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Step-3: the Japanese Writing System

Posted by J. Pierre on August 22, 2011

The Japanese writing system is divided into four main different categories. They are called:

1 – The hiragana (ひらがな),
2 – The katakana (カタカナ),
3 – The kanji (漢字),
4 – The rōmaji.

The first two categories (the hiragana and the katakana) are collectively known as the kana.

The kanji on the other hand, comes from ancient China. In fact the Chinese still use these characters, as do the Koreans (although far less than the Chinese and Japanese)!

Finally we have the rōmaji, which is simply the Japanese language expressed in our Western alphabet. The word “rōmaji” is basically a Japanese way of saying “roman [letters]“.

A note on the katakana:
The katakana are almost the same as the hiragana but are used to identify foreign names and nouns, such as “Canada”, which is written as 「カナダ」. An example sentence of all these writing systems used in a single sentence could be as follows:

Japanese: カナダです
English: I[-of whom I speak] Canada-person am.
Implied translation: I’m Canadian.

Becoming Literate in Japanese

The general concensus is that the kanji are the hardest to learn, and that most people should start by learning the hiragana.
A common question is: If I have to learn Chinese characters to be able to read and write in Japanese, how many do I have to learn!???

The simple answer is: about 2000.
Now before you shut down this webpage, give up on Japanese before you even get started and run amock in the streets causing all manner of havock and chaos, let me give you some good news to help calm you (and the rest of society) down!

The Good News

The good news is that the more kanji you learn, the easier it gets. Also there exists at least a couple of programs and systems out there that don’t just make learning the kanji fun, but make it easy as well! In fact you can get a lot of cool stuff for free!

Plus if you’re willing to spend about 1$, I’m working on several apps which come in the form of video games to help you move forward on your noble quest to fluency.

Also, it’s possible to get by just by using the kana alone — although I don’t advise it, unless you plan on living like a high-schooler for the rest of your life, writing in a style much akin to “Wow I <3 winter it t0t4lly rocks!!!!11“.

In short: the main focus right now is simply to learn the hiragana. Once you’ve got that down, your learning curve is exponential — and that’s not just a promise, it’s a fact! ; )

Comment if you enjoyed this article! :)

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