japanese language 

In Japanese language, there are three different types of scripts - two syllabic scipts Hiragana and Katakana, modified Chinese characters called Kanji. Sometimes, the Latin alphabet, roomaji, is used.

The syllabic scripts can be compared to our alphabet, but with one difference – selected characters do not signify letters, but syllables. In Japanese language, all syllables (except N, which is taken for a separate syllable) are open, they end with a vowel.

Both syllabic scripts – Hiragana and Katakana consists of 46 syllables (with their help and by using sound and non-sound symbols, you can write all sounds of Japanese language). Reading them is the same, but they vary origin and the range of use.


Hiragana was created from simplifying some kanji characters. In Japan, hiragana is used to transcript: - grammar endings fo verbs, adjectives, also particles and auxiliary verbs- native words, for which there are no kanji characters

- words, that we don’t usually write with characters (because they’re very complicated), and words that don’t use katakana transcript (it will be explained later) In the past, hiragana, was considered as women’s writing, because men used kanji characters and katakana. Katakana was created from transforming some fragmets of characters. It’s used to transcript:

- words of foreign origin, names and foreign first names- Onomatopoeias (not always) 

- Readings of kanji characters (f.e. foreign names written in characters – Chinese names) - Proper names from Japanese mythology

Katakana is used also to emphesize particular words:

science terminology (biology, geology, ethnology) nouns, that we want to emphesize

For technical reasons katakana was used in telegrams before August 1988, and in old computers. Also, in official documents before World War II, you can find katakana.

Katakana was created for transcripting Chinese characters (especially Japanese readings). Buddhist monks also used it for quickly writing sutra (writing was faster with the angular katakana than with hiragana).

In our Japanese course, we’ll be using mostly hiragana and katakana, because, you’ll learn only few kanji characters.

As you all know, the characters came to Japan from China. It was about V-VI century A.D. It doesn’t mean, that some group of Chinese came with z kanji scrolls and said to Japanese “sit and learn”. The whole process of introducing the kanji in Japan, took tenths or even hundreds of years.

  Each of the characters consists basic element called the key or root. Thanks to this element, you can define a significance category, to which the selected character belongs to. It’s also helpful when looking up the character in the dictionary.

The characters have two kinds of reading. The first one is the Sino-Japanese reading, on-yomi. It’s the original reading of the character, transcripted by Japanese from hearing (so it’s very deformed). The on-yomi readings are short, 1-2 syllables. The second one is Japanese reading, called kun-yomi. The reading is native Japanese, which they added to the character. It’s based on the pronounciation of a native Japanese word. So we have this symbol, ,  that represents water. In Chinese, you read it as shuiThe Japanese heard it in their way, and granted the character its reading, sui. This is on-yomi, but the Japanese remembered that they already have a word meaning water – mizu. And that’s the kun reading of the character.

You would ask, why some characters have several on and kun readings? In case of on reading, it’s because the process of introducing kanji to Japanese took so long and there were situations, where the same character was introduces many times. And because the Chinese language also evolved, so the character readings also changed. There are three main on readings. The oldest, go-on, is often seen in words with Buddhist connotations, kan-on – the most widespread, and to-on. For example, the go-on reading of the character is myō, the kan-on reading is mei, and the to-on reading is min.   for example: its basic meaning is up, upper side and the reading is „ue“. You can also use it in the verb meaning – to rise, to get up, to climb up. The reading is agaru, ageru and noboru.

Kinds of kanji:

According to the classification called rikusho 六書, we can distinguish 6 types of kanji:

¨ 象形 ōkei – simple pictograms. These characters present specific objects, they’re sketches of the objects they represent. To this category belong characters like: (sun), (moon),  山 (mountain), (tree), (ear), (human)

¨ 指事 shiji – simple ideographs. These characters present abstract ideas. Typical shiji characters: (top,up), (down), (base, beginning), (end)

¨形声 keisei – “phono-semantic” the shape and the sound. These characters are made up of two components, one of which indicates the meaning or the semantic context, the second one is a tip to its pronounciation (the reading). For example, in the character (river), the left side shows us that this characters has to do something with water, the right side tells us, that the reading is the same as thecharacter, that is „ka“. Thanks to this, in most cases, we can read out the characters that aren’t known to us. Unfortunatelly, the evolution of the character reading has changed and this way isn’t 100% effective. The characters in keisei category represent 90% of all kanji. The most typical are: (gulf, bay), , (to listen), (to cut), (pear)

¨会意 – compound meanings. Two or more elements with different meanings are combined, creating a new character. For example, (human+speak – believe) (couple of trees - forest) (two times fire - flames)

¨転注 tenchū – transfers („derivative characters“). This category isn’t very clear and there are many theories about it. F.e. the character means long as in size, measurement, then it was transfered as a period of time, then was born as a new meaning – to grow up, to be good at something. But this is only one of the theories.

¨仮借 kasha – „the loans“. The use of the characters, which originally had a different meaning. For example, the character  , the original meaning is a halberd, but it also was granted a meaning “me”.

  Composition of characters and their kinds:The combination of two or more characters is called a compositon. It’s good to know the different kinds and the rules. It helps to understand the nature of Japanese language. There are five basic types of compositions:¨ combination of characters with similar meaning: 永久 (long+long - forever) 単独 (singly+alone-single, solo) 損失 (damage+lose-a lost) 河川 (river+river-rivers) 運動 (transport+move-movement)

¨combination of characters with contrary meaning: 天地 (heaven and earth) 貧富 (wealth and poverty) 安否 (safe or not)  凹凸 (convex and concave – unevenness)

¨the first characters defines the second one: : 羊画 (West+painting-European painting) 盲人 (blind+human-blind man) 駄作 (lousy+to create-my humble work/creation) 美男 (beautiful+man-handsome)

¨the second character is the fulfilment of the first one. This combination can be read out in the Japanese way, rearranging the characters and putting between them or particle. For example: 読書 ( – book reading) 着席 ( – to occupy a seat) 飲酒 ( – alcohol drinking) 握手 ( – handshake) 砕氷 ( – breaking the ice)

¨the characters are in the relationship subject-predicate. We can read it in Japanese by putting between them particle. 日没 (する –the sun is going down -sundown) 地震 (える – the earth is shaking-earthquake) 雷鳴 ( – the thunderbolt is making a sound- a thunderbolt, bolt)



The 1945 characters that are mostly used are placed on a list called jouyou kanji – the daily use kanji. Oficially, newspapers and other magazines have guidelines for using it, and in case when using the character not listed – put in its reading. Besides, the Ministry of Justice, authorized 285 additional characters (December 1997), which can be used in names and last names – jinmeiyou kanji.


Last modified: Thursday, 8 November 2007, 09:22 PM