There are three main writing systems in the Japanese language; Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Beginners often begin their Japanese lessons by tackling Hiragana before moving onto Katakana. Kanji comprises of many characters and most learners pick up some Kanji as they learn the Japanese language. Here, I will give a brief introduction of these three writing systems. 


Hiragana is made up of 46 basic characters with different pronunciation. This is used in the same manner as the alphabets are in English. The 46 characters are mixed and put together to achieve words and phrases with different meaning. Most Japanese Language students will start by memorizing these 46 basic Hiragana characters. 


A Hiragana chart. 

Hiragana is most commonly used for normal writing in Japanese. The top section of the image shows the 46 basic characters. More characters are also included in the Hiragana, as shown in the bottom section of the table. 

By mixing the sounds for the characters (on the left side of the table above) with the sounds for ya, yu and yo, more combinations of Hiragana characters are derived. 


More Hiragana characters.

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Another writing system in the Japanese Language is the Katakana. This system is similar to the Hiragana in terms of the pronunciation. There are various uses for the Katakana system. Katakana is mostly used to translate foreign terms into Japanese. For example, names of foreigners are mostly written in Katakana. 

Katakana is also used to emphasize various terms. It is similar to using the bold or italics in written text. Another similar use is to depict sounds, as frequently seen in Japanese comics which are also known as manga. 


A Katakana chart.

The Katakana is structured in the same way as the Hiragana is. There are 46 basic characters which are mixed and combined to form new characters. It can be thought of as having a duplicate set of alphabets that are used for specific purposes. 


Imagine trying to write an article in Hiragana and Katakana only. A sentence may spread through 2 whole sentences! To make the Japanese language easier to read, Kanji can be used.

Kanji is made up of characters similar to those found in Chinese. Individual Kanji characters have their own meaning and can be combined with other Kanji to express a wider range of meanings. Kanji is used along side Hiragana and Katakana. 

Imagine writing out the word 'beautiful' in hiragana (うつくしい) and the same word in Kanji (美しい). Now your Japanese sentences can be shorten, at least on paper. 

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Kanji is usually picked up by Japanese learners during their journey to master the language. 

There are a group of students who advocate the focus on memorizing commonly used Kanji characters, as part of mastering Japanese. Depending on your study style, you can choose to either focus on the Kanji characters at the beginning of your Japanese learning journey, or you could choose to focus on your grammar and vocabulary first.

In Summary

The three main writing systems in the Japanese language are as follows; Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.

Learn and memorize your Hiragana before moving on to Katakana. Using these two writing systems, you can pick up Kanji slowly later, while learning more about the Japanese grammar and vocabulary.

Tips for learning Japanese

And as for learning any language, remember to practice, practice and practice the language. Find a pen pal or a native speaker whom you can talk to and exchange language tips. Get enrolled onto a course either online or at a language school. This will ensure that you get to practice the language at least once a week. 

Expose yourself to the language and culture. With the power of the internet, you can have access to the Japanese language and culture on various media sites.