Japanese/Japanese writing system

The Japanese language uses three different systems for writing. There are two syllabaries—hiragana and katakana—which have characters for each basic mora (syllable). Along with the syllabaries, there are also kanji, which is a writing system based on Chinese characters. However, kanji have changed since their adoption, so it would not be recommended to learn both Chinese and Japanese writing at the same time.



The kanji are logograms (pictures representing words), or symbols, that each represent a morpheme (words or parts of words). Usually, each kanji represents a native Japanese morpheme as well as a loaned Chinese morpheme. This means that each kanji usually has two or more different pronunciations. The different pronunciations of a particular 漢字(かんじ) (kanji) are called “readings.” It may seem daunting at first, but with extensive practice, knowing when to use which pronunciation will become second nature.

A 漢字 usually has two types of readings:

  • 音読み(おんよみ) (on'yomi)
  • 訓読み(くんよみ) (kun'yomi)

音読み readings are approximations of the Chinese pronunciations of that particular 漢字. This reading is mostly used for multi-kanji compound words, except for peoples' surnames where 訓読み-reading is used. A kanji may have multiple 音読み. Some kanji are of Japanese origin and thus do not have on-reading. 訓読み readings are the native Japanese sound(s) associated with that 漢字. There can be multiple or no kun readings for the same kanji.

Although there are over 50,000 漢字, the Japanese government has approved 2,136 so-called “daily use” 漢字, known as 常用漢字(じょうようかんじ) (jōyō kanji) for publications, but usually about 3000 are recognized by an average adult.


The Chinese characters from which the modern hiragana characters are derived. At the top of every triplet is the original Chinese character, in the middle is a simplified cursive form, and at the bottom is the modern day hiragana.

While Chinese characters are useful for writing a language with so many homophones, the inflections of the Japanese language make it necessary to have a phonetic script to indicate the inflection. A set of Chinese characters, the man'yōgana, were used to represent pronunciation and write words that lacked Chinese characters. Around 800 A.D. these had developed into the cursive hiragana script.

This method of writing was used primarily for poetry or by women, and did not gain recognition as an acceptable way to record historical records or scholarly works.[citation needed]

Another script, the katakana also developed from Chinese characters, some from the same source as the hiragana, but others from different ones. This explains the similarities between some hiragana and katakana, while others are completely different. The katakana is primarily used for foreign loan-words. In other words, the katakana syllabary can be said to be the Japanese writing equivalent of writing in italics.

The two are collectively known as the kana (仮名(かな), e. false name). Both are syllabaries, so there are no isolated consonants, with one exception; the moraic nasal, which sounds similar to most pronunciations of the latin character “n.” Each of the kana contains 45 characters and are typically listed in a table formation called gojūonzu (五十(ごじゅう)音図(おんず), e. fifty sounds illustration) but the yi, ye, wi, wu, we sounds are obsolete in modern Japanese, so in fact only 45 sounds exist.

See also: Japanese/Kana Chart



Common punctuation marks are the comma "、" which connects two sentences, and the full stop "。" which indicates the end of a sentence. To separate words that the reader might not otherwise know how to read (most often in the case of foreign words written consecutively in katakana), a middle point "・" is used. Instead of quotation marks, the brackets "「" and "」", and "『" and "』" (for quotes inside of quotes) are used.


「ウィキペディアは、オンライン百科事典である。」 (Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia.)
「キャント・バイ・ミー・ラヴ」 (Can't buy me love) (Kyanto·bai·mī·ravu)

Latin alphabet


The Latin alphabet (ローマ字, rōmaji) is not part of the Japanese language but it is used as a fashionable way of writing words, mostly nouns such as the name of a company, business, sports team, etc. Rōmaji is also used for the transliteration of Japanese and to input Japanese text online and in word processors. There are two competing transliteration methods: the Kunrei-shiki developed by the Japanese government in the mid-20th century and taught in elementary school; and the more widely used Hepburn-shiki developed by Reverend James Curtis Hepburn in the late 19th century.

Stroke order


Japanese characters were originally written by brush, and later by pen and pencil, so the stroke order is important. When writing by hand, and particularly in cursive or calligraphic styles, using proper stroke order is crucial. Additionally, some characters look very similar but are written differently. Students who practice both reading and writing can easily distinguish these characters, but students who only practice reading may find it difficult.

