The Japanese writing system is unique in that it is composed of 3 distinct scripts that are mixed together. These three scripts are called Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.
Hiragana and Katakana are collectively referred to as Kana. Kana are phonetic, meaning that each character represents a specific sound, similar to the Roman alphabet. However, unlike the Roman alphabet where each character represents a phoneme such as a consonant or a vowel, each kana represents an entire mora (which is similar to a syllable). Therefore, they are properly known as syllabaries and not alphabets. For example, while the syllables ka and mo each take two characters to write in the Roman alphabet, they only take one character to write in either Hiragana or Katakana – か / カ and も / モ for ka and mo respectively.
Both Hiragana and Katakana are comprised of 46 basic characters and represent the exact same set of sounds. This is somewhat comparable to how English has both uppercase and lowercase letters. Everything in Japanese can be written out phonetically entirely using either Hiragana or Katakana, with Hiragana being the default choice for writing everyday native vocabulary while Katakana is usually reserve for writing words borrowed from European languages, scientific terms and onomatopoeia.
The third script used in Japanese is Kanji, which are logograms originally borrowed from Chinese. Being logograms, Kanji represent words and morphemes directly in most cases. They are often used in place of Kana to represent nouns, proper names, and the stems of verbs and adjectives. Due to the way they were borrowed into Japanese, each individual Kanji can have several different pronunciations or “readings” that are grouped into two distinct categories, on-yomi which are morphemes borrowed into Japanese from Chinese and kun-yomi which are native Japanese morphemes.
Here is an example sentence with Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji all mixed together along with the Roman Alphabet.
The romanization of this sentence is T-shatsu wo kite iru onna no ko wa ginkou ni ikimashita.
Translated, this sentence means A girl wearing a t-shirt went to the bank. Don’t worry too much right now about the grammar or vocabulary but there are a few things worth pointing out.
The first thing to point out is the use of Katakana to write T-shatsu. As you might have guessed, shatsu is the Japanese pronunciation of the English word shirt. In a later post I will explain why the sound changes so much from Japanese to English.
The second thing I would like to point out are the words 着ている and 行きました. These are both verbs with the stems written in Kanji and the conjugated endings written in Hiragana. This is standard practice in Japanese. Hiragana used in this way is also referred to as Okurigana.
The last thing I’d like to point out are the words 銀行 and 行きました. 銀行 means bank and is pronounced ginkou. 行きました on the other hand means went and is pronounced ikimashita. Notice however, that even though the pronunciation of both words is completely different, they both share the kanji character 行. 行 is pronounced as kou in the word bank and as i in the word went. This is an example of the on-yomi and kun-yomi distinction in Japanese. kou is an on-yomi borrowed from Chinese while i is kun-yomi native to Japanese. Later on I will explain in much more depth the difference between on-yomi and kun-yomi and how to figure out when to use each reading.
If all of this seems very confusing right now, that is alright. It is a lot of information to take in all at once. I will go over each component of the Japanese writing system more in depth in the following few blog posts.