By: Alison On: April 17, 2019 In: Languages Comments: 69
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The Japanese language relies on not one but three different alphabets — hiragana, katakana and kanji — which are differentiated both by their distinct appearances and by their use.

No wonder Japanese is such a difficult language for English-speakers to learn!

Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji: Defining the Differences

Hiragana and katakana — collectively referred to by the generic term kanamoji — are both syllabic alphabets of 47 characters, each of which represents a sound. Some of the characters between the two alphabets even represent the exact same sounds and look quite similar to one another.

The major difference between hiragana and katakana is the fact that hiragana is primarily used to represent Japanese words, while katakana represents foreign words. Japanese is a language with many borrowed words, and katakana immediately alerts the reader to the fact that the word is an imported one.

Kanji is the major alphabet of the Japanese language, consisting of more than 8,000 characters, each of which represents an abstract concept, general word, or name. By combining individual kanji characters, it’s possible to create phrases in the same way that English language speakers would.

What makes kanji so tricky is the fact that a single kanji character can have multiple meanings. Readers must rely on the context and familiarity with the language to determine which meaning is the intended one.

Kanji can also have multiple pronunciations. In some cases, syllabic hiragana characters are placed above kanji in order to indicate pronunciation. When used toward this purpose, hiragana is referred to as furigana.

Historical Development of Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji

Founded on a Chinese model, the basis of modern Japanese kanji developed around the 5th century AD, after a period of cultural contact with the Chinese. This Chinese-based model was known as manyogana.

However, basic differences between Chinese and Japanese — such as the fact that Chinese relies primarily on monosyllables while Japanese words are usually polysyllabic — demanded that a distinct Japanese writing system be developed.

During the Heian Period (794 – 1192), changes were made accordingly when the overly-difficult manyogana was adapted to create a Japanese script that was partly syllabic (characters based on sounds i.e. hiragana and katakana) and partly logographic (characters based on concepts i.e. kanji).

Are Three Alphabets for One Language too Much?

Upholding three writing systems for use in a single language may seem unnecessarily confusing — even downright crazy to a native English-language speaker who relies on just one 26-character alphabet.

However, Japan’s three alphabets are all integral components of a single Japanese writing system. They complement one another in necessary ways, as is the case with furigana (the use of hiragana to clarify kanji pronunciation).

Then again, it may be argued that a simpler solution would be to rely on hiragana in such instances, rather than having to write out two sets of characters.

Reforms have been made to the Japanese writing system since World War II, but complications persist. The enduring question is whether practicality should always be put first or whether traditional writing systems should be maintained for prosperity, both in the interest of maintaining historical roots and an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy?

What do you think? Are you in the process of learning Japanese? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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Just_Some_Random_Weeb
Just_Some_Random_Weeb
2 years ago

Accept it, you are here because of anime too aren’t you

YouCaughtMe
YouCaughtMe
18 days ago

Didn’t really come here to be called out …

BleepBloop
BleepBloop
1 month ago

Yep…

Zenery
Zenery
2 months ago

yeah

kuga_senpai
kuga_senpai
4 months ago

I’m learning the language and I’ve fully learned hiragana not katakana and just found out about kanji and i’m like what the hell even is that i think it’s maybe too had but ill try.

weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeb
weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeb
5 days ago
Reply to  kuga_senpai

i know full katakana, kanji is hell (no offense to anyone ,im just bad at it), and hiragana, well…im not the best at it.

Sensei_Kakashi
Sensei_Kakashi
3 months ago
Reply to  kuga_senpai

Kanji is originally from China.

Ali
Ali
1 month ago
Reply to  Sensei_Kakashi

Kanji means character same with chinese

Aria
Aria
3 months ago
Reply to  kuga_senpai

What did you use to learn it?

#02 itSKatsura
#02 itSKatsura
1 month ago
Reply to  Aria

Duolingo in app store.

captainhookhimself
captainhookhimself
5 months ago

that and the fact i listen to japanese music on spotify all the time and i didnt know what language it was

Abegail
Abegail
5 months ago

not only anime but also to learn this language so I won’t have any difficulties when I go to Japan (I’m only dreaming to go there, dunno if I’ll be able to make it or not XD), I’m only 13 and it’s way too difficult to learn a language such hard and complicated like this one with all my studies going on…

just.a.typicalgirl
just.a.typicalgirl
1 day ago
Reply to  Abegail

omggggg, same, im 13 also and i badly want to learn japanese language and go thereeeee.

who?
who?
2 months ago
Reply to  Abegail

you can do it! just be consistent and dont give up

Emi
Emi
2 months ago
Reply to  Abegail

I’m a bit into anime, but the real reason I’m learning japanese is because I just love to know different stuff and languages. I’m also 13, and have studies, I learn for school on weekend, but yet I still free time for Japanese even if it means reducing my sleep. When I started learning I thought I’ll never make it, especially because it’s already very hard for me to learn german even when i have a teacher there (we have to learn it in school), but the more days without stopping I spent trying to learn hiragana the more easy it bace to learn anything in japanese. I just wanna say – if you try hard enough, it becomes easy later on.

