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Japanese Writing Systems

Modern Japanese uses a mixture of several different character sets, often within the same sentence.

Kana - カナ
The kana are two separate sets of phonetic alphabets (Hiragana & Katakana) with 46 characters each that can be used to write all the sounds in the Japanese language. The sounds represented by a kana character can be modified by either adding one of the two Diacritical Mark (See “Diacritical Marks in Chapter 2) or by combining two kana to form a new sound (See “Combining Kana” in Chapter 2).

Unlike English where the same letter can have many different readings depending on the word, the Kana are pronounced consistently with only a small number of exceptions (See "Orthography and Exceptions" in Chapter 2).

Hiragana - ひらがな
Hiragana can be thought of as the native alphabet of Japanese. All complete sentences in Japanese will have some Hiragana in them. Hiragana were originally a simplified cursive representation of Chinese characters (Kanji) so they have a fluid look and feel.

Katakana - カタカナ
In modern usage Katakana is used almost exclusively for words imported from foreign languages (Ex. Beer, Television) or for transliterating the names of foreign people or places (Ex. Bill Clinton, Washington). Katakana were originally created by taking only a part of a Kanji and simplifying it. They have a very blocky look and feel.

Kanji - 漢字
The Kanji are Chinese characters (See "History of Kanji and Kana" in Chapter 3). Each Kanji usually represents one or more related ideas and can have different readings depending on the word. The pronunciation is called "On Yomi" (Yomi means reading) if the pronunciation is based on the original Chinese pronunciation or "Kun Yomi" if it is based on the pronunciation of a native Japanese word.

Use our TenguGo Kanji to learn the Kanji.

Rōmaji - ローマ字
The Roman alphabet is also used in a few rare instances. Note that Rōma is written in Katakana since it is the transliteration of a foreign word. Rōmaji are used in certain instance such as abbreviations and acronyms
NHK - stands for Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (日本放送協会)
CM - stands for Commercial
Or in literature where it is used for anonymous people and places
X-さん - means X-san or Mr. X

Arabic Numerals
Numbers are written in either Kanji or Arabic Numerals. Either way they will be pronounced the same. Whether to use Kanji or Arabic Numerals depends on the context and on the size of the number. Small numbers (Ex. less than 10) are usually written in Kanji while large numbers are usually written with Arabic Numerals. There are however no set rules on which to use.

Here is a sample sentence mixing Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji:
I like beer