Japanese writing   日本の書き方

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Shodo, Japanese calligraphy

Daimon-ji Gozan Okuribi

A kanji written in fire, displayed at the Daimon-ji Gozan Okuribi in Kyoto.

Japanese calligraphy

Japanese, a language with character!

Writing is perhaps what fascinates foreigners the most about the Japanese language. It's also often what intimidates them the most, seeming much too complicated.

First came kanji

Japan discovered writing with the introduction of Chinese characters to the archipelago in the 5th century, called kanji 漢字. These sinograms were initially used by scholars to read and write in Chinese. It wasn't until the 8th century when the first written works in Japanese, using borrowed Chinese characters, were produced. It was at this time that the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki were created, works that inspired the beliefs and practices of Shintoism.

Read more : Kanji

Some handwritten kanji characters

In order to use these symbols adapted from the Chinese language, the Japanese assigned two types of reading to kanji:

  • The on-yomi reading which is the "Sino-Japanese pronunciation" of the character.
  • The kun-yomi reading which is the "Japanese pronunciation" of the idea or concept conveyed by the Chinese character.
One kanji can have several on-yomi readings and several other kun-yomi readings! They are used for nouns, substantives and verb radicals, the ending of verbs being expressed with hiragana, a type of kana.

The hiragana table

tableau Katakana

The katakana table

Kana, the second generation of Japanese writing

Hiragana and katakana are the two other Japanese writing systems. These are based on kanji that gradually transformed over time, and that first appeared around the Heian period (794-1185). They are each composed of 46 syllables, which can be combined and represent all the sounds of the Japanese language. Hiragana are used to write verb endings, adverbs or grammatical particles. Every word in Japanese can be written in kana, since they are syllabaries. For example "I" (watashi) can be written in hiragana: わたし as well as in kanji: 私. The Japanese will often write the kana for some words when the kanji is very complicated. Katakana are used to transcribe foreign words into the national language.

Read more: Hiragana and Katakana

To illustrate how all three writing systems can be used in one sentence, here's an example:

I drink beer : 私はビールを飲みます。

-   私 ( watashi ) personal pronoun "I", in kanji
-   は ( wa ) the subject particle, in hiragana
-   ビール ( biiru ) a transcription of the English word "beer", in katakana
-   を ( wo ) the object particle, in hiragana
-   飲みます ( nomimasu ) "drink", the verb radical is written in kanji and the verb ending in hiragana

Japanese writing: an art

Japanese writing, like other writing systems such as Arabic, offers complex characters (in comparison with fairly clean Roman letters) that can be easily stylized. They allowed the development of the "way of writing" 書道 (shodo), Japanese calligraphy, considered an art form where the artist can express his inner world through written characters. The characters can also take a decorative form. For example, it's not uncommon to see white scrolls with inscribed calligraphic characters displayed on the walls of Japan homes.

Read also: Japanese calligraphy


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