Japanese writing system

Japanese writing system

Infobox Writing system
languages=Japanese language
type = Alternative
typedesc =—utilizes both Logographic (Kanji) and Syllabic (Hiragana, Katakana) characters
time = 4th century AD to present
fam2=Oracle Bone Script
fam3=Seal Script
fam4=Clerical Script
fam5=Chinese characters
fam7 = Man'yōgana
unicode= [http://www.unicode.org/charts/PDF/U4E00.pdf U+4E00–U+9FBF] Kanji
[http://www.unicode.org/charts/PDF/U3040.pdf U+3040–U+309F] Hiragana
[http://www.unicode.org/charts/PDF/U30A0.pdf U+30A0–U+30FF] Katakana
sample = Heibon-pp.10-11.jpg
caption = Japanese novel using _ja. 漢字仮名交じり文 (text with both kanji and kana), most general orthography for modern Japanese. Ruby characters are also used for kanji words. Published in 1908.

The modern Japanese writing system uses three main scripts:

*Kanji, characters of Chinese origin,
*Hiragana, a syllabary, and
*Katakana, a syllabary, as continued

To a lesser extent, modern written Japanese also uses the Latin alphabet. Examples of such usage include abbreviations such as "CD" and "DVD".

It is also possible to represent spoken or written Japanese entirely in the Latin alphabet. Several common systems for the romanization of Japanese are used. Romanized Japanese, called rōmaji is frequently used by foreign students of Japanese, who have not yet mastered the three main scripts, and by native speakers for computer input.

Here is an example of a newspaper headline (from the "Asahi Shimbun" on 19 April, 2004) that uses all four scripts: (kanji (red), hiragana (blue), katakana (green), and Latin Alphabet and Arabic numerals (black):

: _ja. 2=ラドクリフマラソン _ja. 五輪代表1 _ja. 万m _ja. 出場にも _ja. 含

The same headline, transliterated to the Latin alphabet:

:transl|ja|2="RADOKURIFU, MARASON gorin daihyō ni ichi-man mētoru shutsujō ni mo fukumi"

The same headline, translated to English:

:"Radcliffe to compete in Olympic marathon, also implied to appear in the 10,000 m"

Here are some examples of words written in Japanese:

Collation (word ordering) in Japanese is based on the kana, which express the pronunciation of the words, rather than the kanji. The kana may be ordered using two common orderings, the prevalent gojūon (fifty-sound) ordering, or the old-fashioned iroha ordering. Kanji dictionaries are also collated using the radical system.

Usage of scripts

Most simple Japanese sentences (like "the cat sat on the mat") will have both kanji and hiragana in them. Kanji is used for nouns (words like "cat" or "mat") and the stems of verbs (words like "sat"), hiragana for the endings of verbs and for grammatical particles (small, common words such as the Japanese equivalents to the English "on" and "to"). Non-Japanese words or new loan words (except those absorbed into the language long ago or those with original kanji expression) are spelled in "katakana".

"Kanji" ( _ja. 漢字) are used for:

*stems of adjectives and verbs
*Japanese names.

"Hiragana" ( _ja. 平仮名) are used to write::

*inflectional endings for adjectives and verbs (okurigana _ja. 送り仮名)
*grammatical particles (transl|ja|"joshi" _ja. 助詞)
*Japanese words that have no "kanji", or where the "kanji" are difficult to read, or where the kanji is not known, or where the reader is unlikely to know them
*indications of how to read kanji (furigana _ja. 振り仮名). Furigana serves as a phonetic guide to children and foreign learners. It is used in cases where the reading is non-standard or rare or if the author wishes to render the exact pronunciation where multiple readings are possible.

"Katakana" ( _ja. 片仮名) are used to write:

*foreign words and names
*commonly used animals, plants or objects whose kanji are uncommonly used, such as "transl|ja|tokage" (lizard), "transl|ja|bara" (rose), "transl|ja|rōsoku" (candle)
*emphasized words, much like italicized words in English text
*technical and scientific words, such as plant, animal, and mineral names.

