A Brief Overview of Japanese Writing: How Does It Compare to English?

Illustration for article titled A Brief Overview of Japanese Writing: How Does It Compare to English?

This is the third entry in my series on the Japanese language. I recommend checking out the first two articles as well if this topic interests you. This time around, I will explain how the Japanese writing systems work and compare it with English.


The English Alphabet

The writing systems of most languages can appear to be completely chaotic to someone who lacks experience. Even native speakers can struggle to perfect the art of writing their language to the precise standards prescribed by style manuals. For English speakers, this struggle is most apparent in our spelling system. The English alphabet is made up of 26 characters, or 52 characters if we consider lower case and upper case letters separately. Most children going through primary schooling will learn how to read and write all 52 characters by the time they reach the first grade.


However, “knowing” a character does not necessarily mean that you can use it perfectly in all situations. English spelling is inconsistent even at the best of times, and there are many reasons for this. For one, spelling was standardized at a time when English was pronounced very differently compared to modern pronunciation. Popular examples of this include the word “knight,” which is now pronounced without the “k” or “gh” that still feature in its written form.

Another reason for inconsistencies in English spelling comes down to the numerous voices that contributed to its standardization. Famous dictionaries such as Samuel Johnson’s 18th century A Dictionary of the English Language and Noah Webster’s 19th century Webster’s Dictionary heavily influenced English spelling, but their authors were sometimes inconsistent in their orthographic choices.


As if this all isn’t difficult enough, there are also inconsistencies in the number of vowels in spoken versus written English. While there are only five English alphabet characters (six, if you count y) that can represent vowels, there are more than twice as many actual vowels in spoken English. This is why, for example, the word “Mercedes” has three “e”s that are each pronounced differently.

All of this is to say that English orthography is a pain in the ass. We can say that the characters of the English alphabet correspond to different sounds, but reality is not so straightforward. It is not actually possible to correctly spell many words based purely on their spoken pronunciations. I want you all to keep this in mind as we discuss the orthography of a completely different language: Japanese.


Japanese Writing Systems

Japanese has three primary writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji.

Hiragana and katakana are syllabaries, which are similar to alphabets in that they both represent sounds. The key difference is that a syllabic character represents a single syllable. As such, almost all the characters in hiragana and katakana contain both a consonant and a vowel sound. For example, think about famous video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto. His name has tons of vowels, right? That’s because Japanese consonants are almost always followed by a vowel sound, and each consonant/vowel pairing is represented by a single character. In the case of Miyamoto, his name would read in hiragana as みやもとしげる, or Mi-ya-mo-to-Shi-ge-ru. (For the curious, the kanji for his name are宮本茂.)


*Fun Fact! Much like English, Japanese spelling with hiragana used to be based on old pronunciations that did not line up with the way modern Japanese had come to be spoken. Japanese hiragana spelling was modernized after World War II and now (outside of a few exceptions) very closely reflects actual spoken pronunciation.

Pictured: A hiragana chart with stroke order and English alphabet equivalents written underneath each character. Two of these characters, ゐ and ゑ, are no longer used in modern Japanese orthography.
Pictured: A hiragana chart with stroke order and English alphabet equivalents written underneath each character. Two of these characters, ゐ and ゑ, are no longer used in modern Japanese orthography.

Hiragana and katakana both have the exact same number of characters, and each character in hiragana has a corresponding character in katakana that is pronounced the exact same. It’s sort of like how lower case letters all have a corresponding upper case letter in the English alphabet. However, their usage is a bit different. In modern Japanese, katakana is mostly used to represent recent foreign loan words, onomatopoeia, or occasionally to draw attention a particular word (such as in marketing campaigns). Hiragana is generally used for Japanese-origin words, but it can also be used to write out phonetic pronunciations for kanji words that can be of either Japanese or Chinese origin, in which case it is called furigana.

The final writing system, kanji, is the scary one that all your friends studying Japanese complain about. Kanji are Chinese characters that made their way to Japan around 1,500 years ago after Japanese scholars began to study Chinese texts from mainland Asia. Hiragana and katakana were most likely originally derived from kanji characters. Some people call kanji pictographs, or characters that represent physical objects, but this is actually not true. Some kanji do likely have pictorial origins, such as the character 木 (tree), but many kanji represent abstract ideas and do not correspond to physical objects. As such, kanji are better understood as ideograms, or characters that represent ideas.


Reading Kanji

Most kanji are “read” (pronounced) differently depending on the context of the word or sentence in which they appear. These readings are generally categorized into two groups: kun-yomi (sometimes called Japanese readings) and on-yomi (sometimes called Chinese readings). Kun-yomi are generally readings that represent Japanese-origin words, While on-yomi are derived from Chinese words. However, simply calling on-yomi “Chinese readings” is a bit misleading. Many of the readings are Japanese approximations of Chinese sounds that were brought to Japan during different time periods and from different parts of China. As such, although on-yomi are considered Chinese readings, they vary quite frequently from modern Mandarin Chinese readings of the same characters.


Many characters have more than one kun-yomi and/or on-yomi. For example, let’s take a look at the character 楽:

楽しい (tanoshii, fun) kun-yomi

楽な (rakuna, easy/comfortable) on-yomi

楽器 (gakki, musical instrument) on-yomi

音楽 (ongaku, music) on-yomi

As you can see, the same character is read in many different ways depending on the word in which it is found. There are some characters with dozens of readings, and some characters with only one. It really depends.


Based on the above vocabulary, what do you think the character 楽 means in English? Pleasant? Comfortable? Music? The answer is sort of all three. Japanese kanji dictionaries will gloss kanji meanings similar to how we might gloss a vocabulary word, by listing multiple meanings. It’s not really an exact science, which sort of creates difficulties in translation. I have personally seen English definitions for 音楽 (ongaku, music) that attempt to argue that the literal meaning of the word is “fun sound,” “relaxing sound,” or “music sound.” It’s best to be cautiously critical of any attempts to call something a “literal” translation, be it for a full sentence or even a single character. I plan to talk more about this misunderstanding in a later article.

Why Do We Still Use Kanji?

This is most definitely one of the top questions English speakers ask when they see how many kanji there are, and the answer isn’t simple. Jaded language veterans might default to saying, “Because that’s just how it is,” but there are actually many important linguistic reasons for kanji’s continued popularity.


I mentioned earlier in the article that English has many more more spoken vowels than there are vowel characters in the English alphabet. This high number of vowels increases the potential variety of pronunciations for the English lexicon (not to mention English’s many consonants). However, there are actually only five vowels in Japanese, which we can represent by the alphabet characters a, i, u, e, and o. Japanese has far fewer vowel sounds and far fewer spoken sounds in general than the English language. This has resulted in the Japanese language having an enormous number of homonyms, or words with different meanings that sound the exact same. Rhyming schemes have played an important role in English poetry for centuries, but they are much less important in most Japanese poetry because it is really easy to rhyme due to the smaller number of possible sound combinations.

In other words, if we removed kanji, it would no longer be easy to tell the difference between many words in Japanese. Here’s an example:

交渉 (koushou): negotiations

鉱床 (koushou): mineral deposit

高尚 (koushou): noble, refined

厚相 (koushou): minister of welfare

公傷 (koushou): occupational injury

“Koushou” alone has dozens of homonyms, and this problem exists for tons of other words, as well. If we were to just write all of these words in the English alphabet, or even in hiragana, we would lose the easy differentiation that kanji offer. It would be an absolute nightmare.


Kanji are also just plain efficient. Since kanji contain both ideas and sounds, words that you might be unfamiliar with can be rendered easy to understand as long as you already know the characters. You don’t want to overly rely on literal meanings of kanji, but knowing lots of them does make it far easier to pick up new words that use familiar characters. Kanji can also contain multiple syllables of sound in a single character. For example, the phrase “eating and drinking” in English needs 17 alphabet characters, but I can convey the same word in Japanese by writing only two kanji characters: 飲食 (inshoku).

It may take a while to learn the 2,000+ characters that the average adult Japanese person can read, but once you’ve learned them, the benefits far outweigh the difficulties. The English alphabet is short and sweet, but that also comes with its own problems. Both writing systems have their ups and downs, and both are capable of producing amazing works of literature.


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