Ian Andreas Miller.  6 February 2003.

     Some of the articles at DIES GAUDII contain Notes and Supplementary Information sections that provide short descriptions of the Japanese writing system.  It occurred to me that a more thorough description would be appropriate for the site. This article provides a satisfactory description.  It also provides some basic rules for Japanese orthography.  My Romanization article may also be helpful to the reader.  Note that much of the information in this article derives from the NTC's New Japanese-English Character Dictionary (editor in chief Jack Halpern, National Textbook Company, 1993), which is an excellent resource.

Kana

     Each kana character represents one syllable.  The basic syllables are arranged in a table called the Gojonzu, which means table of 50 sounds.  It can be referred to as the kana table.  The table, which consists of ten columns running from right to left arranged in five rows, can be written in either hiragana or katakana.  In either script, the symbols represent exactly the same sounds.  All the sounds in the table, except / n, end in a vowel.  Note that some syllables are missing from the basic chart, while others have become obsolete.  Later, the nasal consonant / n was added, so that the table now contains distinct symbols for 46 sounds.

Hiragana

     Hiragana is used primarily to write grammatical words and elements, such as inflectional endings, particles, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs.  It is also used to write some native Japanese words not normally written in kanji (characters from China), such as adverbs and certain nouns and adjectives, as well as words whose kanji are difficult or obsolete.

Hiragana Syllabary: Basic Chart

Hiragana Syllabary: Voiced Sounds

Hiragana Syllabary: Palatalized Sounds

Hiragana Syllabary: Palatalized Voiced Sounds

Origin of Hiragana

     The hiragana characters are derived from Chinese characters having the same or similar pronunciations.  For example, a originates from the character an.  Hiragana is based on cursive form of Chinese characters, so that the characters have rounded, smoothly flowing contours and an elegant appearance.

Katakana

     Katakana is used primarily to write Western loanwords, non-Japanese proper names (except for Chinese and Korean names), and onomatopoeic words.  It is also used to write the names of some plants and animals, for writing telegrams, and for emphasis (like italics in English).

Katakana Syllabary: Basic Chart

Katakana Syllabary: Voiced Sounds

Katakana Syllabary: Palatalized Sounds

Katakana Syllabary: Palatalized Voiced Sounds

Katakana Syllabary: Combinations for Loanwords

Origin of Katakana

     The katakana characters are derived from Chinese characters having the same or similar pronunciations.  For example, a originates from the character a.  Unlike hiragana, which is based on simplifications of whole Chinese characters, most katakana characters originate from single character components.  Since katakana is based on the square style of Chinese characters, the characters have square, angular contours and a clean appearance.

Long Vowels

     Japanese vowels are of two kinds: short vowels ( tan’on) and long vowels ( chon).  All the basic sounds of the kana table except for / n, end in a short vowel.  A long vowel is approximately double the length of a short vowel ( sounds like a in father).  For hiragana, a long vowel is written by repeating the vowel of sounds ending in a, i, or u.  Example: ka + a k.

     Sounds ending in o are normally lengthened by adding the vowel u to a sound ending in o.  Example: ko + u k.

     In a small number of exceptions, o is used instead of u for historical reasons.  Example: () kii.

     Sounds ending in e are sometimes lengthened by adding e, but more often by adding i.  Examples: ne + e n; ke + i kei.

     The vowel of a palatalized sound is lengthened in the same way as an ordinary sound.  Example: kyo + u ky.

     The katakana symbols represent exactly the same sounds as the corresponding hiragana symbols.  In principle, everything that has been said about hiragana orthography applies in every detail to katakana orthography as well.  The main difference between katakana and hiragana is that in writing katakana loanwords, long vowels are usually indicated by adding to the previous character a dash-like symbol () called chonfu.  Example: ka + k.

     However, the vowels of words that are not Western loanwords are often lengthened in the same manner in katakana as in hiragana.  Example: () kyto.

Double Consonants

     The consonants k, s, sh, t, ch, and p can be doubled.  The double consonants ( sokuon) are pronounced separately as if they were distinct syllables.  They are indicated by a small tsu (/) placed before the consonant to be doubled.  Note that basic sounds such as / ka, as well as palatalized sounds such as / sha can be doubled.  Examples: () kekka; () hatch.

Kanji

     Kanji are the ideographic, phonetic, and pictographic characters that were primarily developed in China.  They are typically more complex than kana and they have different meanings and pronunciations depending on how they are combined with other kanji and kana.  Although most kanji were developed in China, some of them (the kokuji) were developed in Japan.  Some of those kanji were even reabsorbed back into Chinese.

     The are two categories for the Japanese pronunciations of kanji: on readings ( onyomi) and kun readings ( kunyomi).  The on readings are derived from the original Chinese pronunciations of the characters.  They are often used when a kanji is part of a compound.  The kun readings are often used when kanji are used alone.  Some kanji use kun readings instead of on readings to make compounds.  Most kanji have at least one on reading and one kun reading each, but many kanji have no kun reading and a few have no on reading.

Furigana

     Sometimes, small hiragana or katakana characters, called furigana or Ruby ( rubi), are placed along the top or the side of the kanji to indicate their pronunciations.  Example:


chinmoku

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