Some people say Japanese is impossible to master for a non-native, yet everyone living in the country for a few years can bear witness to the many foreigners living here, who are fluent in the language, some even in reading and writing. This is not to say the writing system is without challenges (even for native speakers), quite the contrary, but for anyone aspiring to learn the language let it be of some consolation that Japanese grammar is very simple and extremely regular.

There are few languages that have as few exceptions as Japanese, and on top of that Japanese is one of the easiest to pronounce languages, mostly due to the fact that all words are made from syllables (or better moras) that are either single vowels or consonant+vowel combinations. The only stand-alone consonant is “ん” (pronounced like “ng” in “wrong”). They have few and simple diphtongs, and no hard to pronounce consonants (like the German “ch” or French or German “r”, no “th” either), and almost all vowels are open.

So, if Japanese grammar and its phonetics are so simple, what makes the writing so difficult to master?
It’s the fact that they use a combination of three (or four depending on how you look at it) writing systems plus having several ways to read the same Chinese characters, that makes it hard. And if that weren’t enough, Japanese is very context driven, with a lot of that context being social or cultural so it’s less accessible to outsiders than other languages. Ah yes, and they have no spaces between words.

The Scripts

Japanese mixes three scripts: Hiragana, a merely phonetic syllabary of 45 characters, Katakana another phonetic syllabary of the same 45 characters representing the same sounds as the Hiragana, and third it’s using Chinese characters called “Kanji” (漢字). Hiragana and Katakana together are called “Kana”.

The Scripts: Kana (Hiragana & Katakana)

Japanese phonetically consists of syllables that are either single vowels, or combinations of consonant+vowel. Hiragana and Katakana both represent the same complete set of 45 syllables that exist in Japanese. There are also some diacritical marks that slightly alter the sound (make it more muffled or turning sounds into plosives). Kana only represent sounds, and have no meaning of their own.

The left table are the basic Hiragana, to the right there are diacritical marks and special combinations.

Theoretically one could write every Japanese text only using Hiragana, which is exactly what they do in children’s books. But the fact that Japanese doesn’t have spaces between words makes this quite hard to read (even for adults), so in children’s books they usually put spaces between words, to make it easier for children.


The left table are the basic Katakana, to the right there are diacritical marks and special combinations.

Why The Same Kana Twice?

Hiragana are derived from Kanji written in a “cursive” script (草書) where some parts of the character are slurred together and the stroke order changes, those were then further simplified for quick writing. As an example the Kanji 安 was the base for the あ Hiragana, 以 → い, 加 → か, 武 → む etc.

Katakana were first used by Buddhist monks as phonetic writing for sutras written entirely in Chinese, so they’d know how to read them (especially foreign names of bodhisattvas). Katakana, too, derived from simplified Kanji, but in their case the design pattern was to leave parts away, rather than slurring them together, hence they have a more angled look similar to Kanji. 伊 → イ, 奈 → ナ, 江 → エ, 久 → ク, 天 → テ

You might wonder: why the same set of characters with the same phonetic value twice? And one could say exactly the same about the alphabet’s uppercase and lowercase letters. Now, in both cases the reason is simple: Readability!

The original Roman alphabet has only uppercase letters and doesn’t have a J, K, U, W, and in many cases also has no spaces between words (also Y was only used for some Greek loan words). Super hard to read. Upper and lowercase letters improved that massively.
Japanese has no spaces, and also has to take any foreign word or name and mangle it through the very limited set of Japanese phonetics to represent something that has only remote resemblance with the original. Katana are used for foreign words, foreign names and sometimes for emphasis and scientific names (because nobody could read the Kanji anyway), this way I at least know what I’m looking at is a foreign word.

Couldn’t you do without?


The Scripts: Kanji

Kanji are Chinese characters used in Japanese, note that the Japanese have introduced their own simplifications for the traditional characters after WWII, so they are neither fully traditional Chinese characters nor mainland simplified ones. There is some overlap with both, but there are also simplified forms that don’t exist in either of the Chinese versions. You might wonder: “why didn’t the Japanese just stick with Chinese characters and be done with it?” Simply put, Chinese and Japanese are very different languages in many ways and only similar in a few ways. Neither Chinese nor Japanese have a grammatical concept of plural forms, nor do they have declensions for nouns. Hence nouns are inalterable. This works well with Chinese characters where often 1 character = 1 word. However, Japanese does konjugation of verbs, past tense, negative forms which all alter the ending of verbs.

How to make Kanji Work If Your Words Aren’t Fixed

歩 in Chinese means “to walk”. How then would you distinguish between “walked” or “walks” or “walking”? Japanese had a smart idea: use the Kanji for the noun (“take a walk”) and also for the stem of the verb “walk”. And for any extra ending just add the according “letters” phonetically after the Kanji (i.e. write that part in Hiragana).

Let’s illustrate how that works by writing English with a mix of Kanji and Latin script (our substitute for “Hiragana”). So, if 歩 = “walk”, how would you read these?

