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.
The kanjis have always been difficult to learn so in the old days only the educated people were able to use them. However, Japanese 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 spell out words of Japanese and Chinese origin. Although we usually write the roots of verbs and adjectives in kanji, we write their suffixes in hiragana; we also use hiragana to write many words that have complex kanjis, as well as polite forms, greetings, and particles; hiragana is the glue that connects the ideas expressed in the kanjis.
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., piano (of western origin) is ピアノ (pi-a-no)
- 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
Sometimes, if we can write a word in katakana, the hiragana version is also available, and which one to use becomes a matter of preference, e.g., we might find ‘nya-a-nya-a’ as ニャーニャー or にゃあにゃあ, and ‘doki-doki’ as ドキドキ or どきどき; we will not find ‘piano’ or ‘quasar’ in hiragana, though, because these are foreign words that we only spell in katakana.
Romaji (ローマ字)When we are learning Japanese sometimes we 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 in hiragana is とうきょう, so its romaji version 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 we have to double the ‘o’, 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 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, a writer might choose to write a word that we usually write in one script, using a different 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.