1. Forum
  2. >
  3. Topic: Japanese
  4. >
  5. Alphabets in Japanese


Alphabets in Japanese

Hi to everyone!

As we know Japanese alphabets include : Hiragana, Kanji, Katakana.

I wonder whats the usage of these three groups?

When they use Katakana, Kanji and Hiragana??

Can't then use all words with one group?

June 2, 2017



Hello! If in Japanese only one script were used, then it will similar to something like this: "ieatanapple". So, using all three scripts makes it much less confusing.(However, children's book are usually completely in Hiragana)

Hiragana is used for native Japanese word and Okurigana. For example, 「これ」means this and is used instead of its Kanji「此れ」. Okurigana is Hiragana after Kanji to do two things: force it to have a certain meaning and force it to be read in a certain way, or to inflect adjectives and verbs. For example, 飲む(のむ/to drink) is the dictionary non-past form and 飲みます(のみます) is the polite non-past form.

The next I will talk about is Katakana. This one is used for foreign words and for some onomatopoeia. For example, ダウンタウン means "downtown". It is never written in Hiragana, only in Katakana. An onomatopoeia that uses Katakana is ピカピカ which means sparkle/glitter.

The last script is Kanji. You can entirely replace this with Hiragana, but it will make whatever you are saying very confusing. For example, 「しゅう」in Hiragana has so many different meanings and you will have to guess by context. In Kanji, you can say 「週」、「州」, etc. The first Kanji shown means week and the second means state. You can combine Kanji with other Kanji to form compound words too. These compounds words cause the Kanji to change its pronunciation, so it requires you to memorize them, but after a lot of practice you can get a feel for which one to use. For example, 水曜日「すいようび」means Wednesday. It is a combination of water + weekday + day. Sometimes the compounds are abstract, but are also sometimes literal. For example, 「下着」「したぎ」means underwear. Literally, it is "under + to wear".

An example sentence that uses all three scripts: 私はアメリカ人です「わたし は アメリカじん です」

Also, if you need help with learning Kanji, I recommend Heisig's Remembering the Kanji to help learn the meanings and also to do a Core 2k or 10k flashcard deck for Japanese vocabulary which you can find on Anki(a wonderful flashcard software). Another great resource is jisho.org for looking up vocabulary and Kanji. Lastly, for grammar I recommend Tae Kim's Grammar Guide.

Hope this helps! 頑張って下さい!


If you are willing to pay for resources (Which I highly recommend if you are super serious about learning Japanese) I would use the Genki textbook series instead of Tae Kim's Grammar Guide. You can supplement Tae Kim with Genki, but I would honestly suggest Imabi over Tae Kim. As Imabi is far more detailed and updated far more often. I tried using Heisig's Remembering the Kanji and I hated it, Not all of it, but just enough of it that I couldn't stick with it, I ended up getting the book Kodansha's Kanji Learner Guide. And I absolutely love it. Its a lot like Heisigs. But it teachs you vocabulary, reading, and Kanji in a FAR more useful order IMO. I wasn't learning necessary basic Kanji with Hesiegs until 200-500 in.


An example: 東京でパソコンを買いました。

  1. Kanji:

    • 東京: Tokyo. Word composed of meanings of kanji. Originates from kanji 東 (east) and 京 (capital). Japan's capital used to be in Kyoto for a long time. When Tokyo became capital, it was renamed since it is to the east of Kyoto. Such words contribute an essential portion of Japanese vocabulary, like 日本・言語・授業・課程 (though コース is more used than this word) etc.

    • 買い (かい): Buy(s). It is an original Japanese word. The word stem is か, and the changing word ending is い:we say in Japanese 買わない・買います・買う・買うとき・買えよ・買おう (don't buy / I buy / I buy / when I buy / Buy it! / I would buy), and you can see the い changes in the pattern わ・い・う・う・え・お. Such words usually use kanji in non-changing part and use hiragana in changing part. That is to say, many native nouns are also written in kanji only (because they do not change forms): 車・犬・鏡・人・水 etc. However, in simplified beginner's courses (as the Duolingo course), they (especially the harder ones) could be converted to hiragana (so I am surprised to see so many hiragana in the course), but it is not the common practice in books and newspapers.

  2. Hiragana: for words that only serve grammar purposes.

    • で: At, in. A case particle. Only hiragana form is available.

    • を: Object marker. Another case particle.

    • ました: Polite ending.

  3. Katakana: for loan words, for writing sounds, and for scientific uses.

    • パソコン: a PC. From パソナール (personal) and コンピュータ (computer). It just writes the English sounds.

    • Many sounds are written out in Katakana, like アッ (ouch).

    • In scientific uses, names of animals and plants are written in katakana. For some words the katakana spellings also apply in common contexts. For example, commonly we say 猫がいます。/ There is a cat. The cat is written in kanji as 猫. However, if I am a biologist on a research on cats, in my publications I write ネコの生態 (ecology of cats). If the kanji for such names are too difficult, one may usually use kana: バラ over 薔薇 (rose); ぶどう or ブドウ over 葡萄 (grapes). The kanji here have nearly no practical usage besides to write the name of rose or grapes; and even, any single 薔, or 薇, or 葡, or 萄 makes no sense and they must come in pairs.

If you want to use only one group of word, your vocabulary will be rather limited, just like you write an English sentence without letter e, or without i, or without o: it is possible, but rather hard and limited. Since each group is connected to word source, they also give different impacts.

