Commonly used in Japanese as is

The Japanese writing system

Japanese (n): the devil's own tongue,
created to thwart the spread of Christianity

The alphabets

The Japanese script uses two alphabets (or kana), viz Hiragana and Katakana. Both serve to represent one and the same set of sounds in language. Hiragana and Katakana each consist of almost 50 "letters", which are simplified Chinese characters that have been adapted to form a syllabary.

Chinese characters, made in Japan Kanji are also used a lot in the Japanese script. Most of the words in the Japanese writing system are written in Kanji (nouns, verbs, and adjectives). There are over 40,000 Kanji, but 2,000 Kanji make up over 95% of the Kanji actually used in today's texts. Since there are no spaces in Japanese, the Kanji are necessary in order to be able to separate the individual words in the sentence. The use of the Kanji is also useful to distinguish homophones (identical words with different meanings), which occur quite often due to the limited Japanese sound supply.

Hiragana is mainly used for grammatical purposes. We see that when we look at the particles. Words with extremely difficult or rare Kanji, slang expressions and onomatopoeic words (onomatopoeia) are also written with Hiragana. It is also widely used in texts for new Japanese students and children in place of the kanji they do not yet know.

Katakana, while representing the same sounds as Hiragana, is mainly used to represent new words imported from Western countries (since there are no kanji for words based on the Latin alphabet). The next three chapters cover Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.


As explained in the next chapter, each letter in Hiragana (and Katakana) corresponds to a [consonant + vowel] syllable with the sole exception of 「ん」 or 「ン」 (more on this later). In this phonetic system, the pronunciation of individual letters is absolutely clear, without any exception. From the simple structure of the syllable system, however, it cannot be concluded that pronunciation in Japanese is easy. Instead, precisely because of the strict syllable structure, there is a problem with stress, instead of the difficulties that languages ​​with separate spelling of consonants and vowels (such as English) have to contend with.

Proper high and low pitch accentuation is essential when speaking. For example, homophones can have different pitches, making the words sound a little different even though they are written with the same letters. The biggest obstacle on the way to correct and natural sounding language is incorrect intonation. Many students speak without regard to the correct pitch sequence, so that their language sounds unnatural (the classic foreigner accent). It is hardly possible to memorize the pitches or to establish logical rules for them, mainly because they differ depending on the situation or dialect. The only viable way to develop a general sense of pitch is to imitate native Japanese speakers by listening carefully and practicing yourself.

Chapters covered in this part
  • Hiragana - The basic Japanese syllabary. It is mainly used for grammatical purposes. Hiragana can also be used to indicate the pronunciation of rare or abolished kanji, or as a general replacement. The chapter covers all the letters of the hiragana.
  • Katakana - A syllabary used primarily to identify foreign words that do not have Kanji associated with them. The chapter covers all the letters of the katakana.
  • Kanji - An adaptation of the Chinese writing system for Japanese. This chapter explains the basic characteristics of Kanji as well as some strategies for learning Kanji (properly).

This page was last viewed 2004/11/24 The translation was last viewed 2005/8/22