The Complexity Behind the Japanese Writing System

 The writing system that is used in Japan today is actually a combination of two styles: kanji and kana. Kanji is the system of Japanese characters that were adopted from the Chinese language. Kana in itself is also a combination of two styles of writing: hiragana and katakana. Hiragana is the culmination of characters that are used for native Japanese words and is the basis for the grammar of the written language. Katakana is reserved for the localization of foreign words, scientific names, and sounds. The vast majority of written Japanese language is a mixture of kana and kanji. This complicated relationship, alongside the massive amount of Japanese characters, has given people the notion that the Japanese writing system is one of the hardest to learn and master.

Understanding the Japanese Writing System

There are thousands of kanji that are used in the everyday life of a Japanese person. Each of these characters has their own exclusive meaning, some even having multiple meanings. These kanji can also have more than one way of pronouncing it. This is typically dependent on the context of which it is used. During the primary and secondary schooling of a student, they are tasked with memorizing and mastering the use of more than two thousand kanji. This is a small fraction of the total number of kanji, 50,000. It isn’t surprising to know that there are only a handful of native speakers who have truly mastered every character.

In modern Japanese kana, both the hiragana and katakana systems have 46 characters. (71 if you count the different ways to pronounce each character) Each and every sound that can be made in the Japanese language has its own corresponding kana character. This is where kana and kanji differ. Where kanji characters have to mean based on the image of the character, kana characters are representative of sounds made from the actual spoken language. Hiragana and katakana were once greatly similar to Chinese characters but have since evolved and simplified. Some even say that the modern Japanese characters have taken influence from the Indian Sanskrit script. This wouldn’t come as a surprise as the Buddhist religion is very much prevalent in the Japanese country.

The use of kanji in all manner of writing is the norm. It is a rare sight to see something written that does not use kanji. This is typically reserved for children’s books. This is to help them develop their use of kana and to make up for the fact that they do not know many kanji yet. Early electronic devices could also not display the complex strokes of kanji due to the limitations of the technology. However, this has been remedied in recent years with the strides that technology has made in high-resolution screen. More details per square inch allowed for the use of kanji.

The complexity of the Japanese writing system is also seen when you take into consideration that there are some words that use all three writing systems in one word. One great example of this would be the word Kunoichi, “くノ一.” This word uses three characters. The first is a hiragana, followed by a katakana and is closed off with a kanji.

Modern written Japanese have also adopted the use of the Roman alphabet. This is usually used for acronyms such as A.M and P.M. This is called Romanized Japanese or Romaji. The most frequent users of the romaji way of writing are foreign students of the language who have not gotten a good grasp on the other forms of writing.

Chinese Vs Japanese Writing

As stated earlier, kanji is the Japanese adaptation of the Chinese writing system. The roots of kanji can be seen through the Chinese characters of the hanzi system. Hanzi and Kanji are the Chinese and Japanese way of pronouncing the word 漢字, which is present in both languages. That word is the term that refers to the Chinese characters that are present in both writing systems. The Japanese heavily relies on the presence of Chinese characters in their writing system as it has evolved into a system which mixes these characters with their own.

One might wonder if the characters found in hanzi and kanji are actually the same. The answer to this is “yes.” The Chinese and Japanese share a character set most of the time. Though the system is the same for both languages, hanzi/kanji are being used by two different cultures. This gives rise to a difference in pronunciation of characters. There are some cases wherein the pronunciation of one character is very similar to both Japanese and Chinese. The kanji writing system did not just march into the lives of the Japanese. It happened through the centuries of interactions the ancient Japanese had with their Chinese neighbors. The adoption of the hanzi writing system can be seen through the fact that some kanji characters have more meanings than its hanzi counterpart. It is good to note that only a few of the characters have changed between the two systems. This means that for both Chinese hanzi and Japanese kanji, the majority of characters are the same.

