Japanese Language Overview


We Don't Need No Stinkin' Alphabets

First off, you need to know that written Japanese uses three writing systems, none of which involve alphabets as we know them.

Instead, there is kanji - basically Chinese characters, and two syllabaries.

A syllabary is a collection of syllables in the same sense that an alphabet is a collection of letters. Japanese words can always be represented as a string of syllables and, when written this way, pronounciation is phonetic (mostly).

The writing systems include:

  • Kanji - a subset of written Chinese characters, with a few additions unique to Japanese.
    A kanji example: 本 ("hon", that is: "book")
  • Hiragana - a cursive syllabary, used for verb endings and words with no Kanji character
    A hiragana example: はい ("hai", that is: "yes")
  • Katakana - the same syllable set as Hiragana but written in an angular form, used mostly for words borrowed from other languages, but also used for emphasis where we might use italics
    A katakana example: ホテル ("ho-te-ru", that is: "hotel")

A Japanese sentence may include some of each of these.

Note that hiragana and katakana are collectively called kana. Each kana contains 46 syllables (the same 46 syllables in each case).

There are thousands of kanji, but the Japanese government has declared a set of 1850 characters to be essential for common use and everyday communication. About half of these (881 to be precise) are expected to be understood after six years of elementary school.

In addition, you will find something called romaji - Latin letters used to simulate Japanese sounds; romaji are used by Japanese students of English and English-speaking students of Japanese. Because English is currently highly thought of, many young people wear clothing with romaji words on them - sometimes to hilarious (to us), if un-intended effect.


Another idiosyncracy (to English speakers) is that Japanese does not have upper case and lower case letters. A few syllables may be written small, but this is when they modify the syllable preceding or following. Also, words are not generally separated within sentences! You just see strings of kana and kanji. In some texts, there are not even periods, although this is not too common. A period (full stop) in Japanese looks like this: 。