Japanese Letters



Japanese Letters in the news

Eastwood's 'Letters': Iwo from Japanese viewpoint 

Philadelphia Daily News - Jan 12 5:49 AM
WHILE CLINT Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" is being widely hailed as the best movie of the year, I'd like to give a shout out to "Flags of Our Fathers."
Letters From Iwo Jima 
KING 5 Seattle - 1 hour, 43 minutes ago
The skinny on Letters From Iwo Jima is that it's a big American World War II movie spoken in the Japanese language, and told from the Japanese perspective. The marvel is that you'll quickly stop thinking about these facts in the face of Letters' broad-shouldered humanism and finely etched drama of men who are almost certain they're going to die.

Japanese embrace 'Letters' 
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune - Jan 11 12:10 PM
Hollywood's recent attempts to tell stories set in Japan have produced some odd Asian-fusion fare. "The Last Samurai" from 2003 gave us Tom Cruise as an American Civil War veteran who mastered traditional warrior skills in a matter of months and delivered an inspiring lecture to Emperor Meiji on being Japanese. More recently, "Memoirs of a Geisha" cast three of China's top actresses in lead ...

'Letters from Iwo Jima' takes a different point of view 
Orange County Register - Jan 12 3:16 AM
Clint Eastwood's movie shows WWII battle from the Japanese perspective. Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" represents something if not unique, then highly unusual in the annals of American cinema: a war movie told from the perspective of enemy combatants.

- Japanes Letters

Here is an article on Japanese Letters.

Type: Logographic (Kanji) and Syllabic (Hiragana, Katakana and Romaji)
Languages: Japanese language
Time period: 4th century AD to present
Parent writing systems: man'yōgana
Unicode range: U+4E00–U+9FBF Kanji
http://www.unicode.org/charts/PDF/U3040.pdf Japnese Letters U+3040–U+309F] Hiragana
http://www.unicode.org/charts/PDF/U30A0.pdf U+30A0–U+30FF] Katakana
ISO 15924 code: Jpan
Japanese writing

Kanji 漢字

Kana 仮名

  • Hiragana 平仮名
  • Katakana 片仮名
  • Hentaigana 変体仮名
  • Man'yōgana 万葉仮名


  • Furigana 振り仮名
  • Okurigana 送り仮名
Rōmaji ローマ字

This article describes Japamese Letters the modern Japanese writing system and Japanesee Letters its history. See the Japanese language article for an overview of the Japnaese Letters language.

Modern Japanese uses three main scripts:

  • Kanji, characters of Chinese origin,
  • Hiragana, a syllabary, and
  • Katakana, a syllabary.

To a lesser Jpanese Letters extent, modern written Japanese also uses the Latin alphabet. Examples of such usage include abbreviations such as "CD" and "DVD".

It is also possible to represent spoken or written Japanese entirely in the Latin alphabet. There are several common systems for the romanization of Japanese. Romanized Japanese, called rōmaji is frequently used by foreign students of Japanese who have not yet mastered the three main scripts, and by native speakers for computer input.

Here is an example of a newspaper headline that uses all four scripts (a headline from the Asahi Shimbun on 19 April 2004) (kanji red, hiragana blue, katakana green, Latin Alphabet and Arabic numerals black):

RADOKURIFU, MARASON gorin daihyō ni ichi-man mētoru shutsujō ni mo fukumi
"Radcliffe, Olympic marathon contestant, will also appear in the 10,000 m"

Here are some examples of words written in Japanese:

Kanji Hiragana Katakana Rōmaji English
わたし watashi I
金魚 きんぎょ キンギョ kingyo goldfish
煙草 たばこ タバコ tabako tobacco, cigarette

Collation (word ordering) in Japanese is based on the kana, which express the pronunciation of the words, rather than the kanji. The kana may be ordered using two common orderings, the prevalent gojūon (fifty-sound) ordering, or the old-fashioned iroha ordering. Chinese character dictionaries are also collated using the radical system.