  • Kanji only: 日本語能力試験合格 (I have passed my JLPT); 地球温暖化特別対策本部部長任期満了 (The head officer of a special strategy office for global warming has finished his term. ). It seems very academic, very formal.

  • Hiragana only: ろうかははしらないこと (In common orthography it would be 廊下は走らないこと; Do not run in the corridor. ) It seems childish / for children. Since many native words are also written in kanji, it is rather hard to build a sentence only uses hiragana in common orthography.

  • Katakana only: Since katakana only applies to loaned words, sounds, and biologic names, it is much harder to build sentences only with them. However, there is (or, used to be) a possibility to solely use katakana. In telegrams and early IT systems, there was no places for two sets of kana (needless to say kanji), so everything was written in katakana (just as English telegrams also do not distinguish letter cases: there was only ABCDE..., no abcde...).


Kanji for "Japanese" words and Katakana for "loanwords" is a bit of an oversimplification: Kanji are based on Chinese characters (Hanzi) and are also used for Japanese vocabulary based on (often very old) Chinese loanwords. A large proportion of modern Japanese is based on Chinese loanwords (I've heard estimates as high as 40%) . Many of these were historical or regional pronunciations which were adapted to Japanese phonology and changed over many centuries: they many not be recognisable to a speaker of modern Chinese language(s), although they will know a lot of the Kanji.

This is one of the reasons many Kanji have several "readings", generally "kun-yomi" for Japanese words with the same meaning as the Kanji and "on-yomi" for Chinese loanwords adopted with the writing system. As a general rule of thumb, kun-yomi are used when the Kanji is used on it's own (e.g., 水 "mizu" for "water") and on-yomi are used for words constructed with Kanji compounds (e.g., 木曜日 "mokuyoubi" for "Thursday").

Kanji can have multiple kunyomi and onyomi readings. This is one of the hardest parts of Japanese to learn so don't sweat it if you're struggling to begin with. It's more like learning the spelling of every single word than learning the Alphabet. It will take some time.

The Japanese are very understanding of foreign learners. Kana and Furigana are used in a lot of media for children and Japanese learners. "Romanji" (latin alphabet) are also being used for train station names, etc in large cities for foreign travellers who cannot read Japanese, this is becoming more commonplace in the lead up to the influx of foreign visitors for the Olympics. I still encourage you to learn to read Japanese but it isn't "essential" to travel to main tourist destinations.

[deactivated user]

    Kanji comes from the Chinese writing system which was introduced to Japan a very long time ago but the structure of Japanese is different so Kanji could not be used very well exclusively, Kanji represents a concept. So Hiragana and Katakana were derived from Kanji.

    Hiragana is used for writing phonetically, the Hiragana alphabet functions like the Latin alphabet and has no intrinsic meanings, unlike Kanji. Kanji is used for the base concept and Hiranga to alter the pronunciation and to add meaning, such as the tense.

    私は: "Watashi" (I) and "ha" (the subject marker)

    車を: "kuruma" (the car) and "wo" (the object marker)

    見た: "mi–" (the verb “see”) and "-ta" (marking the verb as past tense)

    Japanese has poor phonetics, so without Kanji they would lose a lot of information.

    Katakana is used to write foreign words.


    Yes. To explain a bit more, there are many homophones (words that are pronounced the same). Some of them have the stress on the first or second or third mora but the writing in kana is the same for each. Kanji look different and represent the meaning.

    You could simplify it and keep in mind: kana carry the sound, kanji carries the meaning.

    Kana are hiragana and katakana.

    In the past there was a time when men used katakana and women used hiragana. During (Post-)WW2 it was fashionable to use katakana for names instead of kanji.

    Teengagers write a lot in kana only. Especially in chats. Advertisement often uses kana-only texts and lines, epecially katakana appears quite frequently for all kinds of words in ads.

    The kana are syllabaries, kanji is a logo-graphic script.


    Katakana is also sometimes used for emphasis in subtitles or advertising. Similar to how we would use italics or Caps.


    Katakana - for foreign/loan words

    Hiragana - is pretty much their alphabet

    Kanji - Are just Japanese symbols to portray different meanings.

    They can be all used at the same time it doesn't matter. You will never see sentences written in hiragana alone, unless you are in kindergarten.


    I thought kanji were Chinese characters.


    The Japanese language has many homophones. Kana are (almost) phonetic so they're nearly always read with the same sound and any word that sounds the same will be written the same (in Kana). You can think of Kanji as different spellings for words that sound the same but have different meanings. These are easier to interpret in face-to-face communication with context and intonation but information is lost in writing (with Kana or Romanji).

    You COULD write entirely in Hiragana but it will be difficult to read (and come across as a child's writing as they learn Hiragana first).

    For example, if I'm at a bar and I text you:

    "I went their four a bear"

    You would probably understand me but it would be more difficult to read than if I'd spelled the homophones correctly.

    They will understand that learners won't know ALL of the Kanji right away, furigana are even provided in adult media for non-jouyou Kanji (beyond the ~2000 taught in schools). However, they will appreciate if you learn the Kanji and it will be necessary to read Japanese written for adults.


    Hiragana is the main alphabet. Katakana is used for words that come from other languages and foreign names. You could just write everything in Hiragana and katakana if you really wanted to, but Kanji makes it easier to read

    Learn Japanese in just 5 minutes a day. For free.