So this was roughly how my first conversation with my Japanese teacher went:
Me: “I want to learn Japanese, it’s not as hard as people make out right?”
Teacher: “Not at all! There are no tones like in Chinese, no cases like in German and no genders like in Latin languages”
Teacher: “We’ll start with one of the writing styles”
Me: “Wait, there’s more than one?”
Teacher: “We’ll start with Hiragana. There are 46 characters of them”
Me: “46! That’s almost twice the amount in the English alphabet!”
Teacher: “There’s also another 46 katakana characters to learn”
Me: “Ok, maybe I should have gone for Italian instead…”
Teacher: “And then there’s kanji”
Me: *gulps* “Right… how many of them are there?”
Teacher: “well there are over 50,000 in total, but don’t worry you’ll only need to know around 2,000”
Teacher: “Oh, and most kanji have at least two readings”
However, despite it being difficult to remember the characters individually, the three writing styles do all serve a distinct function.
There are two scripts of kana which are phonetic symbols for Japanese syllables, called Hiragana and Katakana. Then there are kanji which are characters adapted from Chinese and they represent whole words. It’s not possible to only learn one writing style (I asked) because often they are used simultaneously, sometimes even in the same sentence.
Hiragana first emerged at the Heian court (now Kyoto) in the 8th century when women created a simpler alternative to kanji as only men were allowed to be educated in reading and writing it.
What is it used for?
It’s often used for grammatical purposes, for example for particles or prepositions or for inflectional endings of adjectives or verbs, for example for different tenses. It can also be sometimes used for words with obscure or difficult kanji, onomatopoeia and colloquial expressions.
Originally, katakana were essentially notations professionals would write in the borders of official government documents and texts to help them remember kanji. Over time, these have been standardised and simplified into symbols themselves.
What is it used for?
Now it is used for representing foreign names and vocabulary because there are no kanji associated with these words. Words that are associated with brands such as McDonalds or foreign items, such as hamburger… (sorry, I’m hungry). A good equivalent would be when italics is used in English for unfamiliar or foreign words.
And finally, the biggie: Kanji. It was first introduced in the 4th or 5th century at a time when the spoken Japanese language had no writing system. Therefore Chinese characters were adopted. This explains why there are often at least two readings for most kanji; the Chinese word it originally represented and the Japanese one. I realised this quite quickly when the Chinese students of my classes would utter soft “ahh”s of understanding when the teacher wrote a kanji on the board, whilst I would be sat at the back, despairing about how similar all the characters looked. As of 2010, Japanese primary and secondary school students are required to learn 2,136.
What is it used for?
Kanji is used for most nouns. Grammatically, the characters also represent the stems of verbs and adjectives.
So, the different styles do serve a purpose. They’re also not simply retained out of tradition, but because kanji provides a useful break between the nouns and verbs making it easier to read. For example if it was all just hiragana it would be hard to read, like readingEnglishwithoutanyspaces. Also, maybe next time when I’m complaining about all the hiragana characters I have to remember, I’ll remember that it’s actually a symbol of female empowerment.
Written by Laura Hunt
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