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Writing Japanese: What is Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana

The Japanese language is so fascinating. The tonal qualities of the language is quite unique and the inherent politeness of the Japanese people is translated well into its language which is in turns elegant and stylish and drips with respect.

Japanese writing is also a very elegant script and it has evolved from its original Chinese script beginnings to become something that is intrinsically Japanese. There are actually different types or ways of writing Japanese characters and it has been a source of confusion for people who are not familiar with Japanese culture or for students of Japanese culture who have not yet fully researched the intricacies of the Japanese written language.

The three ways of writing Japanese characters are Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana, with another version called Romaji being used for special purposed.

Kanji

The word kanji is a Japanese derivative of the Chinese word hanzi, which translates to “Han characters”. The word Han pertains to the Han Dynasty and is also the name that the Chinese use to refer to themselves.

Using Kanji would mean employing between 5000 to 10000 Chinese characters. This meant that writing in this form was very difficult. In 1981, the Japanese government, as a measure to simplify how Japanese is written and read, intrduced the j?y? kanji hy? or List of Chinese Characters for General Use. The list includes 1945 regular characters and 166 special characters that has a use only for writing people’s names. All official documents, as well as newspapers, textbooks as well as other publications only use this form.

Hiragana

Chinese characters are considered as the source for Hiragana syllables. Hiragana – which means “ordinary syllabic script” — was referred to originally as onnade or “women’s hand” because women used this form the most. Men are known to write in Kanji and Katakana. But usage of Hiragana evolved through the centuries, and by the 10th century, it was being used by both men and women.

The earliest versions of hiragana had diverse characters that represent the same syllable. The whole system was simplified however in order to make it easier to use by establishing a one to one correspondence between the written and spoken syllables.

Katakana

The Katakana “alphabets” have a very storied history. It was taken from abbreviated Chinese characters that were used by Buddhist monks. They used Katakana in order to illustrate the correct pronunciations of Chinese text back in the 9th century. Initially, there were so many different symbols used just to represent one syllable that it became quite confusing. But through time, it became more streamlined. Katakana was initially thought of as “men’s writing” but over the centuries it has been used to write onomatopoeic words, foreign names, telegrams, and non-Chinese loan words. Katakana contains about 48 syllables.

There is also another script used in the Japanese language called Romaji. It is basically used to write the Latin alphabet into Japanese characters, especially for English or Latin alphabet-spelled words that do not have a direct Japanese translation.

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