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Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana[edit]

Japanese is written using three different scripts:

漢字 Kanji are Chinese characters transmitted to Japan during the spread of Buddhism in the 5th century. A large percentage (approx. 70%) of Japanese vocabulary comes from Chinese or Chinese-derived words. There are two types of pronunciation for Kanji characters: the Chinese pronunciation; and the Japanese pronunciation.
ひらがな Hiragana is a cursive syllabary script used to write native Japanese words. It is also used to write the adjective and verb conjugation endings of Japanese words which use kanji. In Kanji dictionaries, hiragana is used to show Japanese pronunciation of Kanji characters.
カタカナ Katakana is an angular syllabary script used to transliterate foreign words into Japanese. It is also used for writing onomatopoeia (imitation of sounds), to emphasize a Japanese word, and to show the Chinese pronunciation of Kanji characters.

The difference between the three scripts can be observed above. Kanji are complex characters, each representing an idea or picture. Hiragana and Katakana are native Japanese alphabets which are used to represent sound. Mastery of both syllabaries (Hiragana and Katakana) as well as 2,000 kanji characters are required to be fully proficient in the Japanese language.


Arabic numerals are generally used when writing numbers such as quantity, date, and time. Kanji numerals are sometimes used but generally you can expect to see arabic numerals. The diffence between the usage is one of traditional versus modern style.

Latin alphabet[edit]

The Latin alphabet (ローマ字, rōmaji) is not part of the Japanese language but it is used as a fashionable way of writing words, mostly nouns such as the name of a company, business, sports team, etc. Rōmaji is also used for the transliteration of Japanese. There are two competing transliteration methods: the Kunrei-shiki developed by the Japanese government in the mid-20th century and taught in elementary school; and the more widely used Hepburn-shiki developed by Reverend James Curtis Hepburn in the late 19th century. This Wikibook course uses the Hepburn system of transliteration.