"Latin alphabet" ( _ja. ローマ字) are used to write:

*acronyms and initialisms, for example NATO
*Japanese names or other words intended for use outside of Japan (for example, Japanese names on business cards, in passports, etc.)
*company names, brand names or product names, etc. used both inside and outside of Japan
*foreign words and phrases that appear in an otherwise Japanese context, such as words that appear in advertising, on consumer goods intended for Japanese consumption, etc.

However, there are many exceptions to the above rules. For example, Japanese names may be written in "kanji", "hiragana" or "katakana". The name must be spelled as the bearer prefers, and it is usual in introductions to give at least a hint at how the name is spelled, and somebody can tell the other person that she is called "transl|ja|katakana no Maruko." For full details, see the respective articles.

In addition, Arabic numerals are commonly used to write numbers in horizontal text.


Japanese mainly use hiragana or kanji, while the katakana is used to translate a foreign word to Japanese characters. The choice of which type of writing to use depends on a number of factors, including standard conventions, readability, and stylistic choices.

Some Japanese words are written with different kanji depending on the specific usage of the word — for instance, the word "transl|ja|naosu" (to fix, or to cure) is written _ja. 治す when it refers to curing a person, and _ja. 直す when it refers to fixing something. In some cases (such as the preceding one) the distinction is simple, whereas in some cases the distinction in nuance is difficult enough that an author will write the word in hiragana to avoid the possible error of choosing the wrong kanji.

Direction of writing

Traditionally, Japanese is written in a format called transl|ja|"tategaki". In this format, the characters are written in columns going from top to bottom, with columns ordered from right to left. After reaching the bottom of each column, the reader continues at the top of the column to the left of the current one. This copies the column order of Chinese.

Modern Japanese also uses another writing format, called transl|ja|"yokogaki". This writing format is horizontal and read left to right.

Early writing system

The current Japanese writing system can be traced back to the 4th century AD, when the written Chinese language was introduced to Japan. No definitive evidence of any native Japanese writing system that predates the introduction of Chinese is known to exist.

Although several kinds of supposedly earlier writing called transl|ja|"jindai moji" (also transl|ja|"kamiyo moji", _ja. 神代文字, lit. "writing of the gods' age") have been found in modern times, some vaguely pictographic, some runic in appearance, and some very close to Korean Hangul, these are now considered hoaxes promoting Japanese nationalism that were perpetrated in the 1930s. Examples can be found on the Internet. [http://www.page.sannet.ne.jp/tsuzuki/sinmoji.htm]

Initially, Chinese characters were not used for writing Japanese; to be literate meant the ability to read and write Classical Chinese. Eventually a system called transl|ja|kanbun ( _ja. 漢文) was developed, which used both Chinese characters (kanji) and something very similar to Chinese grammar, but often with diacritic marks placed alongside the Chinese text to give hints as to the Japanese equivalent. The earliest written history of Japan, the transl|ja|Kojiki ( _ja. 古事記), believed to have been compiled sometime before 712, was written in kanbun. Even today all Japanese high schools and some junior high schools teach kanbun as part of their Japanese language curriculum.

There was still no system for rendering Japanese in written form until the development of transl|ja|man'yōgana ( _ja. 万葉仮名), which used Chinese characters for their phonetic value (derived from their Chinese readings) rather than their semantic value. transl|ja|Man'yōgana was initially used to record poetry, as in the transl|ja|Man'yōshū ( _ja. 万葉集), which was compiled sometime before 759, and from which the writing system derives its name. Hiragana and katakana were both outgrowths from transl|ja|man'yōgana.

