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The Japanese writing system

Modern Japanese writing system

Modern Japanese uses four different scripts:

  • Kanji 漢字 are Chinese characters adapted to write Japanese, used to write:
    • nouns;
    • stems of adjectives and verbs;
    • Japanese names.
  • Hiragana 平仮名 is a syllabary, used to write:
    • inflectional endings for adjectives and verbs (okurigana 送りがな);
    • grammatical particles (joshi 助詞);
    • Japanese words with no kanji, or where the author didn't know the kanji, or where the kanji is likely to be unknown to the intended readership;
    • indications of how to read kanji (furigana ふりがな);
    • some common words which are perceived as easier to read in hiragana than kanji: for example, takusan (many) is more frequently written たくさん instead of 沢山.
  • Katakana 片仮名 is another syllabary, used to write:
    • emphasized words, like italics in English text;
    • words and names from foreign languages (see below for more)
    • onomatopoeia;
    • words pronounced in a robot-like manner (originating from the use of katakana by early Japanese computers).
  • Rōmaji ローマ字 are Roman characters, used to write:
    • numbers in horizontal writing (note that some people lump Arabic-derived European numerals (アラビア数字, 洋数字) in with romaji);
    • international units of measurement;
    • acronyms and initialisms.

For example, here is a phrase using all four scripts (a headline from the Asahi Shimbun on April 19, 2004) (kanji red, hiragana blue, katakana green, rōmaji and European numerals black):

ラドクリフマラソン五輪代表>出場にも
radokurifu, marason gorin daihyō ni 1 man m shutsujō ni mo fukumi
"Radcliffe, Olympic marathon contestant, to consider also appearing in the 10,000 m"

For an example of a word (watashi, meaning "I") written in each of the four scripts, see the table below.

Kanji Hiragana Katakana Rōmaji
わたし ワタシ watashi

Since all Japanese are taught English in middle school and high school, most Japanese can read rōmaji. As a result, the amount of rōmaji in Japanese has increased considerably in recent decades. Japanese popular music lyrics in particular increasingly contain English words and phrases. Foreign loanword (gairaigo 外来語) usage has both proponents and opponents in and out of Japan.

Notes on East Asian Loanwords and Katakana

A large portion of the Japanese lexicon is comprised of direct borrowings from Chinese languages. These borrowings were historically written using the same kanji used to write the original words, but it's not a hard-and-fast rule that katakana is never used to write Mandarin, Cantonese, and Korean loanwords. Almost all modern loanwords in Japanese are written using katakana; some examples from East Asian languages include:
  • ロートル (Japanese: rootoru, Mandarin: 老頭児 lao3 tou2 er, meaning 'old')
  • チョンガー (Japanese: chongaa, Korean: 총각 chonggak, meaning 'bachelor')
  • ワンタン (Japanese: wantan, Cantonese: 雲呑 won ton, a type of dumpling)
  • ビビンバ (Japanese: bibimba, Korean: 비빔밥 bibimbap, a rice bowl with vegetables)
  • ラーメン (Japanese: raamen, Mandarin: 拉麺 la1 mian4, the popular noodle soup ramen)
  • The converse also occasionally happens; western loanwords which fall into common use can be assigned kanji. The most notable example is tabaco, which comes from portuguese.

    Early writing system

    The Japanese writing system can be traced back to the 4th century AD, when the written Chinese language was introduced to Japan. No definitive evidence of any native Japanese writing system that predates this is known to exist. Initially, this was not used for writing Japanese: to be a literate Japanese meant the ability to read and write Classical Chinese. Eventually a system called kanbun (漢文) was developed, which used both Chinese characters (kanji) and something very similar to Chinese grammar, but often with diacritic marks placed alongside the Chinese text to give hints as to the Japanese equivalent. The earliest written history of Japan, the Kojiki (古事記), believed to have been compiled sometime before 712, was written in kanbun. Japanese schoolchildren are still taught introductory classes in kanbun.

    There was still no system for rendering Japanese in written form until the development of manyogana (万葉仮名), which used Chinese characters for their phonetic value (derived from their Chinese readings) rather than their semantic value. Manyogana was initially used to record poetry, as in the Manyoshu (万葉集), which was compiled sometime before 759, and from which the writing system derives its name. Hiragana and katakana were both outgrowths from manyogana.

    Due to the large number of words and concepts entering Japan from China which had no native equivalent, many kanji words entered Japanese directly, with a pronunciation similar to the original Chinese. This Chinese-derived reading is known as on-yomi 音読み, and this vocabulary as whole is referred to as Sino-Japanese. At the same time, native Japanese already had words corresponding to many borrowed kanji. Authors increasingly used kanji to represent these words. This Japanese-derived reading is known as kun-yomi 訓読み. A kanji may have zero, one or several of each of on-yomi and kun-yomi. In verbs and adjectives, okurigana can help disambiguate a particular kanji's reading.

