Posted on

Basics of Japanese hiragana and katakana

Let’s take a little look at a typical Japanese sentence, together with English transcription and translation.

昨日、あのCMはテレビで見たかい。
Kino, ano shiiemu wa terebi de mita kai.
Did you see that commercial on TV yesterday?

In one simple written statement, we can see four visibly different kinds of script. The one that leaps out most for the English eye is, of course, CM (a made-in-Japan abbreviation for “commercial message.”) Romaji (“Latin characters”) are the most recent addition to Japanese. They are put to use in everyday writing primarily for acronyms, though they also play a huge part in “design” English, which has developed a reputation for unintentional humor.

The rest of the sentence shows us the three other writing systems of Japanese in use today. The first part of the sentence, 昨日 (“yesterday”), and the 見 (“see, look”) in 見た (“saw”) are kanji, derived from traditional Chinese ideograms. These three are identical to the characters used in Traditional Chinese. Their forms would be instantly recognized by Taiwanese and Hong Kongers and easily sussed out by people taught the simplified characters used in China.

How Japanese is Written Out in the Modern Day

  • Kanji: Numbering in the thousands, they are used for their semantic (“meaning”) value. A kanji can have anywhere from one to near a dozen different readings.
  • Katakana and hiragana: There are a core forty-eight of each, alongside some diacritics (think the little marks used in Spanish and French). They’re used for phonetic value and have predictable and exact correspondence with sounds, unlike the English alphabet with all its odd exceptions (think “naughty” and “knotty” or “I read it yesterday“ and “Please read this”.)
  • Romaji: The uniquely Japanese use of the Latin alphabet. It’s still a bit of a Wild West often left to the writer’s preference (e.g., the company Mazda is actually from the Japanese last name Masuda.)
  • Arabia-suji: Arabic numerals, better called Indo-Arabic numerals, are now the most common way to write numbers, but Chinese numbers (1 = 一, 2 = 二, 3 = 三, etc.) were widely in use until the beginning of the Meiji era. Chinese numerical characters can still be seen in more traditional Japanese restaurants as well as many hole-in-the-wall ramen and rice bowl shops.

After subtracting Latin characters and Chinese ideograms, what remain are katakana, as in the wordテレビ (“television”), and hiragana, which includes あの (“that”) and all the little grammatical bits. Together, they make up the bulk of written Japanese. If kanji are the thickly-roped muscle and Western characters the colorful feathers of the graceful heron that is the written Japanese language, then these two kana (literally, “nonce characters”) are the sturdy, lightweight skeleton that gives it structure and balance.

Innovation through Scholarly Frustration

When Chinese characters first came to Japan almost a millennia and a half ago, they were used exclusively for the Chinese language, but it wasn’t long before the native Japanese scholars began using these characters to write their own native tongue, as well. Later named after the Manyoshu, the oldest collection of poetry in Japanese, the first system of kana was the manyogana, which used a single Chinese character for each Japanese sound.

This might not sound so exceptional at first, but Chinese is many times more phonetically dense than Japanese. For example, that famous first sentence of the Declaration of Human Rights, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” uses only 17 characters in Chinese but an incredible 51 kana in Japanese. To save on quills and patience, two different but similar writing systems were developed, both of them simplifying Chinese in their own way.

More than One Way Down the Mountain

Appearing on the scene before katakana, hiragana was first used during the 8th century. These characters were graceful, flowing, and highly stylized simplifications of the manyogana mention earlier.

Despite (or perhaps because) it was functional and easy to learn, hiragana was originally scorned as a writing method and seen fit only for women: men were expected to take the considerable effort to learn Chinese writing. Hiragana may have been derided as onnade (“women’s hand”), but that didn’t prevent Sei Shoganon from leaving us The Pillow Book, her poignant and literary reflections on the Japanese court at the cusp of the 11th century, written mostly in hiragana.

The second system, katakana, was originally less a script and more a system of annotation to help monks remember how to read through massive Chinese tomes. Written in the gaps between the characters, space was at a premium so each katakana was created by taking just a little piece from a manyogana, often no more than two or three brush strokes. However, precisely because it was a system of annotation, katakana were highly idiosyncratic at first, varying in form not only between monasteries but between monks, too.

Characters Simplified to Hiragana and Reduced to Katakana

  • 保 (“ho”) became ホ (lower right) and ほ
  • 礼 (“re”) became レ (right side) and れ
  • 宇 (“u”) became ウ (very top) and う
  • 加 (“ka”) because カ (left side) and か

Three Ways to Write One Language

As written Japanese evolved, manyogana was essentially abandoned and Japan came to have three writing systems: the highly-modified kana together with kanji. The kana were used in different ways at different points in history, however. For example, hiragana is now used as the necessary grammatical filler between meaning-rich but structure-poor kanji, but that role was actually filled by katakana until the modern era.

[table],Hiragana,Katakana
Origin,Stylized simplifications,One part from a character
Use in Writing,“Grammar” words,Loanwords
Children’s Education,Taught first post-war era, Taught first  pre-war era
In Women’s Names, Meiji,Popular currently
Technology, Modern character input,Low-res LCD steel stamps etc.[/table]

Though hiragana and katakana have almost perfect one-to-one equivalence, how they are used and how they feel are quite different. Hiragana is soft, quiet, gentle, and graceful; katakana is sharp, fast, angular, and mechanical. You can see this even looking at the characters themselves, with the former all curves and the latter all straight lines.

In a Japanese story, the dialogue of a kind-hearted country might be mostly in hiragana and that of a robot from the future completely in katakana. This can be played with, too: a robot that has become more “human” could start to have its dialogue written normally, save the occasional use of katakana for grammatical parts.

The emotional sense of the kana is seen most strongly in onomatopoeia. Though usually relegated to either one or the other, among these “sound effect” words are those that can be written in both hiragana and katakana. A puppy might bark わんわん cheerfully or ワンワン angrily, though both would simply be “wan-wan” if transcribed into English. If you knock on it, a wooden barrel might go かんかん and a steel one カンカン (both are read “kan-kan”).

For children starting their first year at Japanese elementary school and university students sitting in the lecture hall for Intro Japanese, hiragana and katakana will be their first and primary exposure to how spoken Japanese is written. They are more than just a starting point in delving the depths of the literature and writing of Japan, however. Together with kanji, they are integral to how Japanese is written, and they have rules, secrets, and charms all their own.