Due to the large number of words and concepts entering Japan from China which had no native equivalent, many words entered Japanese directly, with a pronunciation similar to the original Chinese. This Chinese-derived reading is known as transl|ja|"on-yomi" ( _ja. 音読み), and this vocabulary as a whole is referred to as Sino-Japanese in English and "kango" 漢語 in Japanese. At the same time, native Japanese already had words corresponding to many borrowed kanji. Authors increasingly used kanji to represent these words. This Japanese-derived reading is known as transl|ja|"kun-yomi" ( _ja. 訓読み). A kanji may have none, one, or several transl|ja|"on-yomi" and transl|ja|"kun-yomi". Okurigana are written after the initial "kanji" for verbs and adjectives to give inflection and to help disambiguate a particular kanji's reading. The same character may be read several different ways depending on the word. For example, the character _ja. 行 is read "i" as the first syllable of "iku" ( _ja. 行く) 'to go', transl|ja|"okona" as the first three syllables of transl|ja|"okonau" ( _ja. 行う, "to carry out"), transl|ja|"gyō" in the compound word transl|ja|"gyōretsu" ( _ja. 行列, "line" or "procession"), transl|ja|"kō" in the word transl|ja|"ginkō" ( _ja. 銀行, "bank"), and transl|ja|"an" in the word transl|ja|"andon" ( _ja. 行灯, "lantern").

Linguists have sometimes compared Japan's borrowing and adaptation of Chinese words into Japanese as similar to the effect that the Norman conquest of England had on the English language. Like English, Japanese has many synonyms of differing origin, with words from both Chinese and native Japanese. In another similarity, words of Chinese origin are often used in more formal or intellectual contexts by Japanese speakers, just as English speakers often use latinate words to mark a higher register.

Written language reforms

Meiji period

The significant reforms of the 19th century Meiji era did not initially impact on the Japanese writing system, however the language itself was changing due to the increase in literacy resulting from education reforms, the massive influx of new words; both borrowed from other languages or newly coined, and the ultimate success of movements such as the influential _ja. 言文一致 (transl|ja|"genbun'itchi") which resulted in Japanese being written in the colloquial form of the language instead of the wide range of historical and classical styles used previously. The difficulty of written Japanese was a topic of debate, with several proposals in the late 1800s that the number of "kanji" in use be limited. In addition, exposure to non-Japanese texts led to (unsuccessful) proposals that Japanese be written entirely in "kana" or "romaji". This period saw Western-style punctuation marks introduced into Japanese writing (Twine, 1991).

In 1900, the Education Ministry introduced three reforms aimed at improving the education in Japanese writing:

* standardization of the "hiragana" script, eliminating the range of "hentaigana" ( _ja. 変体仮名) then in use;
* restriction of the number of "kanji" taught in elementary schools to about 1,200;
* reform of the irregular "kana" representation of the Sino-Japanese readings of "kanji" to make them conform with the pronunciation.

The first two of these were generally accepted, but the third was hotly contested, particularly by conservatives, to the extent that it was withdrawn in 1908 (Seeley, 1990).

Pre-World War II

The partial failure of the 1900 reforms combined with the rise of nationalism in Japan effectively prevented further significant reform of the writing system. The period before World War II saw numerous proposals to restrict the number of "kanji" in use, and several newspapers voluntarily restricted their "kanji" usage and increased usage of "furigana"; however, there was no official endorsement of these, and indeed much opposition.

Post-World War II

The period immediately following World War II saw a rapid and significant reform of the writing system. This was in part due to influence of the Occupation authorities, but to a significant extent was due to the removal of conservatives from control of the educational system, which meant that previously stalled revisions could proceed. The major reforms were:

* the alignment of all "kana" usage with modern pronunciation ( _ja. 現代仮名遣い transl|ja|"gendaikanazukai"), replacing the old historical kana usage (1946);
* the promulgation of the transl|ja|"tōyō kanji" ( _ja. 当用漢字), which limited the number of "kanji" used in schools, textbooks, etc. to 1,850 (1946), and also simplified forms of kanji (see Shinjitai);
* the promulgation of an approved set of forms of "kanji" to be used in schools (1949);
* the promulgation of an additional transl|ja|"jinmeiyō kanji" ( _ja. 人名用漢字) which in combination with the transl|ja|"tōyō kanji" could be used in names (1951).

(At one stage there was a proposal from an advisor in the Occupation administration to change the writing system to rōmaji, however it was not supported by other specialists and did not proceed.) (Unger, 1996)

In addition, the practice of writing horizontally in a right-to-left direction was generally replaced by left-to-right writing. The right-to-left order was considered a special case of vertical writing, with columns one character high, rather than horizontal writing per se; it was used for single lines of text on signs, etc. (e.g. the station sign at Tokyo read _ja. 駅京東).