Khushi Khatri
Khushi Khatri
4 months ago
Reply to  Abegail

Hey, I’m 12 and mine thoughts and life are same as yours!

carrson
carrson
5 months ago
Reply to  Abegail

don’t worry bro im 15 and im learning the language, im going to go to japan in summer 2021 so i figured i would learn it. what im saying is if you put in the work you will be able to do it. its just a lot of repetition to memorize things.

brooks
brooks
4 months ago
Reply to  carrson

i used to live in japan when i was young, I lived in Okinawa. Great place! what part of japan are you going to?

tom
tom
3 months ago
Reply to  brooks

Do you have any tips for learning japanese?

Ricky
Ricky
5 months ago
Reply to  carrson

I do agree!!

yellouchu
yellouchu
1 year ago

So I’m just starting to learn Japanese, using the app “Japanese!“ (thats actually an app name even though it doesn’t look like one lol) But I got kinda confused on how many alphabets there are. I knew that there was Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji but I didn’t know why to have 3 alphabets and I didn’t really know the difference between them. But this really helped me! Thank you!

strange_Missterys
strange_Missterys
1 year ago

no actually xD our school suddenl decided to have nihongo classes and i was so bored at first then i met anime and was suddenly interested in all things japanese….except history eeepp

Harriet
Harriet
3 years ago

Kanji is used for the roots of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs. Hiragana is used for the declensions and tenses and endings of the root words as well as articles and prepositions. Katakana is used for foreign words. Example: She walked to a special American crafts store. Kanji: she, walk, special, crafts, store. Hiragana: -ed, to, a Katakana: American

Nina
Nina
3 months ago
Reply to  Harriet

Thnks Harriet what else example u ‘ve

brooks
brooks
4 months ago
Reply to  Harriet

thanks harriet, you are an angel. This helped a lot.

carrson
carrson
5 months ago
Reply to  Harriet

thank you a lot. i was worried about when i have to learn this but now i understand it a lot better

Mikey mike
Mikey mike
1 year ago
Reply to  Harriet

Great explanation!

Morgan Jones
Morgan Jones
4 years ago

I don’t understand how Hiragana works, and it would help if i can find some similarities between the Japanese language and the English language.

B
B
10 months ago
Reply to  Morgan Jones

Hiragana and katakana are made up of syllables, not just pure sounds like English. Example: か(ka) is one character. In English (ka) is two characters. Hiragana have many similarities to English at all for all I know, but I hope this helped you understand hiragana better. ( ◠‿◠ )

Sam
Sam
4 years ago
Reply to  Morgan Jones

ok im no expert, but i pretty sure hiragana is for words that are purely Japanese, and katakana is for words stolen from other languages (i know there are some words that are similar that are in Korean and Japanese) and then kanji is like symbols that mean more than just like sounds or letters,they can be pieced together for entire phrases and such. Im no expert but this is what i have learned (?)

Eli
Eli
7 months ago
Reply to  Sam

that’s right. In my experience, katakana is a much easier language to learn, because it is spoken much more often in the context of normal speech, where as hiragana is more of a business format. Like a example is how in english we normally print everything but for more official documentation we use cursive. And then kanji to the other two is like what latin is to english. Most english speakers can understand it, but there are many special rules with prefixes and such, that most people in japan will never learn all the kanji characters, just like how most english speakers wont learn much latin. And then Romaji is weird because it is japanese that has been “Romanticised” So it is basically english that is written in the way you speak japanese. i hope this all helps 🙂

B
B
10 months ago
Reply to  Sam

OOP sorry I thought you were the other person

B
B
10 months ago
Reply to  Sam

Hiragana and katakana are made up of syllables, not just pure sounds like English. Example: か(ka) is one character. In English (ka) is two characters. Hiragana have many similarities to English at all for all I know, but I hope this helped you understand hiragana better. ( ◠‿◠ )

sakura
sakura
3 years ago

I’m sorry to say but this is really very confusing I’m learning Japanese unable to understand what to learn first and how please help me

Emi
Emi
2 months ago
Reply to  sakura

first learn the katakana.
I don’t know what would be the ”right” way, but i am learning katakana first, then some grammar and vocabulary, and then katakana and kanji, along with all other vocabulary and grammar.

B
B
10 months ago
Reply to  sakura

I think it is better to learn hiragana, then katakana, then kanji. Then you learn the vocabulary. Hope this helps (^-^)

Sam
Sam
1 year ago
Reply to  sakura

I started with katakana, but I recommend starting with Hiragana.

kakashi
kakashi
2 years ago
Reply to  sakura

If you are a lazy person and you want to learn Japanese quick then you have to learn katakana and hiragana at the same time its kind of confusing and hard learn the alphabet and then you can start with words and at the last will be kanji If you are not a lazy person then firs hiragana and then katakana then words and kanji

Some wise guy
Some wise guy
7 months ago
Reply to  kakashi

lol what about me i already no more than 3 langs

Hikaru jin
Hikaru jin
1 year ago
Reply to  kakashi

Joho gen wa shinrai dekimasen!!!!

