The written Japanese language is composed of three different writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Are you getting confused during your Japanese classes?


Superprof has concocted a history course and small decryption of these writing systems.

This may help you to impress your tutor during your first Japanese class together!

The history of the Japanese language is interwoven with Japanese culture, and studying Japanese culture can help you learn the Japanese language and its writing system.

Japanese: What Are the 4 Writing Systems in Japanese?


Kanji is composed of Chinese characters, whose function is to transcribe part of the Japanese language by associating each sign with a matrix of meanings and pronunciations.

To complicate the equation, each kanji is characterized by a set of pronunciations and meanings, as well as a form, also called "frame" in the Japanese language. As Wikipedia mentions:

"The most remarkable characteristic of kanji, like many sinograms in general, is that they refer to themselves via the meanings of the characters unlike, for example, Latin letters or syllabaries, which represent only sounds. "

Beware, it is important to know that each kanji has 2 different readings:

  • On-Yomi, or the Chinese reading
  • and Kun-Yomi, or the Japanese reading.

Some kanji can only correspond to one reading. Unfortunately, there is no generic rule explaining when to use which reading.

Yep, it's a difficult concept to wrap your head around during your Japanese history lessons!

Written Japanese dates back almost 2000 years
The samurai have ruled feudal Japan for nearly 700 years. They helped develop the written language.

There are several thousand kanji (1945 have been identified by the Ministry of Education in Japan), but it is not necessary to learn all of them to write Japanese.

The first 200 or 300 kanjis are used a lot in everyday life. Discover them through online or in-home Japanese courses.


Hiragana makes it possible to transcribe the Japanese language without ambiguity, unlike kanji. Each hiragana represents a single vowel or consonant followed by a vowel.

During your Japanese lessons, you will learn that phonetic correspondence tables exist between kanas (hiragana and katakanas) and their romaji transcriptions using the Hepburn method. This method is the most used abroad to transform the Japanese language into Latin letters.


Katakana are signs corresponding to syllables.

They are mainly used in Japanese to transcribe foreign words, foreign names, scientific names, as well as Japanese onomatopoeia.

The "hiragana katakana" are therefore learned as letters since they are phonetic.


The term romaji is used to refer to the characters of the Latin alphabet used in the Japanese language.

The romaji are thus added to the 3 graphical systems of the Japanese vocabulary previously mentioned.

Note that romajis have allowed the Japanese language to spread around the world!

Another reason why learning the Japanese language is a good idea is culture-related! 

Most of the world's literary and artistic works have been written in languages other than English. A translation of a text can never be fully true to the intent, beauty, style, and uniqueness of its original. A translation is always to a large degree subject to the interpretation of the translator, not least because some elements of languages simply don't have translations in other languages.

Word plays, metaphors, innuendoes, cultural references and culturally loaded vocabulary words, and formulations unique to the original language often get lost in translation. To be able to fully appreciate literature, theater, music, and film in other languages, one must be able to access them in their original form.

Ever since the origins of Japanese in the 4th century, Japanese literature has been growing. So learn Japanese writing today to enjoy this literature--which has some of the most eclectic works available!

The First Traces of Japanese Writing

The Japanese did not have a written language until the 4th century AD...

When they wanted to write, they used Chinese characters. During the Yamato period, it is said that the first Japanese documents were written in the imperial court by Chinese or Korean bilingual emissaries.

According to Wikipedia, between 710 and 784, or the so-called Nara era, the Japanese began to use Chinese ideograms for the Japanese language.

The pronunciation of Japanese words became associated with Chinese characters. They didn't keep the meaning of the Chinese character, and only used the sound. The character used is thus called "manyogana."

This last character will then become hiragana, established in the first half of the 10th century.

Discover the rules of Japanese grammar and syntax here.

How Did Japanese Nationalism Create False Traces of Japanese Writing?

Primitive scriptures were discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries. As Wikipedia explains, they were:

"...vaguely pictographic characters. Runic characters and other characters very close to the Korean Hangeul (official Korean alphabet) are now considered fakes created to promote Japanese nationalism in the 1930s."

This was the period corresponding to the Empire of Japan and Japanese colonialism.

Learning Japanese: Which Way Are You Writing In?

When you start learning Japanese, you will discover that the language is written without spaces between the words, from right to left and from top to bottom.

This writing format is called tategaki.

However, nowadays more and more books written in Japanese in yokogaki format, ie from left to right and from top to bottom, like English.

This is the case for scientific works in particular.

Japanese culture has influenced other parts of the world
The mangas translated in English are to read from the end to the beginning, the way they are in Japan.

For kanji writing, remember that each kanji is a set of traits, drawn in a precise order and which can have several meanings and pronunciations.

Find Japanese courses London or a town near you to learn more about the kanji and how to write them!

