Japanese alphabet in English


What is the difference between the English and Japanese alphabet? Which is easier? Read more about the Japanese Alphabet in English!

If the two alphabets were to be compared side by side, the Japanese alphabet would most likely seem more difficult as each stroke looks complex. The fact that it is composed of three writing systems makes non-native Japanese learners feel intimidated. The ideal approach would be the more challenging the language is, the more rewarding it will be to learn about it. Both the English Alphabet and the Japanese Alphabet will be equally difficult if someone doesn’t have the motivation to learn, excel, and understand the language they choose and exert effort into actually learning more about the alphabet of the language because, technically speaking, you cannot learn the language without learning its alphabet and writing system. These elements go side by side. This discussion will escort you to the rich and wonderful world of the Japanese alphabet, which will spark more of your interest.

Continue reading and let’s open the world of the Japanese alphabet in English.

The Japanese Language and Its Writing System

The roots of the Japanese language trace back to the Ural-Altaic Family, which includes Manchu, Mongolian, Turkish, and Korean within its domain. The Japanese language shares a lot of significant similarities in key features such as vowel harmony, lack of conjunctions, general structure, and incorporating extensive use of honorifics in speech.

With more than 130 million speakers, the Japanese language is 9th among the most widely spoken languages in the world. The Japanese language plays an extremely important role in social settings and business transactions. 

The Japanese language has an extremely intricate writing system composed of two sets of phonetic syllabaries, approximately 50 syllables in each, and thousands of “kanji” or Chinese characters, approximately 2,000 in number. 

Incorporating Kanji or Chinese characters in the 6th to 9th AD was a vital event for the Japanese language and its development. During the 12th century, two syllabic writing systems were created out of Kanji: Hiragana and Katakana. The birth of these writing systems allowed the Japanese people to write in their native language. Today, the Japanese language is being written in a mixture of the three: Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana. 

Some people have also confused Chinese and Japanese for each other, but upon a closer study of the two languages, Chinese words are monosyllabic. In contrast, Japanese words usually consist of several syllables. Another aspect to note is that Japanese is considered an inflected language, while Chinese is an isolating language.  

Japanese have developed a mixed system for writing based on the Chinese characters or Kanji that is partly logographic and partly syllabic. A standardizing reform in 1946 established a limited list of 1,850 kanji that was broadened in 1981 to 1,945. This reform encouraged the use of kana for all other Japanese words.

Hiragana (平仮名)

It occurred as a simplification of an outline via cursive scripts of phonetically widespread Kanji among the literates during 794-1185 or the Heian Period. Women of the Japanese Imperial Court created the Hiragana, which has been used as the main script for personal communication and literature. 

Hiragana is used to write different words, including the following:

  • Okurigana (送り仮名) are kana characters that accompany Kanji to illustrate the grammatical functions of words. Additionally, these are inflectional endings for verbs and adjectives. 
  • Hiragana is also used for function words. These include most grammatical particles and small, usually typical words that make sentence subjects, topics, and objects. 
  • These are also used for miscellaneous words of diverse grammatical typeslacking a kanji rendition.
  • Furigana (振り仮名) also called as rubii (ルビー) from the word “ruby” pertaining to the name of the size of the script used to print them. These are small kana characters positioned adjacent to Kanjo to demonstrate the pronunciation. The Furigana characters are most commonly used in Japanese children’s books but are also used to write difficult-to-read symbols in adult books. 

Katakana (片仮名)

Katakana is a component of the Japanese writing system derived from Kanji along with Hiragana. It means ‘Fragmentary kana”. In the Japanese language, these are often used for the transcription of words coming from a foreign origin. Katakana is often used for country names, personal names, and foreign places— such as television written as terebi (テレビ) and America written as Amerika (アメリカ)

Katakana are also being used in words representing sounds or Onomatopoeia. In addition, writers use Katakana to emphasize words they would like to highlight. This equates to the use of italics or italicized letters in European writings. 

Here are examples of the use of Katakana:

コ ン ピ ュ ー タ (konpyūta, “computer”)

ロ ン ド ン (Rondon, “London”)

ト カ ゲ (tokage, “lizard”)

ネ コ (neko, “cat”)

バ ラ (bara, “rose”)

The English and Japanese Alphabet

The English language alphabet is composed of 26-letters that were created from the pagan Germanic runes, and the Latin alphabet first introduced by Christian missionaries. The alphabet emerged way back in 1000 AD and has undergone development through the years to produce the ones being used today. These are letters A to Z. On the other hand, the Japanese alphabet uses Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji as the main writing systems. It is highly recommended for students to master Katakana and Hiragana first before proceeding to start their Japanese language studies. 

Another difference between the Japanese Alphabet in English is while English observes the SVO structure or the Subject + Verb + Object, the Japanese language uses a different structure— Subject + Object + Verb.

To have a clearer idea, observe the example below.

English: I eat breakfast every day at 7 o’clock.

Japanese: 私は毎日7時に朝ごはんを食べます。

      Watashi wa mainichi shichiji ni asagohan o tabemasu.

        Subject     Object   Verb

English: Did you go to the bank yesterday?

Japanese: あ な た は 昨 日 銀 行 へ 行 きましたか?

      Anata wa kinō ginkō e ikimashita ka?