The East Asian Calligraphy wikibook has some material on stroke orders.

Mixed usage and notes of interest


There are instances where kanji, hiragana, and katakana may be replaced by another writing style. Frequently, words that have kanji are written in hiragana. Some kanji are simply rarely used but their reading is known. The swallow is called tsubame and has the kanji "燕", but since it is obscure, the word will generally be written out with hiragana: "つばめ".

Reading given on top of kanji.

When writing for an audience that isn't expected to know certain kanji (such as in texts aimed at young people or kanji outside the standard set), their reading is often added on top of, or to the right of the characters, depending on whether they are written horizontally or vertically, respectively. This form of writing is called furigana (振り仮名) or yomigana (読み仮名).

Since kanji can have several different readings, it may not be straightforward to determine how to read a certain word. This problem is particularly pronounced in place names where readings may be highly irregular and archaic.

Though katakana are principally used for loan words from other languages, it can be used for stylistic purposes. Either to highlight a certain word, or give it a different feel (e.g. make it look more hip). Furthermore, since some personal names don't have kanji, but are written in hiragana, personal name readings are generally written in katakana to indicate that these are not the name itself, but simply the pronunciation.



The word "club", as it is borrowed from English, will typically be written in katakana as クラブ; however, the kanji 倶楽部 kurabu will also sometimes be used; this use of kanji for phonetic value is called 当て字 ateji. Other times, typically in older texts, grammatical particles are also written in kanji, as in 東京迄行く Tokyo made iku ([I] go to Tokyo), where まで made (to/till) is written in kanji (迄) instead of hiragana.



The Arabic numerals, called Arabia sūji (アラビア数字) or san'yō sūji (算用数字) in Japanese, are used in most circumstances (e.g. telephone numbers, pricing, zip codes, speed limit signs and percentages). Kanji numerals can still be found, however, in more traditional situations (e.g. on some restaurant menus, formal invitations and tomb stones).

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0
零 or 〇

Vertical and horizontal writing, and page order


Traditionally, Japanese is written in a format called 縦書き tategaki, or vertical writing. In this format, the characters are written in columns going from top to bottom. The columns are ordered from right to left, so at the bottom of each column the reader returns to the top of the next column on the left of the preceding one. This copies the column order of Chinese.

Modern Japanese also uses another writing format, called 横書き yokogaki, or horizontal writing. This writing format is identical to that of European languages such as English, with characters arranged in rows which are read from left to right, with successive rows going downwards.

There are no set rules for when each form has to be used, but usage tends to depend on the medium, genre, and subject. Tategaki is generally used to write essays, novels, poetry, newspapers, comics, and Japanese dictionaries. Yokogaki is generally used to write e-mails, how-to books, and scientific and mathematical writing (mathematical formulas are read from left to right, as in English).

Materials written in tategaki are bound on the right, with the reader reading from right to left and thus turning the pages from left to right to progress through the material. Materials written with yokogaki are bound on the left and the pages are turned from right to left, as in English.

Background reading

  • Okurigana Kana used as suffixes to kanji stems for verb conjugations. Historically, katakana was used. Nowadays, hiragana is used.
  • Man'yōgana Kanji used for their phonetic value to write Japanese, especially for poetry.
    • Kana The simplification of Man'yougana into Katakana and Hiragana
      • Katakana Angular script simplified down to constituent elements from kanji by monastary students. Historically used as okurigana by the educated and government. Nowadays used mainly for writing foreign words.
      • Hiragana Cursive script historically used for informal writing and literature. It became popular among women since they were denied higher education. Hence it also became known as 女手(おんなで) "onnade" (female hand -> women's writing). Nowadays, it has replaced katakana as okurigana and for writing native japanese words.
      • Hentaigana These are the remaining variants of hiragana that were not accepted as part of the standardized hiragana syllabary.
    • Iroha poem This famous poem is written using each mora (syllable) just once. It became the system used to organize the kana syllabary prior to reforms in the 19th century Meiji period, when it became reorganized into its current arrangement. ("n" was not part of the syllabary at the time. It was added later, and interestingly it's actually a hentaigana for "mu")
  • Rōmaji Roman characters (including Arabic numerals) There are three different systems.