  • 1 Usage of scripts
    • 1.1 Choice of script
  • 2 Direction of writing
  • 3 Early writing system
  • 4 Written language reforms
    • 4.1 Meiji period
    • 4.2 Pre-WWII
    • 4.3 Post-WWII
  • 5 Nuances of the writing system
  • 6 Romanization
  • 7 See also
    • 7.1 Lettering styles
    • 7.2 Variant writing systems
  • 8 References
  • 9 External links

Usage of scripts

Most simple Japanese sentences (like "the cat sat on the mat") will have both kanji and hiragana in them. Kanji is used for nouns (words like "cat" or "mat") and the beginning of verbs (words like "sat"), hiragana for the endings of verbs and for grammatical particles (small, common words such as the Japanese equivalents to the English "on" and "the"). Non-Japanese words or new loan words (except those absorbed into the language long ago or those with original kanji expression) are spelled in katakana.

Kanji (漢字) are used for

  • nouns,
  • stems of adjectives and verbs, and
  • Japanese names.

See the article kanji for full details.

Hiragana (平仮名) are used to write, for example,

  • inflectional endings for adjectives and verbs (okurigana 送り仮名),
  • grammatical particles (joshi 助詞),
  • Japanese words that have no kanji, or where the kanji are difficult to read, or where you do not know the kanji, or where you know the kanji but you think your reader is unlikely to know them, and
  • indications of how to read kanji (furigana 振り仮名).

See the article hiragana for full details.

Katakana (片仮名) are used to write, for example,

  • foreign words and names,
  • commonly used animals, plants or objects whose kanji are uncommonly used, such as "tokage" (lizard), "bara" (rose), "rōsoku" (candle),
  • onomatopoeia,
  • emphasized words, much like italicized words in English text, and
  • technical and scientific words, such as plant, animal, and mineral names.

See the article katakana for full details.

Latin alphabet (ラテン文字) are used to write

  • acronyms and initialisms, for example NATO;
  • Japanese names or other words intended for use outside of Japan (for example, Japanese names on business cards, in passports, etc.);
  • company names, brand names or product names, etc. used both inside and outside of Japan; and
  • foreign words and phrases that appear in an otherwise Japanese context, such as words that appear in advertising, on consumer goods intended for Japanese consumption, etc.

See the article rōmaji for details.

However, there are many exceptions to the above rules. For example, Japanese names may be written in kanji, hiragana or katakana. The name must be spelled as the bearer prefers, and it's usual in introductions to give at least a hint at how the name is spelled, and somebody can tell you that she is called "katakana no maruko". For full details, see the respective articles.

In addition, Arabic numerals are commonly used to write numbers in horizontal text.

Choice of script

All words in Japanese can be written in either katakana, hiragana, or rōmaji. Most words also have a kanji form. The choice of which type of writing to use depends on a number of factors, including standard conventions, readability, and stylistic choices.

Some Japanese words are written with different kanji depending on the specific usage of the word -- for instance, the word "naosu" (to fix, or to cure) is written 治す when it refers to curing a person, and 直す when it refers to fixing something. In some cases (such as the preceding one) the distinction is simple, whereas in some cases the distinction in nuance is difficult enough that an author will write the word in hiragana to avoid the possible error of choosing the wrong kanji.

Direction of writing

Main article: Horizontal and vertical writing in East Asian scripts

Traditionally, Japanese is written in a format called tategaki. In this format, the characters are written in columns going from top to bottom, with columns ordered from right to left. After reaching the bottom of each column, the reader continues at the top of the column to the left of the current one. This copies the column order of Chinese.

Modern Japanese also uses another writing format, called yokogaki. This writing format is identical to that of European languages such as English, with characters arranged in rows which are read from left to right, with successive rows going downwards.

Early writing system

The current Japanese writing system can be traced back to the 4th century AD, when the written Chinese language was introduced to Japan. No definitive evidence of any native Japanese writing system that predates the introduction of Chinese is known to exist.

Although several kinds of supposedly earlier writing called jindai moji (also kamiyo moji, 神代文字, lit. "writing of the gods' age") have been found in modern times, some vaguely pictographic, some runic in appearance, and some very close to Korean Hangul, these are now considered hoaxes promoting Japanese nationalism that were perpetrated in the 1930s. An example can be found here.