  • Johnny 歩er
  • 歩 the dog
  • 歩ie-talkie
  • I was 歩ing all the way home.

Why Different Readings For the Same Character?

Let’s see how this works by example of the Kanji for “good”: 良. So how would you read the following sentences?

  • This wine is 良.
  • This technique works really 良.

Since Kanji carry meaning rather than sound, you could use them for different readings of the same word with the same meaning.

Of course it’s a bit different for Japanese. When Kanji first came to Japan, the Japanese took over their reading, or better whatever the Chinese reading at the time sounded to Japanese ears. This reading is what is called the ON reading. Initially Chinese letters were used phonetically only, but it didn’t really make much sense having so many characters for sounds only.

Then when they started using the meaning of the Kanji, they not only had the original Chinese reading, but they also could read a character with the actual Japanese word of the same meaning – the KUN reading. So, almost every Kanji has two readings, one ON and one KUN reading. Some have up to ten or more different readings. I often compare that with Latin words and syllables in the English language vs. Germanic ones.

Let’s try another analogy: 不 doesn’t exist as a single character in Japanese, it negates the following verb, adjective or noun. So in an English analogy you could consider reading it “un-” (Germanic), also “in-” or “a-“. Let’s see if you can read these:

  • 不usable
  • 不explicable
  • 不moral
  • 不possible
  • 不logical

You have just read the same character with four different readings: un, in, im, and il – without a hitch.

How To Actually Write Japanese

Traditionally you’d write with a brush, but these days even Japanese school children struggle with that (although it is a very nice exercise to focus your mind  and can be very rewarding once you get it “just right”). But that is not the point. For Handwriting there are a few elements that are very important to be aware of, if you are conscious about these points, your Japanese handwriting will improve considerably.

Stroke Order

Yes, every Japanese character has a correct order in which to put the strokes and that includes Hiragana and Katakana. This isn’t as bad as you might think. Latin alphabet handwriting isn’t that different, it’s just not as formulated. The stroke order and stroke direction for our alphabet came into existence so that writing with a fountain pen (or quill pen) would be fluent and comfortable. You might remember when you tried to write a stroke from bottom right to top left, how the pen tip would easily scratch the paper and how awkward it is to write in that direction with a fountain pen. In the same way, Kanji stroke order accommodates fluid and beautiful writing with a brush. Japanese characters, as a basic rule of thumb, are written from top left to bottom right. Horizontal strokes usually come before vertical strokes. There are quite a few exceptions. Knowing those well as a foreigner will definitely grant you the highest bragging rights.

Types of Strokes

Actually it’s all about the stroke ending. These are the existing endings:

  1. “tome” (read: tom-eh) where you stop the stroke with some pressure
  2. “hane” (read: huh-neh) where you give the end a little hook (either to the left or right)
  3. “harai” (read: huh-rye) where you kind of let the stroke “fade out”. If it’s to the left the stroke usually becomes thinner and ends in pointy tip, if it’s to the right the stroke actually gets wider (if you’re using a pencil you’d simulate that by angling the end a bit) just like the last stroke in the character for “ice” (氷) above.

Final Hints To Make Sense of Kanji

Understanding the system itself will make a big difference in how easily you can remember Kanji and whether or not you’ll be able to guess the meaning of a Kanji that you haven’t learned yet.

About Radicals

No, Kanji radicals are not people who think everything should be written in Kanji, Radicals are rudimentary elements Kanji are composed of. Some of the most basic Kanji are radicals themselves. More complex Kanji can have several radicals.

The most basic Kanji are often easily remembered because they still have a rather pictorial character. Examples are 山 (mountain), 火 (fire), 川 (river), etc. Once you’ve learned the Kanji on which the basic radicals are based on (e.g. 人 person、日 day/sun/time、手 hand、木 tree/wood、土 earth/soil/ground), you’ll be able to recognize their radical forms, which tend to slightly change shape when they are part of a more complex Kanji: e.g. 侍、時、持. The idea is that the radical usually is a pointer at the meaning of the word (or the general context), in the example above 侍 Samurai (radical: 人 person), 時 time/hour (radical: 日 day/sun/time), 持 to hold (radical: 手 hand) while the rest of the character is often a pointer at the on-reading (the one that comes from China originally). In the examples above all are read “ji” like the right part of the character 寺 (temple) in on-reading. So it’s a bit like a rebus that goes like:

  1. 侍 what is a person (人) and has an on-reading of “ji” (寺)?
  2. 時 what has something to do with day/sun (日) and has an on-reading of “ji” (寺)?
  3. 持 what has is something you do with your hand (手) and an on-reading of “ji” (寺)?

These are the basic principles of how the Japanese writing system works. In order to dive deeper into the matter, you’d need to have actual knowledge of the language (at least in part), but for an initial view at Japanese writing for people who don’t speak the language this will hopefully give you a basic idea.

%d bloggers like this: