What’s the origin of Japanese language? Despite the many theories, nobody knows for sure. Some linguists argue that it is an isolated language, some suggest links with Korean language or Altaic languages. Despite the lack of definite information about its origins, there is still a lot to be said about Japanese language. What we will try to do here is to focus on the written aspect. Japanese has a writing system composed of three different systems: kanji, hiragana and katakana. I know what you’re thinking: How is this possible? Why is there need of such a complex system? The answer lays in the history of this beautiful language. Let’s see what happened.

The History of Written Japanese

The history of Japanese language conventionally starts in the 8th century, the date of the first written evidences. The most ancient texts of Japan are the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan), and the Man’yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves). The first records are written in Classical Chinese, but soon a new system was developed, the Man’yōgana, that used Chinese characters both for their phonetic and semantic value. This system was quite complicated. Some kanji had a meaning, some were just there for the way they were read, and there were so many of them… How could things be made a bit easier? That’s when hiragana and katakana, the two phonetic syllabaries, were invented. In history there has been many attempt to simplify things: the number of kanji was reduced to about 2000 for common use (jōyō kanji), and some scholars even wanted to replace completely kanji with kana or latin alphabet! The main problem with this approach is that Japanese language has many homophones. Getting rid of kanji at once would create a lot of problems, since so many words would be written in the same way. With little or no context, it would be extremely hard to figure out which word means what. Given that the one with kanji and kana is the best solution to keep the language understandable, let’s give a closer look to kanji and kana.

Kanji

An example of Kanji

An example of Kanji

Kanji (literally, “Han characters”) were borrowed from China in ancient times. What makes them different from alphabetic writings is that sometimes they have a phonetic value, sometimes they depict an image. Adopting kanji was not a simple process for the Japanese. Being invented for a completely different language, kanji arrived to Japan with their own meanings and pronunciation, so a lot of work needed to be done in order to adjust them for Japanese language. Nowadays, a single kanji can be read in many different ways. Japanese people make a distinction between on’yomi (literally “sound reading”, from Chinese) and kun’yomi (literally “meaning reading”, native Japanese). A good example for this can be the character 生, which is read as sei, shō, nama, ki, o-u, i-kiru, i-kasu, i-keru, u-mu, u-mareru, ha-eru, and ha-yasu. The very same character can be read in 8 different ways! In Japanese there are about 2000 common kanji. No wonder that children spend so many years in school learning how to read!

Hiragana and Katakana

As we said, next to kanji there are two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana. They were invented by monks in the 9th century, and they represent simplified kanji. The first one is used to express grammatical functions in sentences, or as a replacement for kanji when the meaning is easily understandable.

The structure of Hiragana

From Wikipedia

Katakana, on the other hand, is mainly used for foreign words and to stress specific words. It’s also common to use katakana to write animal names.

The structure of Katakana

From Wikipedia

Furigana

Furigana is the kana that sometimes appears on kanji to show their pronunciation. It is used to indicate rare or ambiguous readings, or in learners’ materials. Furigana is often written in hiragana, although in special cases katakana is used instead. 

For Your Trip to Japan

Read our Learning Japanese for your Trip to Japan – Top 3 Tips article to learn some useful phrases!