Japanese Character Writing
Japanese character writing uses three 'alphabets' at once. Kanji or Chinese characters everyone knows but what are the other two and how do they work?
There are 3 kinds of Japanese writing that can be written either vertically from right to left or horizontally from left to right. Most literature is written vertically in the traditional style while texts and scientific data are written in the western style.
Kanji are Chinese characters or ideographs, each conveying an idea, most of which have at least 2 meanings. Japanese students are required to learn 1850 kanji words in their compulsory education years which are from age 7 to 15. In order to read newspapers or books in daily social life, people need to know at least 1945 kanji words.
Kanji were created in China around 3500 years ago and were introduced mainly by monks to Japan in the 3rd century. Early imitative drawings of objects in life are the roots of the characters. For example, the symbol for tree actually started out as a picture of a tree and has become stylised over time.
A phonetic syllabary. Hiragana literally means 'ordinary use kana' and consists of 46 basic syllables, although some of these characters can be combined to form other sounds. In order to express the pronunciation of kanji as well as to write letters, poems and diaries, kana were created among high society during the 5th century. In the early period, kana were usually used by females in high society as an education, as kanji was still a male privilege. In fact, one of the most famous stories in Japanese literature, The Tale of Genji' was written exclusively in hiragana by Murasaki Shikibu (a woman).
The second syllabary used primarily for foreign names, place names and borrowed words from overseas. Katakana also consists of the same number and type of syllables as hiragana. Around the same period as hiragana, katakana were also created from kanji and were known as 'handicap kana'. In modern writings, katakana is used in comics to emphasise words, indicate that a robot or animal is speaking, for animal sounds and for onomatopoeia as well as for foreign words. Recently advertisers have been incorporating it into campaigns to attract attention. Katakana has the same sounds and potential combinations but looks more angular in its formation.
As time went on, kana have changed shape and, in 1900, Japanese kana was standardised. Modern sentences usually use a combination of all three alphabets. For example, to say "My name is Elvis Presley.", 'Elvis Presley' would be written in katakana because it is a foreign name, 'my' and 'name' would be written in kanji characters, and 'is' would be written in hiragana. It's pretty creative stuff!