Working with Japanese Characters

The objective of this blog is to make you comfortable with looking at, and working with, Japanese characters (日本語).

Japanese writing has 3 character sets:

1. Kanji, are Japanese characters derived from Chinese characters. For example, the word for country is the same in kanji, as it is in simplified Chinese, 国. These characters are not phonic based characters used to build words, most characters are a word with single associated Japanese syllable, each with a meaning of its own. Some characters have mulitple syllables, such as learning (gaku 学), and sometimes, characters are combined to make more complex words, like university (dai gaku 大学).

2. Hiragana, each character symbol represents either a vowel (such as a あ), or a consonant followed by a vowel. As English writers use the alphabit (ab..z) to build words, Hiragana are used to build words for which there are no kanji, including particles such as kara から "from," and suffixes such as ~san さん "Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms." Hiragana are also used to give the pronunciation of kanji in a reading aid called furigana.

3. Katakana, phonic based characters, are most used often to write Japanese words from words in other languages. For example, my English name is Stacy which can be written in Katakana as ステイシー, pronounced su ti shī(i). The Thai language is also based on phonic characters used to build words basd on sounds. For example, English names are phonically transcribed in Thai; for example, Stacy is written in Thai as สเตซ.

Sample Japanese text from Mixi, a popular Japanese social web site.
既に招待メールをもらっている方は、メールの文中にある登録用のURLをクリックするか、そのURL をアドレス欄に貼り付けて「Enter(Return)キー」を押して登録作業をおこなってください。
\* This is a modern sample which has characters of kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Note, 3 Japanese character sets are not enough, the text also includes a fourth character set (ab..z), to create English words.
\* If you have read my blog on Chinese characters, you may recognize the characters:
中 central
文 characters/writing
\* I used Google translate, to translate the sample Japanese text into English:
Already the person who receives the invitation mail clicking URL for the register which is Bunchu of the mail, or sticking that URL to the address column and “Enter (Return) pushing the key” please do register job.

Reference: List of popular Japanese web sites.

The Kanji Characters

The number of kanji characters is about 50,000. In elementary school, students are taught 1006 characters, the Kyōiku kanji (education kanji) characters. In junior high and high school, the students are taught an additional 939 characters, called Jōyō kanji.

Like Chinese, kanji characters can be assembled from elementary characters, example:
峠 (mountain pass) made from 山 (mountain), 上 (up) and 下 (down)

Food words: fish 魚, rice 米
When in Tokyo, I went into a small traditional Japanese restaurant; the servers only knew Japanese. My wife can read and write Chinese, she is Chinese, and since some of the food characters are the same in Chinese and Japanese, we managed to order food. The food was a surprise in that we knew we were getting fish, but did not know how it would be cook (fried or steamed). All in all, the Japanese people were friendly and helpful, the food was wonderful and tasty.

Same characters that are the same in Japanese and Chinese:
big 大
small 小
east (東)
north (北)
cat 猫 Japan 日本
Osaka 大阪
Tokyo 東京
country 国 Country
United States 米国 Yes, rice not take insult, rice is the food that sustains life in Japan. Rice, to a Japanese person, is like potato to an Irish person. Or as I like to say, rice is asian potatoes.



Hiragana are rounded characters, often more simple than kanji characters.

There are 48 base Hiragana Characters. To represent other sounds, diacritics or combinations of the base characters are used. Here is some samples:
ぁ あ ぃ い ぅ う ぇ え ぉ お か が き ぎ く
ぐ け げ こ ご さ ざ し じ す ず せ ぜ そ ぞ た
だ ち ぢ っ つ づ て で と ど な に ぬ ね の は
ば ぱ ひ び ぴ ふ ぶ ぷ へ べ ぺ ほ ぼ ぽ ま み
む め も ゃ や ゅ ゆ ょ よ ら り る れ ろ ゎ わ
ゐ ゑ を ん

The hiragana consist of a basic set of characters, the gojūon , which can be modified in various ways. By adding a dakuten marker (゛), an unvoiced consonant such as k or t is turned into a voiced consonant such as g or d: k→g, t→d, s→z, and h→b. Writing stokes to indicate how to make the sounds. This is different from English, and similar to Sanskrit.

Sample hiragana mapped to English sounds:
か ka
ん n
ゆ yu
う u

Characters are grouped in order to make the sounds of single word:
かんゆう : ka-n-yu-u - persuasion

In a sentence, there are no spaces between words:
わかよたれそつねならむ : wa ka yo ta re so tsu ne na ra mu - What in this world is eternal?



46 katakana characters, are angular characters:

ァ ア ィ イ ゥ ウ ェ エ ォ オ カ ガ キ ギ ク
グ ケ ゲ コ ゴ サ ザ シ ジ ス ズ セ ゼ ソ ゾ タ
ダ チ ヂ ッ ツ ヅ テ デ ト ド ナ ニ ヌ ネ ノ ハ
バ パ ヒ ビ ピ フ ブ プ ヘ ベ ペ ホ ボ ポ マ ミ
ム メ モ ャ ヤ ュ ユ ョ ヨ ラ リ ル レ ロ ヮ ワ
ヰ ヱ ヲ ン ヴ ヵ ヶ ヷ ヸ ヹ ヺ

For a complete list and further explanations, see:

Translating Katakana characters to English sounds.

Sample katakana words:
Katakana カタカナ
Canada (en) カナダ Kanada
America アメリカ

Stacy ステイシー : ス テイ シー su ti shī(i)
David デイヴィッド : デ イ ヴィ ッド - de i vi ddo ...note, ッ doubles the sound

wear ウェア - wea
Software (en) ソフトウェア Sofutowea
Hardware (en) ハードウェア Hādowea
Internet (en) インターネット Intānetto

The Katakana symbol ヶ,is pronounced "ka" when used to indicate quantity.
六ヶ月 (six months)

Translating Katakana characters to English sounds. Goto: Use find in your browser, search for "ス".

ジョ jo
ン n
John is written ジョン jon


great tip

Posted by ana on May 13, 2008 at 11:27 PM PDT #

Wow great information you posted here! For the readers, to learn more on Chinese CHaracters, Fun with Chinese Character book is a great read!

Find it here

Posted by Renz on July 28, 2009 at 04:54 PM PDT #

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