How to use Japanese alphabet

At the beginning of their studies, many people have doubts about how Japanese texts are written using hiragana, katakana and kanji.

Although some doubts are not very easy to clarify, I will try to solve many of them in this short article.

A Japanese alphabet for every purpose

One of the things we need to keep in mind when starting to study japanese, is the fact that the texts are written with all the Japanese alphabets mixed up. This means that Japanese texts are written with hiragana, katakana and kanji together.

Despite this mixture, write and read a text in japanese It's not as complicated as it seems. Once we understand the purpose of each Japanese alphabet, we can easily read and understand a text written in Japanese.

When to use hiragana in Japanese texts

As we already know, hiragana is a phonetic alphabet that was created to write native words of the Japanese language. Therefore, it can only be used to write words that originated in Japan, and can be used in the cases below.

Use hiragana in place of unknown kanji

常用漢字 is a list of commonly used Japanese symbols that every Japanese person should know. This means that if you intend to read and write texts in Japanese, you will need to learn all the 常用漢字.

In addition to 常用漢字, there are millions of other Japanese symbols. Because of this, when we write a text for someone, we need to wonder if the person who is going to read the text knows the kanji we are using. If the other person does not know them, it is better to write the words in hiragana.

Remember that the reverse also works. When in doubt about the use of a certain kanji, write it in hiragana that everyone will understand. The goal here is to use hiragana to replace unfamiliar kanji and avoid miscommunication. For example, the words 東京 and とうきょう mean the same thing.

Use hiragana to write particles

Japanese particles are a grammatical feature that tells you the function of each part of a sentence. Thus, there is a particle to indicate who is the subject of the sentence, to indicate the predicate or direct and indirect object, to indicate the direction of an action and so on.

In most cases, particles do not have a specific translation and generally assume functions similar to prepositions in Portuguese.

Another interesting fact about particles is that they are written using hiragana syllables and can also change the sound of syllables when they are used as particles. For example:

日本行きます。

The highlighted symbols have a different pronunciation than we are used to. Because they are syllables with particle function,  is read as “wa” and    has an “e” sound.

Use hiragana for word extensions

The Japanese alphabet in hiragana is also used to write word extensions such as verb conjugations, adjective conjugations, and more.

The verb 食べます, for example, changes its spelling and pronunciation when it is conjugated in the past tense 食べました or in the informal present 食べ. Note that the verb has a kanji and an extension written in hiragana to complete the verb. Many other words in the Japanese language are composed in the same way.

Use hiragana when it's easier

In Japanese, many words are written in hiragana for the sake of ease. A great example of this is the word まだ. It is much easier to find this word in hiragana than to find its kanji counterpart 未だ in Japanese texts.

Another similar phenomenon occurs with Japanese numbers. It is much easier to find numbers written in western numerals (0,1,2,3,4…) than to find their kanji equivalents. The number  in kanji is actually more complicated to write.

When to use katakana in Japanese texts

Using the katakana is already much simpler. This Japanese alphabet is used to write words of foreign origin, including names of people.

words like table and ball are perfectly understood by many Japanese, but as they are loanwords of American origin, they must be transcribed using the katakana phonetic alphabet. Following this thought, words and names must be transcribed according to their pronunciation and the existing phonemes in the Japanese language. So, table would be transcribed as テーブル and ball would be ボール.

If you want to know more about how to write your name in japanese or foreign names, I suggest you read the article “how to write your name in japanese“.

Another interesting use of the katakana, although quite uncommon, is highlighting. In such cases, katakana is used as our italics, referring to another word in the same text written in hiragana or kanji.

When to use kanji in Japanese texts

Kanji are words that we should use as much as possible, with the exception of the cases described in the topics about using hiragana. The method of writing hiragana words is just a facilitator, the actual Japanese words are kanji.

On the other hand, using kanji in Japanese texts requires a little caution, as using unknown or rare kanji can make it very difficult to read the Japanese text. The recommendation of the Japanese Ministry of Education is to always use the appropriate kanji for each level of reader. In the case of the general public, the best way is to use the kanji found in the list of the 常用漢字.

If you want to know more about the kanjis of Jouyou Kanji, I suggest you read the article “The Japanese Symbols of Jouyou Kanji“.

Conclusion

Writing and reading Japanese texts using the three Japanese alphabets is not as complicated as many people think, especially if we know the purpose of each of them.

The most difficult thing is getting used to the writing structure and pronunciation of each Japanese symbol, but this is something that is acquired through living with the Japanese language.

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