Japanese Writing System
Of the writing systems in use in the world today, the Japanese writing system
is among the most complex. It consists of Chinese characters as well as two
phonetic alphabets. This is how the system evolved and works.
At its core, Japanese uses Chinese characters called Kanji in Japanese. Because of this, it is a common misconception that the Japanese and Chinese languages are closely related. In fact, they are quite different and not even of the same language family. However, Chinese had an influence on Japanese somewhat like the influence Latin and French had on English.
The first writing in Japan was in Chinese since Japanese did not have a written form when Chinese characters were first introduced to Japan. Gradually though, different steps were taken to create a Japanese writing system built upon the Chinese model.
In many cases, both the Chinese characters and words were introduced into Japanese. These kanji were read with a Japanese approximation of the Chinese sounds called the on-yomi or on-reading.
Other Kanji were assigned to Japanese words so they had purely Japanese readings. These kanji, and those kanji invented in Japan, are read with what is called the kun-yomi or kun-reading.
Unfortunately for those studying Japanese, many kanji have both types of readings and more than one of each. All together, roughly 2000 kanji characters are in use in Japanese today.
In addition, two syllable based writing systems, each containing 46 basic syllable characters, were also developed. These are called hiragana and katakana.
Hiragana is used to write native Japanese words that have not been assigned kanji, particles, auxiliary verbs as well as inflected parts of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.
The other, katakana, is used to write foreign-derived words and names that do not come from Chinese (these are usually written in kanji). It is also used to bring attention to certain words such as in advertising.
While it is possible to write Japanese entirely in hiragana, katakana or even the Latin alphabet, tradition and culture keep written Japanese the more complex system it has evolved into.
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