There are rules of writing to respect when learning Japanese:

  • The horizontal line before the vertical line.
  • The curve on the left before the curve on the right.
  • From top to bottom.
  • From left to right.
  • The outside before the inside.
  • The interior before closing the frame.
  • The middle line, the left side, then the right side.
  • The period last.

Kanji is a great asset if you are looking to get employed in Japan. And why not?

Companies that plan to do business abroad therefore have a dire need for bilingual or multilingual employees. Businesses that intend to compete internationally need employees who can competently communicate in the locales where they do business. Employees who speak one language can communicate only with people who speak that same language.

Business is not the only area of employment where language competencies are needed, however. Multiple government agencies, the travel industry, engineering, communications, the field of education, international law, economics, public policy, publishing, advertising, entertainment, scientific research, and an broad array of service sectors all have needs for people with foreign language skills.

Whatever your career goals, knowing a language (like the Japanese language and its complex kanji) certainly won't hurt your employability. Chances are that knowing languages will open up employment opportunities that you would not have had otherwise. And you will be able to command a greater salary in the workplace. All else being equal, knowing languages gives you an edge over monolingual applicants competing for the same jobs.

And given Japanese's influence on the world, this a language that will in particular demand attention from any prospective employer.

Japanese Writing Through Calligraphy

Like Japanese writing, Japanese calligraphy originated in China and was imported in the 6th century with ideograms (named kanji in Japan).

More than just writing, calligraphy or "shodo" has become a real art, synonymous with refinement. In Japanese culture, calligraphy works are as esteemed as other artistic forms such as painting or sculpture.

As Japanismus explains, calligraphy is created in one movement and can nearly be considered a body expression:

"In calligraphy - Chinese or Japanese - the character is produced in one breath, that is to say in a few seconds, and with no possible going back. The whole body participates in this spill of energy, which is channeled towards the tip of the brush. The traits that make up a character become truly alive. "

Japanese calligraphy is artistic by nature
Japanese calligraphy is a transgenerational art. Courses exist to learn the basics. All levels are accepted.

To be skilled enough to make beautiful calligraphy, you must have the right tools. There are four:

  • The brush. It must be made with animal hair (goat, horse, and/or badger...).
  • The ink. It is obtained from a mixture of wood soot, animal glue, and a little water to moisturize this mixture, which is usually dried in the form of a solid stick.
  • The ink stone. It serves both as support for the preparation of the ink, and as a reservoir thanks to the slightly hollowed out part.
  • The paper, shiny on one side.

In the land of the rising sun, there are shodo organizations that exist for pure artistic vocation and others of an educational nature. Calligraphy or "beautiful writing" in the etymological sense of the term is now enjoying a resurgence of popularity among young people as Wikipedia explains.

The National High School Shodo Championship is a big event that attracts thousands of spectators every year. As part of this tournament, teams compete to achieve the best calligraphy possible. The drawings are made on giant sheets of paper. The teams dance and clap their hands to the rhythm of the music being played.

Calligraphy and the show around it are both taken into account by the jury. It is a great and original event you could discover on a trip to Japan or during a Japanese language course.

Learning calligraphy takes time just like learning Japanese does. The more you practice both, the quicker you will improve. An immersive approach to learning Japanese is particularly useful because you can surround yourself by the language which helps you to retain what you hear and learn.

The Japanese Latin Alphabet

In the Japanese language, the term romaji is used to refer to the characters of the Roman alphabet.

The romaji have been added to the use of kanji, katakana, and hiragana (see the definitions of these elements above). The Roman alphabet is increasingly used in modern Japanese. It is mainly used when:

  • traditional characters are not available (web addresses and emails),
  • To write text messages on a Latin keyboard.
  • To transcribe names in Japanese for Westerners.
  • For some acronyms in algebra (equations)...

A phonetic correspondence table makes it possible to pronounce the 26 letters of the English language in Japanese. You will certainly encounter romaji during your Japanese classes near me.

If you speak the English language, learning the basics of Japanese writing will require more time because you will have to learn different characters specific to the Japanese language.

However, it is worth taking the time to do this. Although it sounds great for English speakers, there are problems with romaji. What's more, when you go to Japan you will need to be able to read the kanji characters.

Learn Japanese to be able to visit this incredible country
See you in Japan where you will discover some of the most beautiful nature in the world!

On the Superprof website, you will find many competent teachers to teach you the basics of the Mishima language. Have a good English-Japanese dictionary to help you express yourself and revise between classes.  Search for Japanese courses London to find the most results on Superprof.

Once your level is good enough, you can certify your level via a test such as the JPLT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), which is an official exam organised in July and December of each year, and aimed at non-native speakers.

It's a pretty interesting test if you are considering the immersive adventure of living in Japan! 

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