Japanese writing: kanas, kanjis and calligraphy 日本の書き方

The mystery of the Japanese language, specifically writing, fascinates foreigners for its complexity of composition. Ambiguous yet subtle and delicate... It is the quality that fascinates the curious yet intimidates those who are brave enough to learn...



The origin of Japanese writing: the kanji


Japanese developed writing with the introduction of Chinese characters kanji (漢字) in the fifth century. Originally reserved for scholars to read and write in Chinese, it was not until the eighth century that the first written Japanese, borrowing Chinese characters, were produced. It was the time of the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki works that inspired the beliefs and practices of Shintoism.




Japanese numbers

Numbers from 1 to 10


The kanas, the second generation of Japanese writing


Hiragana and katakana are the other Japanese writing systems. These are kanjis that has been gradually transformed by use appearing from the Heian period (794-1185). They are each composed of 46 syllables, which can be combined and transcribed into the phonemes of the Japanese language.

Hiragana is used to write verb endings, adverbs, or grammatical particles. Each word can be written in kanas since they are syllabaries. For example "I" (watashi) is written just as well in hiraganas わ た し as in its kanji 私. In practice, the Japanese will write in kanas certain words whose kanjis are complicated.

Katakanas are mainly used to transcribe foreign words into the national language.


Hiragana chart



Tableau des variations des hiragana et katakana à l'aide du dakuten ゛et du handakuten ゜


Societal conversion to digitalization is having an impact on learning... as people are losing the habit of writing by hand. This is a common development around the world not foreign to Japan. The emergence of computer and smartphone technology with translation and spell-checking capabilities is changing the course of learning and having an impact on language development, specifically with the students.

This is a major dilemma for the Japanese language. The good news is it is easier than ever to write in Japanese, the bad news, the discipline of learning, mainly memorization takes a back seat... Many fear that this will have a negative outcome for the future generation.


A person practicing calligraphy


L'écriture japonaise

L'écriture japonaise


Japanese calligraphy is quite an art


Like the writing of kanji, calligraphy was first practiced by the nobles, then by scholars and samurai to finally reach the common people. Today, Japanese children practice in elementary school. Young and old alike take part in the various calligraphy contests organized throughout the country. There is an old custom called Kakizom on New Year's Eve, where enthusiasts compose a personal poem of reflection or New Year resolution in traditional calligraphy marking the occasion.





Tomasz_Mikolajczyk / 779

Matériel de calligraphie

Matériel de calligraphie


Japanese calligraphy

The "first calligraphy of the year" ceremony


Where to see calligraphy works in Tokyo?


  • The Calligraphy Museum (Shodo Hakubtsukan 台 東区 立 書 道 博物館)


This museum boasts around 16,000 works, including five pieces classified as artistic treasures, collected over 40 years by Fusetsu Nakamura, a Japanese painter, and calligrapher. Besides calligraphy, you can also admire writing utensils and Buddhist sculptures.

Address: 2-10-4 Negishi, Taito-ku, Tokyo

Access: Uguisudani station JR Yamanote line, Keihin-Tohoku line North exit, 5 min walk

Hours: 9:30 am to 4:30 pm every day except Monday and January 1. If the closing day falls on a public holiday, the museum is open on that day and closes the next day.

Price: 500 yen ($4.25/3.25€)




Mitsuo Aida

The museum likes to emphasize its archaic design in the heart of a contemporary building.


Some handwritten kanji characters

Some handwritten kanji characters


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