The alphabet is one of the first things kids learn in school. In some places, there is a nifty mnemonic - a song to help students remember their ABCs.

In English, the alphabet is fairly straightforward. There are no diacritical marks to remember; no accents, cedillas or 'tails' as Slavic language speakers call the marks on certain vowels (ą or ę). English speakers rely on diphthongs, letter combinations and varying vowel sounds to extend the range of our 26-letter alphabet.

Would you be surprised to learn that Japanese also has 'letter' combinations that influence a word's sound and meaning?

The only thing is, the Japanese rely on three closely related writing systems to define their language. The symbols - ideograms that make up these writing systems are considered the Japanese alphabet. That's what Superprof talks with you about today.

Spoiler alert: the Japanese alphabet has far more than 26 'letters', so be ready!

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Why Three Writing Systems?

It might seem capricious, maybe even a bit overblown to blend three whole writing systems into one language. If they were in competition with one another - or maybe could stand-in for one another like Chinese traditional and simplified characters do, we would agree with that point.

The Japanese alphabet is three different scripts, not just one
The Japanese alphabet is made up of three separate writing systems. Photo by Damon Lam on Unsplash

However, Japan's three writing systems all complement one another. They each serve a specific purpose and each has its own function. For instance, numbers and names, both surnames and given names are written exclusively in kanji while hiragana and katakana reflect the language's unique sounds.

Katakana and hiragana are further distinguished by what they represent. Hiragana is used for authentically Japanese words (sushi すし, e.g.) and katakana is used for imports - words from different languages that are approximated and absorbed into Japanese.

We'll use 'hamburger' as an example. Its Japanese equivalent is hanbaga (ハンバーガー). It sounds close enough to the English word for English speakers to understand it but it's written in katakana.

If you're in any way knowledgeable about Japanese writing, you know that kanji consists entirely of Chinese characters. You might wonder: shouldn't that writing system be considered a wholesale import of language and, thus, fall under the katakana banner?

That argument might have merit if we were talking about modern-day word imports; maybe some cultural phenomenon from China that's currently all the rage in Japan. In that case, yes: the words to describe it would most likely be written in katakana.

China's delicious soup-filled dumplings serve as our example, here. In Mandarin, they are called xiao long bao (小笼包). In katakana, they are 小籠包. The only difference is that the middle character, meaning dragon, is written in traditional form in katakana while the Chinese word displays the simplified version of the same character.

And there is a substantial difference in pronunciation, too. In Japanese, they are called shōronpō.

Modern imports aside, the Chinese and Japanese languages share a centuries-long history. While the characters might be written exactly the same way in Japanese as in Chinese - in particular, Japanese numbers, the sounds of each character have changed over time.

Sometimes, the meanings have, too.

A Mandarin speaker would recognise kanji writing on sight but their pronunciation would be much harder for them to understand unless they too have mastered the basics of learning Japanese.

You're more likely to find kanji than English throughout Japan
Kanji is used throughout Japan to indicate names, numbers and other traditional concepts. Photo by Conor Luddy on Unsplash

The Reason for Kanji

Despite Japan and China's long history, since the Second World War, the two countries have maintained a simmering rivalry. That might make you wonder why the Japanese haven't yet jettisoned every trace of their former ally's language from their own.

The reason is simple: kanji serves a vital purpose. Well, that and the fact that kanji is far too entrenched to be surgically removed.

If not for kanji, it would be difficult to tell when, in Japanese writing, a new word begins. If you read a text written only in katakana and/or hiragana, you might find it difficult to determine which characters belong together to form individual words. Kanji, with its straight-line format, makes it easy to tell the beginning of a new word.

Unlike the other two Japanese scripts, kanji has no loops or swirls. It does have slanted strokes - as in 八 or 刃 but, for the most part, kanji is fairly boxy and well organised. By comparison, the stroke combination for some Japanese characters, like (katakana) shi (シ) seems aimless; almost whimsical.

As mentioned in the preceding segment, kanji is used to write numbers; it is also used to write names in Japanese. Besides those functions, kanji is used to write nouns, verbs and adjectives.

