A large part of the difficulty of learning Japanese has to do with learning its writing system. Put simply, it is a lovely mess.
The modern Japanese writing system started around the 6th century, with the borrowing of the Chinese characters; these characters are called kanjis (漢字), which means ‘Han’s characters’, with the Han people being the Chinese. Kanjis represent ideas, e.g., 人 represents a man (it looks like a standing man), while 川 represents a river (it looks like a stream). Hence, kanjis are ideograms. We use kanjis to write nouns, the stems of verbs and adjectives, and adverbs.
In the image on the right, the first kanji, 日 (ni), stands for ‘sun’; the second one, 本 (hon), means ‘origin’; and the third one, 語 (go), means ‘language’. As seen from mainland Asia, 日本 (nihon), to the East, is the place where the sun originates (or rises), i.e., Japan; hence, 日本語 (nihongo) is ‘the language of the place where the sun rises’ or ‘the language of Japan’, i.e., the Japanese language.
Many kanjis are difficult to tell apart, most kanjis are difficult to write, and there are many kanjis; to be able to read a newspaper, we need to learn about 2,000 kanjis, but there are thousands more, well over 50,000. Daunting as all of this sounds, the number of kanjis is not the main difficulty of learning them. What makes them challenging is that their meaning and sound changes depending on the context. For example, 日, the kanji for ‘sun’ sounds ‘ni’ when we use it to write 日本 (ni-hon, Japan); however, 日 appears two times in the word 日曜日 (nichi-you-bi, Sunday), and it does not sound ‘ni’ in either of them: the first time it sounds ‘nichi’, and the second time it sounds ‘bi’. In other contexts, 日 will have other meanings and sounds. These changes are not just simple variations in pronunciation, but completely different sounds. To continue with our example, the words for ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’ are 今日, pronounced ‘kyou’, and 明日, pronounced ‘ashita’, i.e., ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’ also use the kanji 日, but the sounds ‘ni’, ‘nichi’ or ‘bi’ are nowhere to be found in their pronunciations.
Part of the reason for these variations is that some pronunciations come from the original Japanese sound of the word, while others come from the Chinese sound of the word. Usually a kanji has at least two ‘yomi’ (readings): the ‘National-country (kuni) reading’, or kun-yomi, is the Japanese sound of what the kanji represents, while its ‘sound reading’, or on-yomi, is the Chinese sound of what the kanji represents. For example, ‘person’ in Japanese is ‘hito’, and in Chinese is ‘ren’; hence, the kanji for person, 人, has the kun-yomi ‘hito’, and the on-yomis ‘jin’ and ‘nin’, which sound like ‘ren’ [jisho.com]. We usually use kun-yomis when the word is by itself, e.g., ‘sono hito’ (その人 – that person), and on-yomis when the kanji is part of a compound word, e.g., ‘america-jin’ (アメリカ人 – American person), or ‘san-nin’ (三人 – three persons). This behavior of the Japanese language is similar to English having words from different origins meaning the same thing; for example, ‘water’ (germanic root), ‘aqua’ (latin root), and ‘hydro’ (greek root) all mean water, but we use them in different contexts: while we usually use ‘water’ by itself, like in ‘clear water’ or ‘water well’, we use ‘aqua’ and ‘hydro’ only as parts of compound words, like ‘aquamarine’, or ‘hydroelectric’.
Another reason for a change in pronunciation is to make the sound ‘get along’ with the sounds that precede it or follow it; technically this is called euphony. For example, the kanji 本, hon, which means ‘origin’ when we write ‘Japan’, is also used as the counter for long thin objects, like bottles, cigarettes, or arrows, but depending on the number of items, it is pronounced ‘hon’, ‘ppon’, or ‘bon’: ‘ippon’ (一本) might be one bottle, ‘nihon’ (二本) two bottles, and ‘sanbon’ (三本) three bottles. Notice that now we have two ways to write ‘nihon’: 日本, meaning ‘Japan’, and 二本, meaning ‘two long thin objects’. Hence, we really cannot write the word ‘ni-hon’ using kanjis unless we know the context in which we are writing it.
