What is Kanji used for?

Japanese characters and syllable alphabets

If you want to learn Japanese, it is best to start with the 2 Japanese syllable alphabets and the Japanese characters. Because the system is a bit more complex, namely it consists of a total of three different scripts: On the one hand, it contains those adopted from China Kanji (漢字) and on the other hand the two syllable alphabets Hiragana (平 仮 名) and Katakana (片 仮 名).

Japanese texts usually consist of a combination of hiragana and kanji, and sometimes katakana. Before you go to Japan to live and study, we recommend to master the two syllable alphabets first.

Because of the three different scripts and their different uses, the written Japanese language is also considered to be one of the most difficult languages.

Japanese characters can be written in columns from top to bottom, with the columns starting from the left as in traditional Chinese, or horizontally from left to right as in German. For this reason, some books in Japan have to be opened from the right and others from the left .

Hiragana

Both syllable alphabets were created by simplifying and modifying the Chinese characters and each consist of 46 characters - with which one can form all sounds of the Japanese language. A sign represents a vowelic syllable, i.e. either a vowel (e.g. a) or a consonant combined with a vowel (e.g. ka); in addition there is only the syllable nasal n.

The selection of syllables can be expanded with a few additional changes:

  1. The k, s, t and h series are named with two small dashes dakuten (濁 点), changed and made voiced. K becomes G, S becomes Z, T becomes D, and H becomes B.
    Example: か ka → が ga
    Note, however, that shi and chi both become ji and su and tsu both to to.
  1. With the h-series you can also use a hand acute (半 濁 点), a small circle that turn the H into a P.
  2. Furthermore, you can write the y-series in lower case and thereby make further changes to the i-series. Example: ki + small ya = kya (き + ゃ = き ゃ); ri + small yo = ryo (り + ょ = り ょ)
  3. The tsu can also be written in lower case, so you can write a double consonant. Example: わ か っ た, wakatta

The examples are all written in hiragana, but the same applies to katakana - many small changes that add more syllables. So hiragana and katakana contain the same sounds - then what's the difference? Hiragana is used for all words that are not written in Kanji, as well as for particles and mutable parts of words, such as flexives. The greeting Konnichiwa For example, (こ ん に ち は) is written in hiragana.

Hiragana is also used for furigana (ふ り が な) or yomigana (読 み 仮 名), a reading aid for Kanji, which is written directly above or next to the Kanji. It helps you read Kanji you don't know yet - another reason why you first of all learn hiragana should. Children's books are also often written in hiragana.

Katakana

Katakana, on the other hand, is limited to gairaigo (外来 語), foreign and loan words from abroad. For example, words like laptop (ラ ッ プ ト ッ プ, rapputoppu) or Germany (ド イ ツ, doitsu) written in katakana. Foreign names are also written in katakana; so your first katakana word will probably be your own name!

In addition to the loan words, katakana is also used for onomatopoeia, i.e. onomatopoeia, such as the barking of a dog: What is described in German as "Wauwau" is called in Japanese "wanwan“(ワ ン ワ ン).

We from Go! Go! Nihon want to help you learn Japanese on your way and therefore developed the Hiragana Quest app. One of our former students used the mnemonic method for this app. This method helps you to learn Japanese characters quickly thanks to small stories and pictures and to keep them in mind.

Kanji

Kanji were adopted from Chinese around the fourth century. In Japan, Kanji is mainly used to write nouns, verbs, adjectives and native names. There is an official list of "everyday use Kanji" (常用 漢字, jouyoukanji), which are round 2000 Japanese characters contains. Many newspapers only use Kanji from this list in addition to the syllable alphabets, so that it is possible for a broad mass to read the articles.

If you want to learn Japanese, it is advisable to learn Hiragana first, then Katakana and then Kanji. At the beginning, it is best to first write down the Japanese characters a few times in the correct stroke order. In order to remember them, we recommend actively using the characters by writing text. At the beginning you usually hardly know any vocabulary, but that is not a problem. For example, you can simply search the Internet for Japanese song lyrics, of which there are both pure hiragana and romanized versions. This can then be paraphrased from Rōmaji, the Latin transcription, in Hiragana and the other way around. You can also find numerous texts on the Internet that are only written in Hiragana.

Whether you create texts as mentioned above in order to memorize Japanese characters is of course up to you. There is no “one and only” learning technique. For some, one method works best, others prefer to use index cards or write down the Japanese characters repeatedly - everyone has their own technique.

Rōmaji

In addition to the three writing systems, the latin alphabet used. Rōmaji (ロ ー マ 字), or Roman / Latin characters, are used for texts and lettering aimed at foreigners or people who cannot speak Japanese. This can be, for example, street signs, dictionaries, textbooks or passports.

Rōmaji are also used when typing on computers. Although the Kana can be typed on Japanese keyboards, many people use the Latin letters to type the sounds and characters in Rōmaji.

When you start studying, Rōmaji romanization will help you read Japanese words.

Master the basics with Go! Go! Nihon

All of these can seem a bit overwhelming, especially for beginners or people who are just starting out with an interest in the Japanese language. Don't worry, there are plenty of great resources out there to get you started - from apps to books to games!

Here you can find more interesting articles about Japanese self-study:
* The best apps for learning Japanese
* In self-isolation? Use the time to learn Japanese!

Another great way to learn the basics of the Japanese language is ours Online Japanese course for beginnersWe have partnered with Akamonkai Japanese Language School to offer a comprehensive 12 week course that will give you a wonderful foundation for developing your language skills. Read more about the course here.

And for more information or if you have any questions, feel free to contact us!