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Why are there different writing systems in Japanese?

I know that there are three different writing systems in Japanese (hiragana, katakana, & kanji), but what's the purpose, of each system?

June 15, 2017



Japan didn't have their own writing system. So, when Japan and China started exchanging emissaries to each others' courts, Japan started to adapt the Chinese logographic system to work for Japanese, which worked, more or less, and eventually became the charlie-foxtrot we know as "kanji" today.

A few hundred years later, people started adapting some characters only for their phonetic readings. The one the poets came up with eventually became hiragana, and the one the Buddhists came up with eventually became katakana.

Kanji is the base for writing, and make up the core meaning of most words, while the kanas are the "glue", being used for ending sounds that can change and particles (though, take this with a grain of salt, it's about as consistent as English spelling). Hiragana is mostly used for this purpose, while katakana is used mostly for loan words, sounds and old official government documents.


This is the perfect answer to the question.


In a nutshell, Japanese adopted and adapted Chinese logographics (kanji) sometime in the 8th century. The kana were developed to write inflections that don't exist in Chinese. Nowadays, kanji are used to write most nouns, stems of verbs/adjectives and names; hiragana are used to write the inflectional endings, full words which are not usually written in kanji for whatever reasons and as an alternative to kanji and katakana are used to write foreign words and names, scientific terms, onomatopoeia and for emphasis. For more details, start here : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_writing_system


Thanks for this answer


hiragana and kanji now go hand-in-hand, the history of it many peeps have already written here.

Katakana is for all things "foreign" like 'banana' or 'orange' (fruits not native to Japan and so they didn't have a word for it) The problem know is that katakana has evolved to a royal, mindf*ck, hybrid mess where most Japanese assume it's all words in English without realising:

1: Katakana are loan words from English, German, Spanish, Portuguese and a few other languages all "Japanized". "Marron" is French for "chestnut" but they think "marron" is English. (-_-;)

2: The unfortunate rise of "wassei-eigo" (Engrish words created by Japanese peeps for use within Japan) has zero links to any European language meaning wise ベービーカー (stroller, pram, pushchair)

3: Words originally from English are taken but the meanings are completely changed by Japanese society and so they think they can use them to communicate with native English speakers and then wonder why they can't speak English, etc, etc "I like her because she is "high tension". "

4: Finally, katakana is used a lot in Japanese magazines to "emphasise" a word, purely for aesthetic reasons but it does turn me homicidal when I see words normally written in hiragana/kanji written in katakana and then I'm trying to figure out what foreign word it is....

In short, katakana is a headache and then some. Of course, all us foreigners have to write our names in this script (or alphabet), legally we're not allowed to use hiragana or kanji.


Japanese fused with an incompatible Chinese writing system a long time ago, which was itself an amalgamation of different language systems used over different eras, therefore Japanese writing is a convoluted mess that just happened to evolve this way over time.

Basically the same reason that people have appendices and men have nipples.

...very basically

But it does have some advantages


Why does Duolingo teach us hiragana first? I am still learning the hiragana, and while it is fun, it is somewhat exhausting and slow. I like it because it is phonetic, but how useful is it in comparison to learning Kanji first? I think it is worth it overall to learn, but I'm a little discouraged right now.


You need both. You can't use kanji at all without kana, and you can't do much with kana without kanji. Learn kana first though. I don't even think it's possible to learn kanji without kana.


You can can learn kanji without kana - but you would have to learn Chinese first!

But, you are right, you need both. However, for some of us the kanji is the easy part of learning Japanese.


Yes, I realize you can learn the characters by themselves, but I think it would be difficult to learn the Japanese readings of the characters without kana, especially for words that include okurigana.

I have, myself, learned a handful of Chinese through my knowledge of 漢字. I strongly prefer that method of learning Chinese because I am a visual learner and knowing the characters for the words I am learning helps me to remember.


You'd be learning it as Japanese kids do for starters? The order is usually 50 characters of hiragana -> 50 characters of katakana -> kanji (by school grade). Kids usually learn to write their names in hiragana first.

You need to know the phonetic alphabets, so you can use them to assist you with reading the kanji properly. You'll soon come to find that an easy kanji like 日 can be read as, (kunyomi) ひ、び、ぴ、か、(onyomi) ジツ、ニチ, which by then, you'll wanna flip a table, say "to hell with this BS" and turn to learning Chinese for kanji, lol.

Always start with the basics and work your way up! The tortoise was the one who run the race by going slow yet steady. ;)

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