Japanese writing

Japanese writing system uses Kanji and Kana (Hiragana and Katakana) as its letters. The number of Japanese letters are way beyond English alphabet. These are used in a combination even in one simple sentence as ‘Watashi wa Robu desu’, which means ‘I am Rob.’ in English. It is as complex as it sounds when you cannot distinguish them. Let us simplify it so that you can start learning.

In the sentence, 'Watashi' is written in Kanji, 'Robu' is in Katakana and others are in Hiragana.

Kanji originated in ancient China and each character conveys meanings and sounds. For example, the single Kanji 'watashi' means 'I' in English. Whereas, Kana are phonetic symbols and each character represents a single sound without meaning. Compared to Kanji, Kana is easier to study because all you have to memorise is the symbol and sound. Once you know Kana, you will be able to learn Kanji with the help of Kana. Therefore, when you are not familiar with Chinese characters, Kana could be the letters you will start learning as Japanese letters.

As you may notice, there are two types of Kana for a single sound, Hiragana and Katakana. Each of them has 46 standard characters. The differences between Hiragana and Katakana are their shapes and usages. Hiragana is written in cursive style and Katakana is written in angular style. Hiragana is used in most cases of Japanese writing when Kanji is not used, which includes the functional words. Katakana is used mainly for words of foreign origin, such as ‘Robu’ for the foreign name ‘Rob’.

Both Hiragana and Katakana are organised in the same way. There are 101 sounds in Japanese. They are represented with 46 characters by adding markers on the top right and/or combining with a small character.

Once you master Kana or just Hiragana, you will be surprised that you can read many writings in Japan. Road signs, official documents and some manga have small hiragana written on top of or next to Kanji to support reading, which is called Furigana. It helps not only foreigners to read Kanji but also Japanese because no Japanese person can read all the Kanji perfectly.
Don’t worry. Hiragana and Katakana can be mastered. Plus, don’t be stressed about mastering Kanji because it will be a long journey.

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