You might be familiar with Japanese fusion restaurants, blending Japanese dishes with food from other areas of the world, but did you know that Japanese writing is a fusion of different scripts?

Of course, most languages and writing systems have evolved from different influences; but Japanese has innovated by combining three different writing systems together that are easily identifiable as distinct scripts. Well, easy to identify if you’re a Japanese translator or linguist…

It’s a bit like a roast beef and Yorkshire pudding sushi roll (sounds dreadful but it does exist); a combination of different elements in one dish that still keep their own identities.

You probably don’t really need to know the ins and outs of the Japanese writing system unless you’re learning to read and write it. However, we know how curious our clients are and how they love to learn about the quirks and idiosyncrasies of different languages! So for your benefit here’s a quick guide to Japanese writing.

3 The Japanese Writing System and How it Works

Imagine reading a document that uses three different alphabets throughout. That’s what reading Japanese is like, but those alphabets, or scripts, are not confined to 26 letters each, but contain several thousand in one script, and 46 basic forms in the other two.

While there are basic rules for using each script, there are also plenty of exceptions (of course!), and some words have multiple pronunciations depending on the context. So the following is far from a crash course in Japanese – far too complicated – but hopefully provides enough for you to answer a question on the language if it comes up on University Challenge.

The basic scripts are:

Kanji (漢字) – these are the logographic symbols borrowed from Chinese. The Daikanwa Jiten – Japan’s most prestigious character dictionary – lists over 50,000 kanji, however a knowledge of around 3,000 is sufficient to read a modern newspaper.
Kanji are chiefly used for nouns, and the stems of verbs, adjectives and adverbs.

Hiragana (平仮名) – in the past Japanese was written using only kanji, with some being used for their pronunciation and some being used for their meaning. This system proved somewhat unwieldy, and hiragana characters evolved from kanji as a way of writing Japanese phonetically. Hiragana are chiefly used to write grammatical particles, and the endings of verbs, adjectives and adverbs.

Katakana (片仮名) – these symbols are again derived from kanji. They were created by extracting components from kanji that had the desired phonetic value. In fact, katakana roughly translates as ‘partial script’. It was developed as another way of speeding up the writing process, and annotating kanji. Katakana are chiefly used for non-Chinese, foreign loanwords, and for mimetic words that imitate sounds (onomatopoeia).

To complicate matters further, Japanese writing also combines the Latin alphabet (usually in the form of acronyms), Arabic numerals, and uses some Greek characters for mathematical symbols and units of measure. Truly a fusion of different influences.
Furthermore, Japanese can be written horizontally and vertically, and both may be used within the same document or page of text. When written horizontally, modern Japanese usually reads from left to right. When written vertically, right to left.

If you’re wondering whether your translated text should be set vertically or horizontally, as a rule of thumb vertical is used for traditional Japanese writing, novels, as well as most other non-technical books; horizontal for business documents, everyday writing, and scientific or technical content.

Often a combination of both vertical and horizontal is used for space efficiency – for example, in newspapers and magazines. However, it is also used for visual impact in order to make headings and quotes stand out.

A roast beef and Yorkshire pudding sushi roll may sound like a fusion disaster; fortunately Japanese writing systems are a fusion success – albeit a significant challenge for anyone learning the language!

Got any more questions about Japanese? Get in touch with the team if you need any support with Japanese translations (or any other language). Call +44 (0)1483 577 750 or email help@geolanguages.co.uk

For more fascinating facts about Japanese translations, click here.

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