In this post I am writing about Japanese characters. Because in Japan, four writing systems are used in parallel. Of course I can't go into too much detail in this post, after all there are whole books just about the Japanese characters. In this article I would like to give a short and understandable overview of the individual writing systems and their use.
Table Of Contents
- Use of the writing systems in Japan
- Do they write vertically or horizontally in Japan?
- Die Hiragana
- Complete hiragana table
- Origin der Hiragana
- Die Katakana
- Complete katakana table
- Origin of the Katakana
- Die Kanji
- How kanji work
- How many kanji are there
- Die Romaji
- More on Japanese characters
- Please ask!
Use of the writing systems in Japan
In Japan, four different writing systems with different characters are used in parallel in everyday life. The hiragana (あ) and katakana (ア) summarized as kana, the kanji (安) and the romaji (A).
Today, a combination of hiragana and kanji is commonly used in Japanese. Nouns are usually written with kanji, and verbs and adjectives with a combination of kanji and hiragana. Katakana are used to write western loanwords. Katakana are also used in other special cases, e.g. B. also often for animal names, for onomatopoeic terms or to emphasize a word. I will explain each writing system in more detail below.
The following pictures show the parallel use of all four alphabets in everyday Japanese. In each of these images you will find both kanji and hiragana, katakana and romaji.
Do they write vertically or horizontally in Japan?
Historical documents have always been written from top to bottom, i.e. vertically, and from right to left. Kanji, hiragana and katakana were thus developed for vertical use. But as the Western alphabet and mathematical formulas became more common, vertical notation became increasingly impractical.
The following short text shows the vertical notation that is still expected in Japanese novels today. The text also shows once again the parallel use ofKanji,HiraganaandKatakana.
→JapanofSchooltoaccessbutimpressionToDisabledare in。whyifcomminicateprogramofPassdoJapanofstudentimmediatelyencounterbecause I was able to。tsunamiofdamageofbyfigureAffected areatoaccesstooimpressionToDisabledare in。
Today, horizontal spelling is common in Japanese textbooks, but vertical spelling is also still used, e.g. B. in almost all novels, newspapers and magazines. With the standardization of horizontal notation on computers and smartphones, younger Japanese have become increasingly accustomed to horizontal notation. The fact that Japanese young people no longer read as many magazines and newspapers is also partly responsible for the development. Incidentally, Japanese books are always opened from left to right, i.e. the exact opposite way around to how they are opened in Germany. So from a German perspective, the books are almost mirror-inverted.
The two phonetic syllabaries hiragana and katakana were developed as simplified forms of the kanji adopted from China to make reading easier. "Phonetic" means they have no meaning on their own other than the sound they stand for. Unlike the kanji, where each character corresponds to a word, the kana have no meaning in themselves but only a reading (like our alphabet). The cursive (curved) hiragana was developed in the mid-eighth century for use in letters and fictional stories. The hiragana are simplified forms of kanji with the same reading.
These examples clarify how the hiragana were derived from kanji with the same reading:
Cheap (a) → Ah (a)
less than (i) → i (i)
woman (me) → me (me)
Below is a table with all the derivations.
The following table shows all hiragana that exist or, more precisely, that are still used today. There are variations of these hiragana. See below for a full table.
ほ (I have)
There is also the character "ん" (n), the only single consonant in Japanese
As mentioned above, there are variations of the hiragana listed. There are versions of the か (ka), さ (sa), た (ta) and は (ha) series with diacritics (these are small characters that are added to a letter, such as in German, e.g .the points above ä, ö and ü). The か (ka), さ (sa), た (ta), and は (ha) series have a version with dakuten (゛), which leads to が (ga), ざ (za), だ ( da) and ば (ba)-series and from the は (ha)-series a version with handakuten (゜) which thereby becomes the ぱ(pa)-series.
There are also diagraphs (that's what it's called when two letters combine to describe a sound). Thus き (ki), し (shi), ち (chi), に (ni), ひ (hi), み (mi) and り (ri) can be combined with や(ya), ゆ (yu) and よ ( yo) are combined. Then や (ya), ゆ (yu) and よ (yo) are added as small characters and し (shi) and ゃ (ya) become しゃ (sha), for example. The combined characters can also have diacritics again, e.g. しゃ (sha) becomes じゃ (ja)). So in total there are 46 hiragana and 58 variations. Below is a table with all characters and variations.
Complete hiragana table
The following table shows all hiragana in use and all variations of the same.
Origin der Hiragana
The following table shows how the hiragana were derived from the kanji. You can see that the hiragana are simplified versions of the kanji.
The angular katakana were developed in the early 9th century to record the pronunciation of difficult kanji or add explanatory notes. Katakana are not a direct simplification of kanji but rather individual components of kanji with the same reading.
These examples illustrate how the katakana were derived from individual parts of kanji.
