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Japanese writing02         (Japanese Writing)



Uerukamu dokusha-san
Before the introduction of Chinese characters, no Japanese writing system existed.

Kanji are a set of several thousand Chinese characters that were first introduced into Japan in the 5th Century.  Kanji are ideograms.  This means that each character has its own meaning and corresponds to a word.  The symbols are intended to look like the object they represent.

This is the Kanji symbol for a tree.
The symbol strongly suggests the shape of a tree.


This is the Kanji symbol for a wood.
It suggests trees close together.


By combining different characters, more words can be created.

For example, from the point of view of the ancient Chinese, the Sun would appear to rise each morning from a land that was out across the sea to the East.  That country is what we now call Japan.  Because the Sun appeared to rise from it, the ancient Chinese named that land by combining the symbol for “Sun” and the symbol for “origin”. The expression that was created means "base of the Sun" or "sunrise".  This is why Japan is also known as “The Land Of The Rising Sun”







(Base of the Sun or
Land of the Rising Sun)

These are examples of some of the many Kanji characters.

Kanji table

Kanji are used for writing nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs.  In other words, they describe things that can be seen, such as Mountain, River, Sun etc. or they describe actions such as To Eat or To Go etc.  Unlike the Chinese language, it is not possible to write Japanese entirely in Kanji. For words without corresponding Kanji, two additional syllable based scripts are used, Hiragana and Katakana.  Each of these character sets consists of 46 syllables.  Hiragana and Katakana together are called Kana.


Hiragana Table

Katakana Table

Hiragana table02

Katakana table

Even though it is theoretically possible to write the whole language in Hiragana, it is usually used only for grammatical endings of verbs, nouns, and adjectives, plus other original Japanese words.  Hiragana is the first of all the writing systems taught to Japanese children. Many books for young children are, therefore, written entirely in Hiragana.

Women used to write almost exclusively in Hiragana as it was simpler to learn and they were denied access to any form of higher education that would have taught them to write in the more complex Kanji system.

Katakana is mainly used for writing the names of persons and geographical places that cannot be written in Kanji.  It is also used for “Loan Words”

As Japanese language developed, many words from foreign languages, especially from Chinese and English, were incorporated into it.  The Japanese call these “Loan Words” and they are often heavily Japanised.




When Loan Words are incorporated into Japanese, they are often abbreviated versions of the original word or expression.


Family computer
Personal computer
Word processor.
Department store

Japanese text can be written in two ways: In Western style, with the text in horizontal rows from the top to the bottom of the page, or in traditional Japanese style, where the text is in vertical columns, working from right to left. Both writing styles exist side by side today.

Each character is made up of a number of individual strokes.  Japanese traditionalists regard the order in which the individual strokes are made as being very important.  With the advent of computers and printers that put all strokes onto a screen or onto paper simultaneously, many modern Japanese now feel that the importance of the order of strokes is diminishing.

When adopting the Kanji characters, the Japanese not only introduced the original Chinese pronunciations of the characters but they also associated them with the corresponding native Japanese words and their pronunciations. Consequently, most Kanji can still be pronounced in at least two ways, a Chinese way (On Yomi), and a Japanese way (Kun Yomi). 

Since Japanese is normally written in Chinese characters, Kanji, Hiragna and Katakana, it will mean little to foreigners.   To make it more understandable to those people, there is another writing variation that can be used on street signs, passports, in dictionaries and textbooks.  This is called Rōmaji and it is the Romanised pronunciation of Japanese.  It is based on the use of the Latin Alphabet (A, B, C, D, etc) which is extensively used throughout Western Countries.  In general, Rōmaji is used in any context where Japanese text is intended for those who do not know the language. It’s use is becoming more common in the computer age, since many computers cannot put Japanese characters onto the screen unless the user has already installed the “Japanese font package”.   (This is technical stuff, but in layman’s language you could say that you must “teach” your computer to understand Japanese before it can display it on the screen).

My name, Syd Mitchell, would be written in Katakana as follows:





I have written this as a picture, in order to ensure that your computer will display it, even if you do not have a Japanese font installed.

If you do not have Japanese font installed and I had written it directly in Katakana, it would probably be displayed thus:-

           Or       ___?  _____?

A whole page of text would, therefore, be a meaningless series of blocks or question marks.

If, however, my name is written In Rōmaji, it becomes more understandable as it uses letters that can be displayed by Western computers or printed using standard Western alphabets.


There are different levels of politeness in the Japanese language.  There is an informal level, a more polite level, and a very polite or honorific level (Keigo).  One must speak in an honorific language to people who are of higher social status, for example, when speaking to employers.

Honorific expressions should be used when speaking to customers, teachers, elder people etc. Humble expressions should be used when referring to oneself.  Very honorific expressions should be used when referring to the person you are addressing.  For example “I humbly accept the great benefit of your worthy experience”.

On the subject of respect, “san” is a title of respect added to a name. It can be used with both male and female names, and is used either with surnames or first names. It can also be attached to the name of occupations and titles.

If you do not know me, it would be respectful to refer to me as Mitcheru san, (Mr Mitchell).
If we are on first name terms, but you still wish to show respect, Shiddo san (Mr Syd) would be the correct form of address.
To refer to me as the author of this article, it would be respectful to use sakuseisha san (The author).

It should be made clear at this point, that if I were to refer to myself in the above manner, it would be regarded as impolite.  I should adopt more humble expressions when referring to myself,  I have only included these as an example of how to address other people.

With the Chinese pronunciation, the Japanese pronunciation, the use of different levels of politeness that must be used according to status of the listener, plus the Japanised pronunciation of loan words, the study of the Japanese language is a complicated task.  But I am trying!

Adiosu okyakusama

Syd Mitchell