A Guide to Japanese - The Japanese alphabet

What's significant about the Japanese alphabet?

  • Made in China

    Kanji are early Chinese characters imported into Japan in the fifth century. Japan, for instance, is written with two characters:  日本 [Nihon],  日 [hi] means sun and  本 [moto], base, so Japan means base of the sun or Land of the Rising Sun. It is pronounced as nee-hon.

     
  • Male and female

    Two important characters - if only so you know which toilet door to use! - are for man:  男 [otoko] and woman:  女 [onna]. Keep an eye out for these or the slightly more polite combination of  男性 [dansei], gentlemen, and  女性 [josei], ladies.

     
  • Radicals

    The character for woman:  女 [onna] is one of the 214 basic characters in kanji. They are known as radicals and are used to form other characters. For example,  好き [suki], to like,
    is the combination of  女 [onna] and the character for child:  子 [ko], reflecting traditional ideas about the unique love of a woman for a child. Or there's  安らか [yasuraka], peaceful, which is basically a woman under a roof. An interesting concept, some might argue!

     
  • More than kanji

    Unlike modern Chinese, which uses around 6000 characters, for Japanese you only need about 2000. Japanese sentences combine kanji characters with hiragana and katakana. Hiragana are symbols which represent all the 46 syllables used in spoken Japanese. Kanji is used to convey the meaning while hiragana carries the grammar. Verbs in kanji, for instance, usually have hiragana endings.

    For example:  初めまして [hajimemashite], pleased to meet you means literally it's the first time (that we meet). In the combined kanji and hiragana spelling it looks like this:
    初 めまして - is kanji for the idea of first, and めまして are hiragana characters for め [me] ま [ma] し [shi] て [te].
    You can also write the same word using only hiragana:
    は [ha] じ [ji] め [me] ま [ma] し [shi] て [te].

    Katakana, like hiragana, is a way of writing syllables, but is used, on the whole, for terms which have been incorporated into Japanese from other languages.
    Common examples are  コーヒー [kōhii], coffee or perhaps the most famous  カラオケ [karaoke] from the Japanese kara, empty, and oke short for ōkesutora, orchestra.

     
  • Last but not least

    Rōmaji literally means Roman letters and is basically identical to our writing system. It is very common to see Japanese place names, particularly on public transport, written in kanji with the hiragana pronunciation and the rōmaji version.
    So for example in Tokyo you might see the following sign
    新宿 しんじゅく Shinjuku with all three meaning the same destination. Luckily for westerner learners all Japanese words can be written in rōmaji.

     
  • Email and website conventions

    When giving an email or website address the conventions are:
     @ アット・マーク [atto māku]
     . ドット [dotto], dot
     / スラッシュ [surasshu], slash
     - ダッシュ [dasshu], dash

    The Japanese way of pronouncing English letters is very similar to the English way, so just make sure you spell your name slowly and clearly.

     
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