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Learning Hiragana

Hiragana (and katakana) represent the phonetic aspects of the Japanese language. Whereas one kanji character represents a whole meaning (国 = 'country'), each hiragana ideogram equals a syllable. Individually, they do not represent complete words or concepts. Thus, every multi-syllable word will contain an equivalent number of hiragana symbols.

Hiragana is made up of 46 sounds, broken down into:

  • the five vowels: a, e, i, o, u
  • 40 consonant-vowel pairs
    • two of which, wa (わ) and wo (を), are word order particles
  • one consonant that acts only with the vowel 'a' (think: -n in our earlier hanbaga example)

In Japanese, hiragana is the closest to what we understand to be a complete, authentic alphabet. In theory, you could write in Japanese using only hiragana but the resulting text would have no spaces between the syllables and no indication of whether they belong together to form a word or are a part of a different word.

Readers would have to know hiragana - and Japanese culture very well to understand such writing.

Writing in Katakana

As katakana and hiragana both represent the phonetic aspects of the Japanese language, it's logical that they would have many things in common.

Like its counterpart, katakana consists of five vowels and has 40 main vowel-consonant pairs, as well as the outlier -n. And then, the two vowel-consonant pairs: wa (ワ) and wo (ヲ), particles indicating word order that are found in both katakana and hiragana.

One marks the sentence's object (wo) and the other (wa) indicates the sentence's subject or topic.

In many ways, katakana is far easier to master than its counterpart. It is not as elaborate, either. Consider the character for the 'mu' syllable. In hiragana, it looks like ; katakana's version is much easier, if a bit less elegant: .

Unlike many countries that insist their language remain free of foreign influence - including foreign words, the Japanese language contains many words from other languages, including Chinese and English. That's why katakana is necessary.

Even though many of katakana's sounds and functions are the same as hiragana's, the altered script serves to signal that the word is an import.

You won't generally see any romaji walking around in Japan
Walking the street of Japan, you likely won't see any romaji. Photo by Astrit Malsija on Unsplash

Why Not Romaji?

Anyone who has studied Mandarin must have revelled in the fact that their target language, deemed one of the most difficult in the world to learn, has a complete lexicon of romanization. Pinyin helps Mandarin learners start speaking faster without first having to learn enough characters to put a sentence together.

Not just foreign language learners, either. Chinese school children also start out with pinyin, later graduating to reading and writing Chinese characters.

Unfortunately, the closest Japan can come to such a universal conversion of language is romaji - Japanese words written in the alphabet English speakers know so well. That does not mean it is easy or straightforward to learn.

For one, there is more than one system of romaji. The Latin alphabet was introduced in Japan by Portuguese missionaries sometime in the 16th Century. Since then, other missionaries have left their influence on the Japanese language.

Through the centuries, the Japanese have also attempted to romanise their language, resulting in two additional forms of Romaji: the Nippon and Kunrei systems.

Arguably, the most widely used romaji is the Hepburn System, which includes both hiragana and katakana corresponding sounds with their Latin counterparts in one complete chart.

Whether you're a language purist - you want to learn Japanese without using romaji, or you do occasionally rely on it to help you learn Japanese faster and more easily, it's likely your teacher has discouraged you from relying on romaji too much.

To a point, they're right. When you do finally make it to Japan, you won't find much of anything written in romaji so it's best to learn how to read and write in Japanese. However, unless you have a Japanese keyboard, you will have to know romaji to type in Japanese.

Even so, you still have to recognise which character to select from the software's menu. Are you looking for katakana's sa (サ) or hiragana's (さ)?

Some language learners shy away from learning Japanese because it's simply too complicated. There are too many sounds and characters to learn and too many rules to follow. And all that, on top of having to figure out which writing system to use for any given word?

But then, if you think about it, our alphabet may contain only 26 letters but they yield a startling variety of constructs and sounds, too. Add to that the difference between capital and lowercase letters, and cursive versus print... and we manage pretty well, don't we?

So let's get to studying those Japanese words and phrases! Write them in romaji if you must but also practise writing them using the Japanese alphabet.

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