Initially, Chinese characters were not used for writing Japanese; to be literate meant the ability to read and write Classical Chinese. Eventually a system called kanbun (漢文) was developed, which used both Chinese characters (kanji) and something very similar to Chinese grammar, but often with diacritic marks placed alongside the Chinese text to give hints as to the Japanese equivalent. The earliest written history of Japan, the Kojiki (古事記), believed to have been compiled sometime before 712, was written in kanbun. Even today all Japanese high schools and some junior high schools teach kanbun as part of their Japanese language curriculum.

There was still no system for rendering Japanese in written form until the development of man'yōgana (万葉仮名), which used Chinese characters for their phonetic value (derived from their Chinese readings) rather than their semantic value. Man'yōgana was initially used to record poetry, as in the Man'yōshū (万葉集), which was compiled sometime before 759, and from which the writing system derives its name. Hiragana and katakana were both outgrowths from man'yōgana.

Due to the large number of words and concepts entering Japan from China which had no native equivalent, many words entered Japanese directly, with a pronunciation similar to the original Chinese. This Chinese-derived reading is known as on-yomi (音読み), and this vocabulary as a whole is referred to as Sino-Japanese. At the same time, native Japanese already had words corresponding to many borrowed kanji. Authors increasingly used kanji to represent these words. This Japanese-derived reading is known as kun-yomi (訓読み). A kanji may have none, one, or several on-yomi and kun-yomi. Okurigana are written after the initial kanji for verbs and adjectives to give inflection and to help disambiguate a particular kanji's reading. The same character may be read several different ways depending on the word. For example, the character 行 is read i as the first syllable of iku (行く) 'to go', okona as the first three syllables of okonau (行う, "to carry out"), gyō in the compound word gyōretsu (行列, "line" or "procession"), in the word ginkō (銀行, "bank"), and an in the word andon (行灯, "lantern").

Linguists have sometimes compared Japan's borrowing and adaptation of Chinese words into Japanese as similar to the effect that the Norman conquest of England had on the English language. Like English, Japanese has many synonyms of differing origin, with words from both Chinese and native Japanese. In another similarity, words of Chinese origin are often used in more formal or intellectual contexts by Japanese speakers, just as English speakers often use latinate words to mark a higher register.

Written language reforms

Meiji period

The significant reforms of the 19th century Meiji era did not initially impact on the Japanese writing system, however the language itself was changing due to the increase in literacy resulting from education reforms, the massive influx of new words; both borrowed from other languages or newly coined, and the ultimate success of movements such as the influential 言文一致 (genbun'itchi) which resulted in Japanese being written in the colloquial form of the language instead of the wide range of historical and classical styles used previously. The difficulty of written Japanese was a topic of debate, with several proposals in the late 1800s that the number of kanji in use be limited. In addition, exposure to non-Japanese texts led to (unsuccessful) proposals that Japanese be written entirely in kana or romaji. This period saw Western-style punctuation marks introduced into Japanese writing (Twine, 1991).

In 1900, the Education Ministry introduced three reforms aimed at improving the education in Japanese writing:

  • standardization of the hiragana script, eliminating the range of hentaigana (変体仮名) then in use;
  • restriction of the number of kanji taught in elementary schools to about 1,200;
  • reform of the irregular kana representation of the Sino-Japanese readings of kanji to make them conform with the pronunciation.

The first two of these were generally accepted, but the third was hotly contested, particularly by conservatives, to the extent that it was withdrawn in 1908 (Seeley, 1991).


The partial failure of the 1900 reforms combined with the rise of nationalism in Japan effectively prevented further significant reform of the writing system. The period before World War II saw numerous proposals to restrict the number of kanji in use, and several newspapers voluntarily restricted their kanji usage and increased usage of furigana, however there was no official endorsement of these, and indeed much opposition.


