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Goin’ Japanesque!

Homegrown Scripts: The Phonetic Kana of Japanese Writing

Most languages need to content themselves with one or perhaps two scripts, but Japanese is not so limited. Boasting four different ways to write their tongue, there is an exceptional versatility to the language when it is rendered in print. To see this in action, let’s take a look at an example sentence.

   Kino no shiiemu wa intaanetto de mitsukerareru ka na.
   I wonder if I can find that commercial from yesterday online.

What stands out most to the Western eye is the inclusion of Latin characters, called romaji. These are most often encountered in ads, company names, and graphic design elements, with a preference for capital letters over small ones. There are also three kanji, or Chinese characters, in this passage: 見, 昨, and 日. As a species of evolved pictograph, kanji form the semantic backbone of Japanese and provide the bulk of meaningful content in any given written statement. All the other characters belong to the kana, two different phonetic scripts that combine to be a skeleton to kanji’s muscle, providing structure and support. They are hiragana and katakana, and their history is in many ways the history of literacy in Japan.


Rough Drafts

Writing was first brought to Japan over a millennium and a half ago, crossing the sea from China. At first, this writing was used by Japanese scholars of Chinese to read and to write Chinese only. However, the literate few in time came to want to write in their own language, as well, and a system was created where Chinese characters were adopted one-for-one to match Japanese sounds. This Made-in-Japan writing also helped establish the pattern of “one character, one sound” that exists in the kana even now. In modern times, we call it manyogana, after the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, the Manyoshu. 

Chinese and Japanese are very different languages, however, and Chinese is a far more phonetically dense language than Japanese. For example, the opening of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Requiring only 17 characters to write in Chinese, this would require 51 to pen out in Japanese kana. For the early scholars, writing Japanese with whole Chinese characters would be like us trying to write by using the NATO phonetic alphabet, where a simple “Hello” would turn into “HOTEL ECHO LIMA LIMA OSCAR.”


Edits and Revisions

From this mire of penmanship rose similar kana with distinct origins. The first, hiragana, finds its roots in the personal correspondence of the Heian court. It was a simplification derived from manyogana written in a cursive script like calligraphy. Perceived as the writing system of women and illiterates, hiragana was treated with distain, for noble men would be educated in the use of Chinese characters. That being said, two of Japan’s most famous ancient texts were written almost completely in hiragana: the Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu and the Pillow Book by Sei Shoganon, both published in the early years of the 11th century.

Katakana, on the other hand, developed in the monasteries of the Heian period and flourished together with the spread of Buddhism. The Buddhist scriptures and commentaries brought from China were, naturally, in Chinese, and monks began making annotations in these books using a kind of broken manyogana, where representative parts would be taken from the whole manyogana (the better to fit it in the tight margins of the Chinese characters). It was a long time before these scribblings were standardized, and until the middle of the 10th century katakana remained highly idiosyncratic, varying not just between monasteries but monks, as well.


The Final Layer of Polish

Modernly, both are indispensible to Japanese literacy, though each has its own designated role in the written language. In Japan now, hiragana is the language of early education, and children’s books are either written entirely in hiragana or elsewise include gloss readings called furigana over every kanji. This may be because hiragana is used to write the grammatical structures of Japanese, phonetically indicating the conjugation of verbs, the placement of particles, and a variety of honorifics and exclamations.

In the Meiji era, however, it was katakana that was taught first in schools, and katakana was used extensively in the documents of Imperial Japan. Katakana was also used for telegraph messages, and perhaps owing to the crispness of katakana characters, it has remained in variety of low-resolution display technologies in Japan, such as printed receipts and small LCD screens. A final important function of katakana is in the writing of foreign names and loan words. Loan words compose a large portion of the modern Japanese vocabulary, and both technical documents and the ingredient lists of processed foods can be veritable seas of katakana.

Hiragana and katakana don’t simply differ in their function, however—they also differ greatly in their feel. Katakana is sharp, crisp, mechanical, and modern; hiragana is soft, childlike, artistic, and traditional. A dog’s bark written in hiragana might read as friendly and welcoming, but in katakana it would be a warning or a display of anger. Because of its mechanical implications, katakana is often used to write out robotic or computerized dialogue in novels and comics. In a science fiction setting, the dialogue of a more “humanized” android or robot might have the two mixed together to suggest a blend of spirit and machine.


When a new Western student of Japanese hears that they must learn not one, not two, but three different systems of writing, there may be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth. However, the unique charms of hiragana and katakana are undeniable, and they provide a useful and reliable map for navigating the far greater challenge represented by kanji, the Chinese characters of Japanese. Amidst increasingly-pervasive technology in every domain and traditionalists’ fear of the decay of kanji education in Japan, it should be interesting seeing to what degree the curves of hiragana and the angles of katakana help take up the burden of literary expression.


Bonus for the Linguaphile

As mentioned, katakana is used to write our words of foreign loanwords like コンピューター (kompyuutaa) and ロード (roodo) for “computer” and “road”, respectively. However, it would be a grave error to assume that these words always have a clear, logical connection to their origin. These creative coinings are called wasei-eigo (Made in Japan English), and their etymological paths vary from brief meanderings to lengthy detours.

   リンス (rinsu, from “rinse”): This is what we’d call “conditioner,” from “hair rinse.”
   クローク (curooku, from “cloak”): Similar to “rinse,” it’s a contraction of “cloak check,” i.e. coat check. 
   カンニング (canninngu, from “cunning”): Not an adjective, but a “doable” noun that means to cheat, especially in an academic context.
   マニアック (maniakku, from “maniac”): Meaning “major fan,” this makes sense if you think of the English “mania,” such as “Beatle-mania.”
   ナイーブ (naiibu, from “naïve”): Unlike the English naïve, naiibu isn’t wholly negative, and instead describes an earnest, innocent, sensitive person.
   フェミニスト (feminisuto, from “feminist): Probably the most humorously ironic stretch on the list, this is a man who’s gallant and chivalrous towards women.

Related: Japanese Lessons

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About the author

World wanderer and travelling translator, with a great love for language learning, blue-collar cuisine, and rural realms.

View all articles by Barry