      Subject       Object     Verb

Another aspect to look at regarding the difference between the English and Japanese alphabets is that there are different levels of formalities in the Japanese language. These are called “Keigo” (敬 語) or Japanese honorific speech. This is also the reason why some non-native scholars find it difficult to learn Japanese.

Japanese Syllabaries

The Japanese language uses Kana, which are syllabaries, namely Hiragana and Katakana. Kanji, or the Chinese characters, are logographic for the Japanese Alphabet.

For your convenience, below are two tables that represent each character for Katakana and Hiragana:

Basic Hiragana Characters


Basic Katakana Characters


Art Meets The Japanese Alphabet

Art is a significant way for people from different backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, cultures, races, traditions, and ages to come together and share a magical bond. It is a way of expressing and a special mode of communication that breaks every possible barrier to genuine human interaction. 

Aside from being recognized for excellently innovative technology, picturesque tourist spots, and as 3rd among the cleanest countries in the world, Japan is also known for its sophisticated traditional Japanese calligraphy. 

The traditional Japanese calligraphy can be traced back to the 13th century B.C. Since then, Japanese calligraphy has served multiple purposes. It is an art form, a way of communication, and zen practice in that people have found peace, harmony, tranquility, and wisdom. Japanese calligraphy is vital in molding Japan’s culture and traditions. It has been passed down from one generation to another, and that preserves the beauty and balance in Japanese calligraphy.

Let’s take a deeper look.

Shodō (書道) is one of Japan’s most famous traditional arts. The name literally translates to “way of writing.” Japanese calligraphy, or Shodō, has played a relevant part in Japanese culture and has a long history. Nonetheless, the art form is still being practiced today, and its beauty has been preserved through the ages. There are different techniques in Japanese calligraphy: Kaisho (楷書), Gyōsho (行書), and sōsho (草書).

Kaisho (楷 書) is a calligraphy technique with the Japanese alphabet that is considered as the foundation of all Shodō writing styles. Beginner students of calligraphy usually always start with this writing style. Similar to Kaisho are the ones you usually see on a keyboard or in normal everyday handwriting. One must first master Kaisho before proceeding to a more artistic style of Japanese calligraphy. 

A calligraphy technique that has a more artistic aesthetic is Gyōsho (行書). This is a less formal, semi-italic style, and the name literally means “moving flow.” The strokes run into each other in this calligraphy technique, and the characters are more rounded and fluid. Gyōsho reflects the relationship between each character. 

The last calligraphy style for the Japanese alphabet is Sōsho (草書). Among the three, sōsho is the most difficult to read as it appears more abstract. This technique is the most challenging to master as each character flows into one another with minimal brush strokes. The imagery for Sosho’s cursive style reflects the way that the wind blows through the grass. The focus is not on being understood or read but instead on the emotions and aesthetics that the written text illustrates.

Why learn the Japanese Alphabet?

Learning is a complex and long process. One can only learn some things with a single chance. It is important to note that it takes consistent effort to gradually learn big ideas. In this case, learning the Japanese language does not happen in a snap. It requires time, passion, commitment, and dedication. 

With such a rich and wide topic as the Japanese language, you must include the Japanese Alphabet in your learning journey. Though it can get quite confusing, it will definitely make the journey rewarding. 

Learning and understanding the Japanese language benefits you by being proficient in a foreign language and gives you a clearer view of their culture and tradition. The language and Alphabet give you an idea of knowing the proper attitude and etiquette that will align with their culture. 

One of the many other benefits of learning the language and the Japanese alphabet is the globally known fact that Japan is one of the most economically competitive countries of today. Whether you’re someone in the business industry, an investor, a tourist, or a career explorer, Japan is an ideal country for personal and professional growth. 

The process of familiarizing the Japanese alphabet expands your mind. This is a challenging subject as you need to memorize the different ways to write and construct sentences with them. Studying Japanese will keep your mind active and running. 

Learning Japanese: Key Takeaways

Most of the Asian countries start their foreign language learning with Chinese, Mandarin, or Korean. At the same time, people from the Western side of the world tend to study romance languages such as French, Italian, or Spanish because those languages are closer to English. Japanese is quite an underrated language with its beauty and richness yet to be discovered. 

The opportunity to learn the Japanese alphabet will also widen your connections, whether with co-foreign language learners or the local Japanese community. It is a great conversation starter and a nice learning opportunity. Socializing with native speakers and co-language learners using the language is a significant way to put your learning into practice. This opportunity will allow you to learn from the person you’re talking to, observe their tone, and familiarize yourself with the body language associated with the common Japanese expressions. 

Another reason to add to our long list of reasons why you should start learning the Japanese alphabet is their catchy songs, including the Alphabet song. If you haven’t heard the Japanese alphabet song yet, listen to it here. Not only that but also jam with the rising Japanese pop songs of today from anime original soundtracks to popular Japanese singer’s latest hits. Japanese people are known for being competitive karaoke singers. In fact, it is the best pastime and de-stressing activity for the people of Japan, and you can find a “karaoke box” in almost every city.

For one to be proficient and fluent in the Japanese language, it is a must to start with its roots. Knowing the origin and how it was developed throughout the years will provide a deeper and more sentimental meaning to the learning process of the language and its writing systems. 

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