One the things that make it challenging to learn Japanese is trying to master the three separate alphabets used to write Japanese. Many people learn Japanese with the romaji alphabet, which is basically phonetic spellings of the words with our Latin alphabet, but romaji isn’t used as often as the three principle alphabets: hiragana, katakana and kanji.
Hiragana is the basis of the Japanese writing system and is largely phonetic. It will be the first alphabet to master when you learn Japanese. Each symbol stands for a particular syllable, and when you put them together you can pronounce the syllables to create words. Hiragana was originally influenced by Chinese calligraphy but wasn’t actually popular because people thought that Chinese was still the main way to communicate thousands of years ago. Women were the most common users of hiragana because they were not allowed the same level of education as men at the time. Female authors pioneered use of the script in literature and the hiragana alphabet gradually grew popular as an informal form of communication.
Katakana was developed a little later than hiragana, but was based almost exclusively on Chinese characters. Katakana originated as a kind of shorthand for Chinese characters because Chinese was still a major form of communication in Japan at the time. Katakana was used for official communication but has given way to hiragana as the main component of writing. Katakana characters are still used for transcribing foreign words and names into Japanese.
Kanji is the oldest written alphabet in Japan because it is actually a collection of Chinese characters that are still in use in modern Japanese. This is often the most confusing alphabet when you learn Japanese. Kanji aren’t phonetic, instead representing whole words or ideas, often nouns, verbs and adjectives. There are tens of thousands of characters that are used in everyday communications.
So why are these alphabets so important?
Because all three are used in everyday communication. While you can learn to speak Japanese and get by in some instances by knowing romaji, the majority of text in Japan uses a combination of all three alphabets. Most text will have hiragana syllables interspersed with kanji to represent some nouns and katakana for foreign words. Only by learning each alphabet will you be able to fully learn Japanese and understand Japanese newspapers, billboards, street signs, menus and documents.
But don’t abandon your desires to learn Japanese; hiragana and katakana rely on phonetic sounds, so once you memorize them, you’ll be well on your way to understanding Japanese. And take a look at our review of learn Japanese software. These interactive programs will help you learn Japanese, and the best even teach you how to understand and use the three alphabets.