I (i) → I (i)
Jiang (e) → D (e)
Many (ta) → Ta (ta)
Below is a table with all the derivations.
The following table shows all katakana that exist or, more precisely, that are still used today. There are variations of these katakana. See below for a full table.
ホ (I have)
Also in the katakana there is of course the character ン (n).
Katakana has some variations that hiragana don't have. Since the katakana are mainly used for foreign language terms, some combinations were added to better represent the foreign language terms.
For example, my name, which is Tim, is spelled ティム in Japanese. The combination of "te" + "lowercase i" that together makes "ti" does not actually exist with Hiragana. So you could also write it with hiragana, but since hiragana is usually used for Japanese words and there is no such thing as the sound "ti" in Japanese, you don't need the combination for the hiragana. In total there are 46 katakana and 91 variations. Below is a table with all characters and variations.
Complete katakana table
The following table shows all katakana in use and all variations of the same.
Origin of the Katakana
The following table shows how the katakana were derived from the kanji. You can see that the katakana were developed from individual parts of the kanji.
The kanji (translated: Chinese characters) came to Japan in the form of Chinese texts via Korea around the 4th century. Since Japan did not have its own script at that time, the Chinese script was adopted, from which Hiragana and Katakana were then developed.
Initially, the kanji were only read according to their Chinese reading (on-yomi). Then the characters were used to match the already existing Japanese word. The resulting different reading with the Japanese language willkun-yomicalled. There are also kanji with severalon-yomiandkun-yomi.
So for example there is the kanji 犬 which means dog, the Chinese reading (on-yomi) is ken, but dog is inu in Japanese. Because of this, the kanji 犬 has two readings, the Chinese "ken" (on-yomi) and the Japanese “inu” (kun-yomi). When a word stands alone, the Japanese reading is most often used, and when the word is used in combination with another word that is of Chinese origin, the Chinese reading is used. So when 犬 stands alone, the character "inner' is read and means dog and for example 犬歯 which means canine becomes 'kenshi" gelesen.
How kanji work
The kanji work very differently from the two syllable alphabets, hiragana and katakana. In kanji, there is a character for almost every word. The kanji are so-called ideograms derived from pictograms. For example, with a little imagination, the kanji for river 川 looks like the flow of a river. By the way, kanji are the most important alphabet. In Japan, just using hiragana and katakana doesn't usually get you very far. For example, the Chinese often get along relatively well in Japan even without extensive knowledge of Japanese, since they are the mostKanjican read.
A popular example to illustrate the pictorial origin of kanji is e.g. B. the kanji for tree (木). Two trees then become a grove (林) and three trees become a forest (森). Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple with most kanji.
There are also rather simple kanji such as 一, ニ and 三 which mean one, two and three respectively, but there are also quite difficult kanji with many strokes e.g. B. 鬱, meaning depression.
How many kanji are there
There are 50,000-100,000 kanji depending on the source. About 3000 characters are common, of which you usually only need 2136 kanji, e.g. B. reading a Japanese newspaper. These 2136 kanji are called joyo kanji and have been standardized by the Japanese Ministry of Education. These are also the kanji that you need to know for the JLPT N1 (the highest Japanese language certificate) and which all Japanese learn in the course of their school career. Depending on the department, e.g. B. in science but also in other areas, there are many other kanji. I can read a little over 2000 kanji myself.
I have created a table with the kanji that you need for the JLPT N5 (the first level of the official Japanese language certificate). If a kanji has multiple meanings, I chose one.
Japanese also learn the Latin alphabet in school. In Japanese, these characters are called Romaji (Roman characters). The Latin alphabet is rarely used actively. You can find it e.g. B. on T-shirts as a fashionable imprint (like Japanese characters are also used as a fashionable imprint here) or sometimes on television or in advertisements. So by rare I mean you won't usually find them in a Japanese book or newspaper. In everyday life, as my pictures above have shown, they are omnipresent.
More on Japanese characters
If you want to delve even deeper into the world of Japanese characters, I can recommend the book "Kanji and Kana: The World of Japanese Writing in One Volume. LEARNING BOOK AND LEXICON“* recommend by Wolfgang Hadamitzky.
If you have any questions about the Japanese characters, I would be very happy to receive a comment. Even if you have a suggestion for improvement, I would of course be happy to receive a comment.
If you liked my post "The World of Japanese Characters" and you are learning Japanese, you might like my post "Japanese series and films on Amazon Prime" interesting for you.
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I started this blog in 2019 on the occasion of my semester abroad at Tokyo University. However, my passion for Japan began in 2012 with an unforgettable sports exchange I attended with a club from Iwate Prefecture. This experience opened my eyes to the fascinating culture and uniqueness of Japan.
On my blog I share travel tips as well as exciting information about the culture, language, food and history of Japan.
Arigatou gozaimasu und bis bald!
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