the Kanji characters.  Hiragana has a very distinct curvy shape, and when it was first introduced mostly became popular with women because of this.

A Hiragana table

A table of the basic Hiragana characters.

Katakana is very similar to Hiragana in that it too is a syllabary, but looks very different.  It’s much more angular with hard edges and is easy to tell apart from Hiragana.  It actually has almost the same amount of characters that represent the same sounds.  The main purpose of Katakana is for use with words of foreign origin.  For example, the Japanese word for “basketball” is “basuketto-boru” and would be written using Katakana.  Conversely, the Japanese word for “barbershop” is “tokoya” and would usually be written using Kanji.

Katakana table

A table of basic Katakana characters.

You probably noticed that there is really only one consonant syllable that isn’t followed by a vowel, which makes a lot of the words of English origin sound really weird (see “basuketto-boru”).  Also, a lot less sounds are possible with the Japanese language, there’s no “th” and no proper L sound, which makes teaching words that contain them pretty hard.  Also, because of this my official Japanese name is actually “Jonasan Kurama.”

This post was probably too long, but I was hoping to be as informative as posible, hopefully that was interesting for you Katie.

If anyone else has any questions, requests or suggestions feel free to leave them in the comments or e-mail me at kramersemail@gmail.com

All information sourced from Wikipedia and tables from Japanorama.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Grandma permalink
    July 2, 2010 9:38 pm

    Hello Jonathan,
    What a nice thing for Katie. I am sure she loves corresponding with her big cousin in Japan. Maybe she can use this lesson in school next year. Keep up the good work. We love hearing from you and all that you are learning. I am sure your students are learning a lot from you as well. Love you Grandma

  2. May 19, 2013 9:16 am

    Aw, this was a very good post. Finding the time and
    actual effort to create a really good article… but what can I say… I put things off a whole lot and never manage to get
    nearly anything done.

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