By: Alison On: April 17, 2019 In: Languages Comments: 27
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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).

Is 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?

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    • Morgan Jones
    • November 07, 2016
    • Reply

    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.

      • Sam
      • January 12, 2017
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      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 (?)

    • Joice
    • November 28, 2016
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    This post really enlightened me. Thank you.

    • Japanese
    • December 04, 2016
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    I’m Japanese.If there are not Hiragana, Katakana and Kanjis to Japanese, it might hard to read Japanese text for Native speaker.

      • zubaida
      • June 02, 2017
      • Reply

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

    • sakura
    • April 27, 2017
    • Reply

    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

      • Nyah Chan
      • May 06, 2017
      • Reply

      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.

        • Hilde S.
        • June 22, 2017
        • Reply

        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!

      • kakashi
      • October 13, 2018
      • Reply

      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

        • Hikaru jin
        • February 11, 2020
        • Reply

        Joho gen wa shinrai dekimasen!!!!

      • Sam
      • December 24, 2019
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      I started with katakana, but I recommend starting with Hiragana.

    • cookies loves ass
    • November 01, 2017
    • Reply


    • Harriet
    • February 03, 2018
    • Reply

    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

      • Mikey mike
      • January 23, 2020
      • Reply

      Great explanation!

    • tom marshall
    • April 17, 2018
    • Reply

    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
    • April 23, 2018
    • Reply

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

    • google user
    • May 01, 2018
    • Reply

    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%!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Guy
    • June 10, 2018
    • Reply

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

    • Just_Some_Random_Weeb
    • June 12, 2018
    • Reply

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

      • strange_Missterys
      • January 30, 2020
      • Reply

      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

      • yellouchu
      • February 23, 2020
      • Reply

      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!

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

      • Yellouchu
      • February 23, 2020
      • Reply

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

    • bob
    • February 27, 2019
    • Reply

    i see a chalenge 🙂

    • lucas
    • February 27, 2019
    • Reply

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

    • Wendy Fink
    • May 12, 2019
    • Reply

    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
    • May 03, 2020
    • Reply

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

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