Understanding the Japanese Writing System

Understanding the Japanese Writing System

Japan is well known for its unique language and Japanese letters, and is one of the most recognisable writing systems in the world. For non-native speakers, especially Westerners, the Japanese language can seem interesting and exotic as it bears no resemblance to their own language, particularly in written format. However, the Japanese writing system is, in many ways, simpler than most European languages as there are less grammatical rules. However, Japanese reading and writing is more complex.

This post will break down the Japanese writing system to make it easier to understand. To do this, let's explore the three different types of script.

Japanese Writing Scripts

Japanese Writing Within the modern Japanese writing system there are three different types of script. These are Kanji and Kana.


Kanji are complex characters derived from Chinese. Kanji is what's called a 'logographic system' in which each symbol corresponds to a block meaning. There are thousands of Kanji characters within the Japanese writing system, with each having their own pronunciation. However, to make things complicated, each Kanji has multiple pronunciations depending on the context or conjunction. As stated earlier, Kanji is best described as a 'block of meaning' as one Kanji is not necessarily a 'word' on its own. A Kanji might have to be combined with another in order to make an actual work and express more complex concepts. There are several categories of Kanji; starting with the 'pictographs' which look like the objects they represent. The remaining 90% of Kanji are derived from 6 other categories in which basic elements (radicals) are combined to form new concepts; these are known as keisei moji or 'radical-phonetic compounds'. Simply, these characters are made of two parts: - A radical that tells you what category of word it is: plants, metals animals etc. - A second component that completes the character and gives it its pronunciation.


Kana consists of a pair of syllabaries, known as Hiragana and Katakana, each of which have 46 characters. All characters correspond to a combination of the 5 Japanese vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and the 9 consonants (k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w). These are much easier to learn than Kanji.


Hiragana are easily recognisable within the Japanese writing system for their roundish shape. These are used for 3 functions: 1. Particles- used to indicate the grammatical function of a word 2. Inflectional endings- to change the meaning of verbs, adverbs or adjectives which generally have a root written in Kanji. 3. Native Japanese words not covered in the other two scripts


Katakana are identifiable within Japanese letters for their straight lines and sharp corners. These are used for: 1. Loanwords from other languages 2. Transcribing foreign names 3. Used for emphasis (similar to italics or underlining in English) and for scientific terms (plants, animals, minerals, etc.) Now that you know about the different types of text within the Japanese writing system, we can start to understand when they are used. Typically, Japanese writing uses a mixture of the 3 scripts. In special instances, such as children's books or simplified materials for learners, everything may be only written in Hiragana and Katakana. Another key difference in the Japanese writing system is the orientation of the text, which can be vertical or horizontal. It is common to see both within Japanese writing, with both having a clear usage within the writing system. Typically, vertical orientated writing is used for 'traditional' Japanese novels or humanistic writings. Whilst horizontal text is used for 'contemporary', business documents and scientific and foreign language-related writings. If this has inspired you to try Japanese writing for yourself, why not have some practice on our authentic Japanese writing sets? Check out our Japanese stationary products for some calligraphy inspiration.
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