Yet another reason for the change in pronunciation is that sometimes -not always- the ‘hard’ consonants are softenend when they become the second part of a compound word, e.g., “h” becomes “b”, “k” becomes “g”, “s” becomes “z”, “t” becomes “d”, “sh” becomes “j”, etc. For example, here is a list of pairs of compound surnames that use a given kanji; the first surname preserves the ‘hard’ sound of the stand-alone kanji, while the second surname uses the ‘soft’ sound:
- hara (原, prairie) -> Aihara (相原), Sakakibara (榊原)
- kawa (川, river) -> Ishikawa (石川), Ogawa (小川)
- saki (崎, cape) -> Akasaki (赤崎), Miyazaki (宮崎)
- ta (田, rice field) -> Morita (森田), Honda (本田)
- ta (田, rice field) -> Nakata (中田), Nakada (中田)
- shima (島, island) -> Asashima (浅島), kojima (小島)
We can see above that both Nakada and Nakata have the same spelling, 中田, so the writing doesn’t tell us how the person pronounces his or her surname.
This variation of the meaning and sound of a kanji depending on the context in which it appears is what makes kanjis really challenging to learn. In essence, we have to memorize each different kanji in each different context in which it may appear. Although this sounds daunting, English has a similar issue with the pronunciation of its letters. For example, the sounds of the ‘s’ in ‘sun’, ‘sugar’, and ‘island’ are completely different, and no… this is not an exceptional case but the norm in English. Think of words like ‘aisle’, ‘choir’, ‘muscle’, ‘have’, ‘tomb’, ‘psyche’, etc. There are hundreds of words in English whose pronunciation we just have to memorize.
The kanjis have always been difficult to learn so in the old days only the educated people were able to read and write them. However, the Japanese language has only 110 sounds, so someone figured out that we could take kanjis that ‘sounded’ like one of the native Japanese sounds, and make a new writing system with simplified versions of those few kanjis. This was the origin of hiragana.
Hiragana characters are curvilinear. Unlike the english alphabet that encodes individual sounds, like ‘n’ and ‘i’, hiragana characters encode syllables, like ‘ni’; hence, hiragana is not an alphabet but a syllabary. The only characters that are encoded by themselves are the five vowels – a, i, u, e, o (as they are ordered in Japanese), and the consonant ‘n’.
We use hiragana to write all the particles (analogous to prepositions like ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘with’, etc.) and the suffixes of verbs and adjectives. We also use it to write many words of frequent use, like greetings; this happens regardless of the difficulty of the kanji, e.g., ‘chotto’ (one bit) has the simple kanji 一寸 but, still, its use is so common that we most often would find it in hiragana as ちょっと. From this follows that we are likely to find words that have difficult-to-write many-stroke kanjis, also written in hiragana, e.g., why write ‘tokage’ (lizard) as 蜥蜴, which takes 4 minutes, if we can write it in hiragana as とかげ, which takes 4 seconds? Thus, in general, the only times that we will see unusual many-stroke kanjis not written in hiraganas are in places that need to save writing space, in personal names, in technical or academic publications, in certain novels, etc. Reading kanjis is taxing even for Japanese people.
Since hiragana covers all the sounds of the Japanese language, we can use it to ‘spell out’ any Japanese word; also, it is taught before katakana so we frequently find it as the sole script in children’s books.
Katakana (カタカナ)A second syllabary, called katakana, is mostly a mirror image of hiragana so, in theory, we could use either syllabary to write anything in Japanese. These two syllabaries – hiragana and katakana, together, are called ‘the kanas’. Unlike the round and soft characters of hiragana, katakana characters tend to be linear and angular.
