Before we can begin our discussion of how to write in Japanese, we must begin by defining a few words. What is a language? For the purpose of this discussion, we will define language, thanks to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, as “the words, their pronunciation and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community.” Even though, for now, we will only be looking at the written part of the language, it is important to understand that pronunciation, or how the word will sound when spoken, is extremely important to translation. Written language does not exist in a vacuum, and in most cases, the written and spoken aspects of a language go hand in hand.
In Japanese, the written version of the language is one of the most unique as the writing style is actually a blend of three different systems and is generally considered to be one of the most complex writing systems in the world. The three parts that make up the written form of the Japanese language are called hiragana, katakana and kanji. It would not be surprising if you were unaware of any of these systems, nor would it be surprising if you knew about all three as not only is their system unique, it is wildly fascinating as well.
Before we became involved in the TILT business (TILT = translation, interpretation, localization and transcription) we were huge fans of everything Japan as some of our favorite entertainment was created there. Early exposure to Japanese role playing games in the 90’s led to seeking out original versions with Japanese writing still intact so I had at least a basic understanding. If you are completely new to this, let me give you a little primer on what each system is, what it is used for and where you might encounter characters from these systems.
First, there is hiragana. Hiragana is one of the two syllabaries in use in the Japanese writing system. A syllabary is, generally speaking, a system of writing that uses symbols to represent all of the syllables in the spoken version of that language. Hiragana is also, again, very generally speaking the system used to write out words that are distinctly and natively Japanese in origin. These are the words that were spoken in Japan before they even began the process of writing things down. Just so you know, getting your aunt’s recipes was extremely hard in the days before writing. If she wasn’t available to come over and walk you through how to make her famous yakisoba noodles, you were pretty much out of luck.
Remember how I said this was a simplistic overview and the point of this article is to give you a basic understanding, not help you graduate with a PhD in linguistic studies (you will get that level of article after I get my PhD, which will roughly be around the same time I win the lottery and discover a frozen caveman while hiking the Andes). The other syllabary used in Japanese is called katakana.
So why are there two of them if they are both syllabaries used in writing Japanese? I’m so glad you asked, that is such a smart question, give yourself a gold star! Hiragana, as was stated above, is used in writing out what are considered “native” Japanese words or words that the Japanese created throughout their history and did not have any outside influence. Katakana, on the other hand, is used in writing what are called “loan words”, words that originate in another language and that have no native translation. Katakana is also in scientific fields and for, get ready for it, onomatopoeia.
Onomatopoeia? What on earth is that? Some form of alien virus designed to give all of the world’s hamsters a cold? No. Onomatopoeia is, again, very basically, a word that exists to denote the sound something makes. For example, a cow says “moo”. Really, the cow doesn’t say moo since cows lack the ability carry on a conversation. Seriously, have you ever tried to have a conversation with a cow? They are terrible at it. The sound a cow makes, sounds to us like moo, so we create the word moo to denote the sound a cow makes.
The third part of the Japanese writing system is not a syllabary. It is called kanji and consists of thousands of symbols borrowed from the Chinese writing system, with each character standing for some thing or idea. Does this mean that everyone who writes Japanese has to memorize every Chinese character? No, the average Japanese student learns a list of a little over 2,000 of the most commonly used Kanji in addition to learning the hiragana and katakana syllabary systems (hah, did you really think I was done writing syllabary?). This list is called the “Jouyou” kanji and sometimes new kanji are added as they come into popular use or are removed if they aren’t used that often. If you are an English speaker, think about how many times you use the word “smartphone” now and compare to how many times you heard it a decade ago.
It is this combination of three different writing styles that makes Japanese a very difficult language to learn to write, especially as a second language, and also makes Japanese one of the most difficult languages for translation work. It is among the more unique languages and the vast majority of its speakers reside only on the islands of Japan, but there are communities of Japanese speakers everywhere around the world. If you would like a more in depth look into the three parts of the Japanese writing systems, here is a citation and a link to the relevant Wikipedia page which you may find very useful.
Wikipedia contributors. (2018, December 5). Japanese writing system. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 01:22, December 14, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Japanese_writing_system&oldid=872184203