Eli
Eli
7 months ago
Reply to  Hikaru jin

Romaji. Nice

Nyah Chan
Nyah Chan
3 years ago
Reply to  sakura

Learn hiragana first using the app called Memrise, I learned hiragana from there and still learning the language.
it’s a very useful app I highly recommend to anyone who wishes to learn japanese.

Abegail
Abegail
5 months ago
Reply to  Nyah Chan

can you only learn hiragana through this app? or katakana and kanji as well?

Hilde S.
Hilde S.
3 years ago
Reply to  Nyah Chan

Funny, I came here because of that app! I was having trouble with the alphabet at first, but I think I’m getting the hang of it after about 3 days.. I started to look up an alphabet to see if I had learned all the symbols because I want to make flashcards for myself. Then I was confused when I didn’t see any familiar characters! This was because I had been learning Hiragana, and the chart I found was Katakana! And then I realized Kanji was something completely different! I’ve been using these three words interchangeably by accident thinking they were the same. I decided to do some more research to learn the difference between the three. Knowing this will make learning Japanese much easier with that app. And now I know what to look forward to when I really get into the hard stuff!

cookies loves ass
cookies loves ass
3 years ago

THANK YOU EVERYONE!!!

Japanese
Japanese
4 years ago

I’m Japanese.If there are not Hiragana, Katakana and Kanjis to Japanese, it might hard to read Japanese text for Native speaker.

zubaida
zubaida
3 years ago
Reply to  Japanese

so it is necessarily to learn all of them to be able to write and read in Japanese

google user
google user
2 years ago

I give up… cant learn Japanese…normal people use 2%of their brain but I don’t even use 1%!! I use like 0.01%!!!!!!!!!!!!

Joice
Joice
4 years ago

This post really enlightened me. Thank you.

tom marshall
tom marshall
2 years ago

For an introduction to how hiragana works, have a look at the first couple of lessons in the Duolingo (free) Japanese course, which starts with this. I found this page here, because other people studying it were saying that they should teach Kanji,not Hiragana, and I wanted to know the difference. Perhaps if hiragana allow one to create a readable form for Japanese words, then that makes a good start? You have to start somewhere!

GAJENDRA phombo
GAJENDRA phombo
2 years ago

I got confused while looking these three different scripts and symbols. Can we use these three different scripts in a sentence.

Guy
Guy
2 years ago

I suggest Duolingo, it’s been one day and I already know some of the basic hiragana characters.

z
z
2 years ago

which one should i learn first? This is super confusing.

Yellouchu
Yellouchu
1 year ago
Reply to  z

I’m just a starter but I think you should learn Hiragana first. It will be the easiest!

bob
bob
2 years ago

i see a chalenge 🙂

lucas
lucas
2 years ago

which alphabet should i learn first. i see a chalenge and im going to complete it

Prime Ex
Prime Ex
9 months ago
Reply to  lucas

Hiragana period. (it’s the easiest but it still contains 71 single letters and 36 double characters like katakana)

Wendy Fink
Wendy Fink
1 year ago

I found a really good app that suits my learning style, called Drops. It teaches Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji, pronunciation etc by using repetition, like flash cards almost, it teaches how to draw the characters etc. Some may find it helpful, i have really enjoyed using it!

Vlad
Vlad
11 months ago

Anyone who wants to learn Japanese should check out Tofugu’s article titled “learn Japanese: a ridiculously detailed guide”. It will help you tremendously!

Prime Ex
Prime Ex
9 months ago

realkana.com is what i used to memorize both hiragana and katakana. It involves every letters of the two . It helps me read fast and type fast also u can decide on which category (a,i,u,e,o ka,ki,ku,ke,ko etc..) you want to memorize first.

Prime Ex
Prime Ex
9 months ago

Also Realkana.com is a very fast way to memorize Katakana and hiragana (excluding the doubles). After that i use duolingo or japanese dictionary and youtube to learn words. (this isn’t an advertisement i just wanna share my opinion of the easiest way to learn it.)

Meh learn Japanese
Meh learn Japanese
8 months ago

Just saying kanji has more than 50,00 symbols

Aparna
Aparna
8 months ago

which language is used in japan driving license??Hiragana, Katakana, or Kanji??

Abegail
Abegail
5 months ago

how am i supposed to learn japanese when i’m only 13 and have all my studies and stuff? any suggestions? anyone?

eva
eva
5 months ago
Reply to  Abegail

you should probably just study it in your free time and see if your school has an international languages program to help

mastered_ultra_instinct_sonic7112
mastered_ultra_instinct_sonic7112
5 months ago

use an app called duolingo

me_my_waifu
me_my_waifu
4 months ago

where is the katakana and kanji

Idd
Idd
2 months ago

I was in japan but is very easy to learn japanese language

Rudelyne Sabado
Rudelyne Sabado
1 month ago

I’m here because of K