Japanese writing: Kana, Kanji and Calligraphy   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 calligraphy

Decoding of the Japanese language and its different writing systems.

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 into the country 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

Japanese numbers

Japanese numbers

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.

variations of hiragana and katakana

variations of hiragana and katakana

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


HOW THE JAPANESE LEARN KANJI

Japanese children must learn exactly 1,006 kanji during their six years of primary school. They study the order of the lines to draw them, the different ways of reading them and of course, their meaning. Normally, they must memorize 80 kanji during their first year of primary school, then 160 the second year and around 200 per year, the following four years. At the end of secondary school (which lasts only 3 years), pupils are expected to know the 2,229 kanji in common use (there are between 50,000 in the Japanese language, more in Chinese) out of the 3,000 commonly used in Japan. This knowledge is enough to be able to read the newspaper. Despite the difficulty of learning sinograms, the illiteracy rate in Japan is only 0.1%. There are also tests of aptitude for writing kanji open to everyone: schoolchildren and adults.

However, in the digital age, there is a fear that the Japanese lose the habit of writing by hand because of the use of computers and other smartphones that allow you to choose the correct kanji by typing only their pronunciation (in hiragana or even in the Roman alphabet). If this still requires knowing the meaning of the kanji proposed by the devices, purists (but not only them) fear that ultimately future generations will no longer know how to write!

Calligraphy

Calligraphy

Japanese writing

Japanese writing

THE ART OF JAPANESE WRITING

Like kanji writing, calligraphy was first practiced by the nobles, then by scholars and samurai, and finally reached all of Japanese society. Nowadays, younger Japanese learn it from elementary school. Many young and old alike take part in the various calligraphy competitions organized throughout the country. In the New Year, an old custom is that everyone calligraphy a poem, a wish, or even their good resolutions on a strip of white paper. It’s the custom of the Kakizome.

Read also: Japanese calligraphy



Japanese calligraphy

Japanese calligraphy

calligraphy

calligraphy

tools for calligraphy

tools for calligraphy

But, more than a form of writing, calligraphy is considered an art and even art of living, the practice of which would achieve longevity and mastery of body and mind. Through "the way of artistic handwriting" 書 道 (shodo), the Japanese think that a person can express his inner world by tracing characters. We even consider that the ideograms drawn with a brush are alive, that they emit vital energy (ki).

Some calligraphy pieces are real works of art with a market value. They can also take a decorative form and it is not uncommon to see on the walls of Japanese interiors, in a Tokonoma, scrolls with a sentence or a short calligraphic poem.

Mitsuo Aida

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

WHERE TO SEE CALLIGRAPHY WORKS IN TOKYO?

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

This museum brings together around 16,000 works, including five pieces classified as artistic treasures, collected for 40 years by Fusetsu Nakamura, Japanese painter and calligrapher. Besides calligraphy, one can also admire writing brushes and Buddhist sculptures.

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

Access: Uguisudani station JR Yamanote line, Keihin-Tohoku line North exit, 5 minutes on foot

Opening hours: 9:30 a.m to 4:30 p.m every day except Monday and January 1st. If the closing day falls on a public holiday, the museum is open on that day and closes the next day.

Price: 500 yen

Some handwritten kanji characters

Some handwritten kanji characters

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