The post-war reforms have remained, although some of the restrictions have been relaxed. The replacement of the transl|ja|"tōyō kanji" in 1981 with the 1,945 transl|ja|"jōyō kanji" ( _ja. 常用漢字) was accompanied by a change from "restriction" to "recommendation", and in general the educational authorities have become less active in continued reform of the writing system (Gottlieb, 1996).

In 2004, a large increase was made in the number of kanji in the transl|ja|"jinmeiyō kanji". This list is the responsibility of the Justice Ministry.


Kanji compounds can be given arbitrary readings for stylistic purposes. For example, in Natsume Sōseki's short story "The Fifth Night", the author uses _ja. 接続って for transl|ja|"tsunagatte", the gerundive "-te" form of the verb transl|ja|"tsunagaru" ('to connect'), which would usually be written _ja. 繋がって or _ja. つながって.

Signs sometimes drop the hiragana endings from the kanji for brevity.

The Japanese writing system allows for transmitting information that is usually communicated in other languages by using different words or by adding extra descriptive words. For example, writing a word in katakana may give it a modern or 'hip' flair. Some words are colloquially written in hiragana and writing them in kanji might give them a more formal tone.


There are a number of methods of rendering Japanese in Roman letters. The Hepburn method of romanization, designed for English speakers, is a "de facto" standard widely used inside and outside Japan (and used in the English Wikipedia). The Kunrei-shiki system has a better correspondence with kana, making it easier for the Japanese themselves to learn; it is officially sanctioned by the Ministry of Education, and often used by non-native speakers who are learning Japanese as a second language. Other systems of romanization include Nihon-shiki, JSL, and transl|ja|Wāpuro.

ee also

*Chinese writing system
*Genkō yōshi
*Iteration mark about Japanese repetition marks.
*Japanese typographic symbols about non-kana, non-kanji symbols.
*Jindai moji

Lettering styles

*East Asian gothic typeface

Variant writing systems

*Gyaru moji


*cite book |author=Gottlieb, Nanette |title=Kanji Politics: Language Policy and Japanese Script |publisher=Kegan Paul |year=1996 |id=ISBN 0-7103-0512-5
*cite book |author=Twine, Nanette |title=Language and the Modern State: The Reform of Written Japanese |publisher=Routledge |year=1991 |id=ISBN 0-415-00990-1
*cite journal |author=Seeley, Christopher |title=The Japanese Script since 1900 |journal=Visible Language |year=1984 |volume=XVIII 3 |pages=267–302
*cite book |author=Seeley, Christopher |title=A History of Writing in Japan |publisher=University of Hawai'i Press |year=1991 |id=ISBN 0-8248-2217-X
*cite book |author=Habein, Yaeko Sato |title=The History of the Japanese Written Language |publisher=University of Tokyo Press |year=1984 |id=ISBN 0-86008-347-0
*cite book |author=Unger, J. Marshall |title=Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan: Reading Between the Lines |publisher=OUP |year=1996 |id=ISBN 0-19-510166-9

External links

* [http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/unger2_introduction.html#modern_japanese The Modern Japanese Writing System] : an excerpt from "Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan", by J. Marshall Unger.
* [http://www.spellingsociety.org/journals/j19/japanese.php "The 20th Century Japanese Writing System: Reform and Change" by Christopher Seeley]
* [http://www.schulenburg-edv.de/tutorial/linjap/linjap.htm#Linj
] , by Manfred Schulenburg.

(Information |Description = [en] Japanese novel using 漢字仮名交じり文, most general orthography for modern w:en:Japanese writing system. w:en:Ruby characters are also used for w:en:Kanji words. [ja] 現代 [w:ja:日本語の表記��)
Collation (word ordering) in Japanese is based on the kana, which express the pronunciation of the words, rather than the kanji. The kana may be ordered using two common orderings, the prevalent gojūon (fifty-sound) ordering, or the old-fashioned iroha ordering. Kanji dictionaries are also collated using the radical system.

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