The three Japanese writing systems

Japanese script

If we are going to talk about Japan we cannot ignore the Japanese writing system. The written language is striking because it is a very different system from the Roman alphabet. Its use spread throughout the West with some variations from one region to another. To understand Japanese writing you have to start by saying that they actually use three systems.


Young children begin with this system when they begin their education. The hiragana it is used for verbal endings, endings in adjectives, some words and for articles that connect ideas. Some examples of words in hiragana are に (neither, particle to indicate the goal of a verb) 、 と (to, to list multiple objects, similar to “and”) 、 へ (I have, to indicate the direction of an action) and か ら (kara, use similar to “from”). This system is distinguished by rounded lines.

katakana - Japanese writing


This writing system is used for words that Japan acquired from abroad. Throughout its history, Japan has had contact with other countries and adopted foreign vocabulary. We can find words like パ ン (bread, from Portuguese “pan”) 、 サ ッ カ (sakkaa, from English “soccer”) 、 and ア ル バ イ ト (arubaito, part-time job, from the German “arbeit”). It can also be used for onomatopoeias, which are used extensively by the Japanese: ペ コ ペ コ 、 (pekopeko, stomach sound when you’re hungry) or ド キ ド キ (dokidoki, the beating of a heart). This system is distinguished by square lines.

Kanji - Japanese writing


Definitely the last writing system to be mastered and the most important at the same time. This system is used to express specific ideas, such as nouns, verbs or adjectives. They can be written on their own, like 木 (ki, book) 、 水 (mizu, water) 、 話 (hanashi, speaks); can be written with others kanji, like 大学 (daigaku, university) 、 図 書館 (toshokan, library) or 新聞 (shinbun, Newspaper); or they can also be written together with the hiragana: 赤 い (akai, red) 、 見 る (miru, see) 、 大 き い (ōkii, large) and 知 り 合 う (shiriau, know). Unlike hiragana Y katakana, the kanji it is not made up of syllabaries, and there are thousands of different signs. That is why it is the system that takes the longest to master.

The pronunciation of kanji can be divided into two: kunyomi (Japanese reading) and onyomi (Chinese reading). Most kanji have a pronunciation kunyomi and one onyomi. When a character stands alone, its character is normally read. kunyomi, whereas when it is put together with other kanji to form a word it is read by its onyomi. Multiple kanji can have more than two different pronunciations.

These three writing systems can be found perfectly mixed in everyday speech, in books or in newspapers. Just a little searching on the page of Reuters Japan I found the following header, which perfectly shows all three Japanese writing systems in one header: エ ジ プ ト 大 統領 が 前 国防 相 ら に 「メ ダ ル」 、 対 立 緩和 狙。If we add to this that from time to time they use the Roman alphabet and Arabic numerals, we will realize that they handle many more writing systems than we do!