    Linguists have sometimes compared Japan's borrowing and adaptation of Chinese words into Japanese as similar to the effect that the Norman conquest of the British Isles had on the English language. Like English, Japanese has many synonyms of differing origin: words from both Chinese and native Japanese. In another similarity, words of Chinese origin often sound more formal or intellectual to a Japanese speaker, just as the latinate words in English often sound to an English speaker.

    Written language reforms and Western influence

    The Japanese writing system remained largely unchanged up until the 19th century Meiji era educational reforms. These reforms included:

    The removal of the archaic ゐ/ヰ /wi/ and ゑ/ヱ /we/ from the syllabary.

    The change of archaic verb ending and particle spellings to modern pronunciation.

    The addition of ん (-/n/) to the syllabary.

    The arrangement of kana in a more easily memorized and logical order (/a/, /i/, /u/, /e/, /o/), rather than the arrangement based on the traditional iroha poem.

    The start of debates which eventually led to a government approved set of kanji for general use. These lists, the tōyō kanji 当用漢字 and jōyō kanji 常用漢字, were officially approved in 1946 and 1981, respectively. Similar lists for kanji used in names were similarly approved (jinmeiyō kanji 人名用漢字). Today, 1,945 kanji characters are taught in the nine years of compulsory education, together with Hiragana and Katakana that represent 46 characters each.

    Western influences during the Meiji Era, and continued influences during the American occupation after World War II, also had important effects on the Japanese written language. One effect was on the use of foreign words (gairaigo 外来語) in Japanese, as well as the increased use of rōmaji. Another effect was to change the writing direction of Japanese.

    Until the Meiji era, Japanese text was written top to bottom, right to left. The Meiji era saw the first use of horizontally written Japanese. Before World War II, this horizontal text was written from right to left, so as to be consistent with traditional Japanese writing. After the end of World War II, text started to be written from left to right, in the common western style. Both kinds of writing are still in use today. Occasionally, horizontal writing from right to left can still be seen, when the reader is likely to encounter the text in that direction (i.e. on the sides of vehicles, where text is often written from the front to the rear on both sides of the vehicle). This can sometimes cause a funny situation. "Kaba", a type of tree, was used as a name for a frigate in WWII but was spelled "Baka", "idiot" on the side of the ship.

    Later reforms include changing the kana representation to accord with modern pronunciation. For more information, see Historical kana usage.

    Nuances of the writing system

    One of the less well-known aspects of the modern Japanese writing system is that it allows for transmitting information usually done by using different words or by adding extra descriptive words in other languages. For example, Kanji watashi 私 "I" is often used in formal writing and by both sexes. Hiragana watashi わたし tends to be used in informal writing such as a diary or a letter to a friend and by a female. Katakana watashi ワタシ is used only rarely; Katakana is primarily used to spell out foreign words. Rōmaji watashi is rarely used and when it is, is used with a special message in mind.

    When a Japanese reader encounters the different script, he can infer the nuance and the subject of the sentence. In manga (to a lesser extent, video games), encoding information by script shifts plays a significant role as it enables artists to pack more information in a little space. For example, with the single word watashi in Katakana readers will expect a foreign character to appear next, without even a single drawing of a foreigner beforehand. This could also be used for a dramatic effect coupled with the conjugation of verbs. A female disguised as a male could be written to use Kanji watashi when her secret is kept with the appropriate conjugation of verbs. Then when the secret is revealed, she would be written to use Hiragana watashi without taking off her disguise or any change in the way she is drawn. This technique could be inverted if a male is disguised as a female. With these techniques, even artists with limited drawing skill could represent different characters easily. This technique is used in other forms of literature, with similar or even more dramatic effects.

    In addition to this, kanji compounds can be given arbitrary readings for stylistic purposes: in Natsume Soseki's short story The Fifth Night the example 接続って can be found, which would usually be written 繋がって or just つながって .

    Romanization

    There are a number of methods of rendering Japanese in Roman letters. The Hepburn method of romanization, designed for English speakers, is a de facto standard widely used inside and outside Japan (and used in the English Wikipedia). The Kunrei-shiki system has a better correspondance with kana, making it easier for the Japanese themselves to learn; it is officially sanctioned by the Ministry of Education, but rarely used outside Japan. Other systems of romanization include Nihon-shiki and JSL. A comparison of the four main systems is given in the rōmaji article.


    This article was derived fully or in part from an article on Wikipedia.org. This article is distributed under the terms of GNU Free Documentation License.
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