The period immediately following World War II saw a rapid and significant reform of the writing system. This was in part due to influence of the Occupation authorities, but to a significant extent was due to the removal of conservatives from control of the educational system, which meant that previously stalled revisions could proceed. The major reforms were:

  • the alignment of all kana usage with modern pronunciation (現代仮名遣い gendaikanazukai), replacing the old historical kana usage (1946);
  • the promulgation of the tōyō kanji (当用漢字), which limited the number of kanji used in schools, textbooks, etc. to 1,850 (1946), and also simplified forms of kanji (see Shinjitai);
  • the promulgation of an approved set of forms of kanji to be used in schools (1949);
  • the promulgation of an additional jinmeiyō kanji (人名用漢字) which in combination with the tōyō kanji could be used in names (1951).

(At one stage there was a proposal from an advisor in the Occupation administration to change the writing system to rōmaji, however it was not supported by other specialists and did not proceed.) (Unger, 1996)

In addition, the practice of writing horizontally in a right-to-left direction was generally replaced by left-to-right writing. The right-to-left order was considered a special case of vertical writing, with columns one character high, rather than horizontal writing per se; it was used for single lines of text on signs, etc. (e.g. the station sign at Tokyo read 駅京東). This order is still seen on the right (or starboard) side of some commercial vehicles, ships, etc., where it is used so that the text runs from the front of the vehicle to the back (or from bow to stern) on both sides.

The post-war reforms have remained, although some of the restrictions have been relaxed. The replacement of the tōyō kanji in 1981 with the 1,945 jōyō kanji (常用漢字) was accompanied by a change from "restriction" to "recommendation", and in general the educational authorities have become less active in continued reform of the writing system (Gottlieb, 1996).

In 2004, a large increase was made in the number of kanji in the jinmeiyō kanji. This list is the responsibility of the Justice Ministry.

Nuances of the writing system

The Japanese writing system allows for transmitting information that is usually communicated in other languages by using different words or by adding extra descriptive words. For example, kanji watashi or watakushi 私 "I" is often used in formal writing and by both sexes. Hiragana watashi わたし tends to be used by females in informal writing such as a diary or a letter to a friend. Katakana watashi ワタシ is used only rarely. Rōmaji watashi is never used, except perhaps in an all-rōmaji context.

Kanji compounds can also be given arbitrary readings for stylistic purposes. For example, in Natsume Soseki's short story The Fifth Night, the author uses 接続って for tsunagatte, the gerundive -te form of the verb tsunagaru ('to connect'), which would usually be written 繋がって or つながって. See also furigana for more details.


Main article: Romaji

There are a number of methods of rendering Japanese in Roman letters. The Hepburn method of romanization, designed for English speakers, is a de facto standard widely used inside and outside Japan (and used in the English Wikipedia). The Kunrei-shiki system has a better correspondence with kana, making it easier for the Japanese themselves to learn; it is officially sanctioned by the Ministry of Education, and often used by non-native speakers who are learning Japanese as a second language. Other systems of romanization include Nihon-shiki, JSL, and Wāpuro.

See also

  • Iteration mark about Japanese repetition marks.
  • Japanese typographic symbols about non-kana, non-kanji symbols.
  • Jindai moji

Lettering styles

  • Shodō
  • Edomoji
  • Minchō
  • Japanese gothic typeface

Variant writing systems

  • Gyaru moji
  • Hentaigana
  • man'yōgana


  • Gottlieb, Nanette (1996). Kanji Politics - Language Policy and Japanese Script. Kegan Paul. ISBN 0-7103-0512-5. 
  • Twine, Nanette (1991). Language and the Modern State - The Reform of Written Japanese. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-00990-1. 
  • Seeley, Christopher (1984). "The Japanese Script since 1900". Visible Language XVIII 3: 267-302.
  • Seeley, Christopher (1991). A History of Writing in Japan. University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0-8248-2217-X. 
  • Habein, Yaeko Sato (1984). The History of the Japanese Written Language. University of Tokyo Press. ISBN 0-86008-347-0. 
  • Unger, J. Marshall (1996). Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan: Reading Between the Lines. OUP. ISBN 0-19-510166-9. 

External links

  • The Modern Japanese Writing System: an excerpt from Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan, by J. Marshall Unger.
  • The 20th Century Japanese Writing System: Reform and Change by Christopher Seeley
  • Katakana, Hiragana and Kanji

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