Practicing the Different Japanese Writing Styles and Symbols 

Now that you know the different writing systems involved in composing a sentence in Japanese, all that’s left to do is to practice. The important thing about writing down the characters is that there is more time and thought put into composing one sentence. You allow your mind to actively think about what characters to use. Another good thing about writing is that you are free to take as much time as you need to compose. With this time you are able to use as many resources as you can in order to write something down correctly. The last benefit of actually writing down characters as opposed to just memorizing how they look is that you are able to add a physical action to the memorization of a character. By practicing the strokes and composition of a word, your hands are able to remember the movements and in turn, your mind associates those movements to that word. However, it is mostly advised for students of the Japanese language to get a good grasp of the verbal aspects of it before going into reading or writing. The reason is that learning the verbal aspects of the Japanese language is more practical and much simpler.

The two sets of kana scripts, hiragana, and katakana, are basically two versions of the sounds made in the language. As stated earlier, hiragana and katakana both have 46 characters. These characters are adopted and simplified from the Chinese writing system. Though these two represent the same set of sounds, they are both used for widely different purposes.

The main function of hiragana is to provide grammar and structure to the writing. Hiragana is also used as a replacement for unusual or difficult kanji. This way of replacing kanji and hiragana are often utilized by Japanese teachers to replace the kanji that the students are unfamiliar with. Hiragana is also used in informal expressions and to form words that describe sounds. While katakana is used for the same set of sounds as hiragana, this set of characters is used mainly to represent borrowed words. The use of katakana makes up for the lack of kanji that cannot represent something from western cultures. A person with a western name will also use katakana to write it down.

Kanji on the other hand contains most of the characters used in the Japanese writing system. Kanji is used for nouns, verbs, and adjectives. These 50,000 characters actually make up around 95% of the characters most often used in Japanese text. The Japanese writing system does not allow for punctuations or spaces between words. Kanji is often used as a marker to distinguish which word is which. Kanji is also used as a way to distinguish which pronunciation of a character to use.

Translating Japanese Writing to English With Technology

The Japanese language is most often considered to be one of the hardest languages to read. The vast amounts of characters and writing styles add many layers of nuances and complexities that most foreigners would not understand. It is with technology however that we are able to close the gap between languages. Here are the top applications to come in in recent years that translate Japanese.

Google Translate

Google Translate has grown into a very sophisticated application. Gone are the times when people would translate Japanese to English and would laugh at the results. It has now made its way into the phones of people. This added mobility really takes it to the next level. The app gives you four different ways to translate Japanese. First, you can type it in. This is the simplest and quickest way to get a result. This might confuse some people who are really unfamiliar with the characters and it is generally not recommended. The second is through drawing. This app allows one to draw the characters on the screen of the phone. Just copy what you see and google will take care of the rest. Another way to translate Japanese would be to speak it. This app allows for you to say the word and it will attempt to find the equivalent characters for you. This is helpful for those times that you remembered what something sounds like but not how to write it down. The last and most useful way would be by taking a photo. This app allows its users to take photos of Japanese characters from which it will translate it. This is best for those who are traveling as they could just take a photo of the menu or a street sign and get instant feedback.


Waygo is the app made for those learning Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.  Here, you can draw the characters on the screen for the app to translate. You can also take a photo of the character and it will seamlessly translate what is written. It is a good idea to save the translated images as this is a freemium app. It only allows 10 free translations per month and will require a payment for extra.

iHandy Translator

This app is the simplest one out there. There is just a box where one can write in the characters for translation. Just type it in and hit translate. Other features include translation history and social media integration. These are what’s included in the free version, the paid version gives a list of common phrases in multiple languages and removes all advertisements.


iTranslate is basically the simpler and less feature heavy version of Google Translate. Just choose from over 90 languages and type in the word or phrase you want to translate. A good feature of this app is that it can seamlessly share the translated text to you messenger app, email, or Facebook account. This is a free app that takes up very little space so it is best for people who are traveling. One may upgrade to a premium account and get some added features but the free version will suffice for most situations.

When it comes to learning a new language, repetition and memorization are key. This is very much true for learning the Japanese writing system. This is a system which uses three different styles and has multiple meaning per character. This is definitely one of the most confusing and complex writing systems that are used in the world. Those that are trying to learn Japanese as a second language must dedicate a significant amount of time and effort in learning the writing system as the sheer complexity of it all is a daunting task. If ever you are thinking of trying to learn Japanese after reading this article, make sure that you are up to the task.