We use katakana to write
- foreign words, e.g., ramen (of Chinese origin) is ラーメン (ra-a-me-n)
- onomatopoeias, e.g., the meow of a cat is ニャーニャー (nya-a-nya-a)
- mimetic words, e.g., the sound of a heart pounding is ドキドキ (do-ki-do-ki)
- scientific names, e.g., a quasar is クエーサー (ku-e-e-sa-a)
- and to add emphasis
Often, if we can write a word in katakana, the hiragana version is also available, and which one to use becomes a matter of preference. Hence, we might find ‘ramen’ written as らあめん, ‘nya-a-nya-a’ as にゃあにゃあ, and ‘doki-doki’ as どきどき. We will not find ‘quasar’ in hiragana, though, because writing it in katakana is stating that it is an unusual foreign-origin technical word outside of daily usage.
Romaji (ローマ字)People that are learning Japanese sometimes write the Japanese words using the Roman alphabet, e.g., we would write ‘nihongo’ (the Japanese language) instead of にほんご, or 日本語; this use of the roman alphabet to write Japanese sounds is called ‘romaji’, lit. ‘Roman character’.
Romaji is a reencoding of the way that the word is written in hiragana or katakana. For example, Tokyo is written in hiragana as とうきょう, so the romaji version of Tokyo is the sound-by-sound translation of とうきょう, i.e., to-u-kyo-u. To get the correct pronunciation of the word, i.e., to-o-kyo-o, we have to further know the rule that in Japanese an ‘o’ followed by a ‘u’ means that the ‘o’ has to be doubled, i.e., ‘ou’ sounds ‘oo’. Still, romaji goes a long way to indicate how a Japanese word sounds.
The problem with romaji is that the Japanese don’t use it at all, so learning Japanese using romaji can be a hindrance. Romaji indicates how to pronounce a word without having to learn the kanas but, if we are serious about learning Japanese, learning the kanas is a small investment for a large return.
Japanese people do use the roman alphabet when they want to write the original foreign version of the word. Sometimes they do this to create an effect, other times for clarification. Likewise, Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, …) have become as common as the kanji numerals (一, 二, 三, 四, …).
We often find the roman alphabet at airports, train stations, and other places frequented by tourists. Sometimes vowels have a macron: ā, ī, ū, ē, ō; this indicates that we need to double the vowel. For example, Tokyo, written in romaji as toukyou, is pronounced to-o-kyo-o, so the roman alphabet version of the word would be written in the sign as Tōkyō:
Unlike the romaji version of the word, the ō does not give a hint of how the word is actually written in Japanese, but only of how it is pronounced. This ō sound might come from a duplication of the o vowel, like in oosaka (ōsaka); or from an ‘o’ followed by a ‘u’, like in the sign’s yuurakuchou (Yūrakuchō), or like both ō’s in toukyou (Tōkyō). Yūrakuchō also shows a ‘ū’ representing a double ‘u’ sound, i.e, yuurakuchou.
As a second example, ‘Osaka’ is actually written and pronounced おおさか (o-o-sa-ka), so we write it in romaji as ‘oosaka’, and in roman alphabet as Ōsaka; Kobe is こうべ (ko-u-be), so we write it in romaji as ‘koube’, and in roman alphabet as Kōbe:
Selecting the script
Sometimes, the writer might choose to write a word that is usually written in one script, using another one; this choice is similar to the choice of writing an English word in upper-case, or italics, or bold, or in a different font, to convey something. As examples, in English, we might find robot-talk in block letters, to indicate something ‘mechanical’ and ‘digital’, or a word in an e-mail in upper case, to indicate shouting. The following is a relevant quote from ‘kandyman’:
(The) choice of script in Japanese writing is often a stylistic attempt by a writer to convey some non-standard subliminal meaning. There have been some interesting analyses on this topic done over the years. Just to give you an idea of some of the findings, one study found that certain characteristics were often attributed to script usage, as follows:
Hiragana: feminine, soft, smooth, round, tender, simple, childish, lovely, elegant, etc.
Katakana: novel, foreign, emphasizing, hard, fake, male, futuristic, sharp, jarring, angular, etc.
Kanji: scientific, rigid, masculine, formal, hard, difficult, intellectual, visual, substantial, etc.