The Writing System

Look at this sentence:


クマです。


Even if you can't read it yet, what do you notice?

There are three different types of scripts used in modern Japanese: Kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Let's look at them more closely.

The first character in the sentence, 「」 (watashi), is a kanji (漢字) character. Kanji characters are logographic in nature, meaning they represent a word or a phrase. They were brought to Japan from China a long time ago, and eventually came to be used to write Japanese words, resulting in the modern "alphabets," hiragana and katakana. The characters in black,「は」, 「で」, and「す」are hiragana. The characters in orange,「」and「」are katakana.

Also, notice how I keep italicizing certain words. That's yet another script, one that I've mentioned already: rōmaji.

 

Four scripts for writing? Are you serious?

Yeah, sorry. That's the way it goes. Let me explain what each script does.

Kanji

  • Used to represent whole words and phrases, usually content (i.e. nouns, adjectives, verbs). There are thousands of kanji, and they often have multiple readings and can range in number of strokes from 1 to 84 (seriously).

Hiragana

  • Used for particles as well as verb and adjective endings (known as okurigana) which help make kanji readings clearer. Also used for miscellaneous words which have no kanji (including some onomatopoeia) or whose kanji is considered obscure or too difficult to read or remember.

Katakana

  • Used for onomatopoeia, non-Japanese loanwords (words from other languages, like "pizza" or "Angelina Jolie"), technical terms and scientific names of plants and animals (with exceptions), and for emphasis on certain words.

Rōmaji

  • Using the 26-letter alphabet that you're reading with right now, we can represent Japanese sounds. Pretty cool, right?

 

So, four scripts. That's kind of a lot.

It's not as bad as you think. Considering how scarcely it's used in real-life Japanese, we're going to stop using rōmaji very early on. Hiragana and katakana aren't very difficult to get under your belt, which just leaves kanji as a major obstacle.


 

Hiragana and Katakana

Let's talk about hiragana and katakana together.

Take the sound "ne" (which sounds like the "ne" in "necklace").

Hiragana ー「ね」

Katakana ー「ネ」

Same sound, different alphabets!

Here are both tables for reference.

 

Hiragana

            
kstnhmyrw~n
a
i
u
e
o

Katakana

            
kstnhmyrw~n
a
i
u
e
o

 

The hiragana and katakana syllabaries (a slightly more accurate term than alphabet) each contain 46 basic characters, which means you've got your work cut out for you right from the get-go.

Luckily, there are plenty of resources out there for memorizing hiragana and katakana, including this sweet bath poster you can put in your shower. Talk about immersion!

Seriously though, I recommend sitting down with a pencil and paper to practice writing these until you're blue in the face. For now, use this website as a reference for stroke order--I'm working on getting some handwriting tutorial videos up soon! Drilling with app-based flash cards is also a great way to learn them, and you're in luck, because there are flash cards and plenty of exercises for both hiragana and katakana on the following pages.


 

 Ten-ten and Maru

What sounds like the adorable name of a crime-fighting superhero pair of puppies is actually one of the more important features of the language. These are colloquial names for dakuten and handakuten: literally "voicing mark" and "half-voicing mark" respectively. Ten-ten means "dots" and sure enough, the mark looks like two dots:

Maru ("circle") looks like, well, a circle:

What are they used for?

Well, I hate to make your life even harder, but it turns out you can modify certain sounds in Japanese by adding one of these marks to a syllable. As mentioned before, ten-ten is a voicing mark while maru is a half-voicing mark. Thus, when you add a ten-ten to は (ha) for example, it looks like this:

...and sounds like ba.

Sure enough, if you add a ten-ten to any of the syllables in the は・ひ・ふ・へ・ほ (ha/hi/fu/he/ho) column, they all take on a "b" sound at the beginning and become: ば・び・ぶ・べ・ぼ (ba/bi/bu/be/bo).

Easy enough, right? But they don't all become "b"s. Here's a cheat sheet for all the changes that Japanese syllables undergo when they take on a ten-ten or maru.

none
か・カ・kaが・ガ・gaNone
さ・サ・saざ・ザ・zaNone
た・タ・taだ・ダ・daNone
は・ハ・haば・バ・baぱ・パ・pa

Notice how the maru only applies to one family of syllables: は・ひ・ふ・へ・ほ (ha/hi/fu/he/ho), which becomes ぱ・ぴ・ぷ・ぺ・ぽ (pa/pi/pu/pe/po). See? I'm already making your life easier.

 

Examples

  1. ねこ (neko) ー cat
  2. おはよう (ohayō) ー good morning
  3. ありがとう (arigatō) ー thank you
  4. がくせい (gakusei) ー student
  5. せんせい (sensei) ー teacher