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Why do Japanese people use three different kinds of writing?

Japanese writing today consists of three different scripts: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Kanji literally means "Chinese characters," that is, characters adopted from China. These characters are identical, or very similar, to the characters used by the Chinese today. Hiragana and katakana, however, are phonetic scripts used only in Japanese writing.

Japanese writing
A section from the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, showing all three kinds of writing.

Thus the difference between the two "kana" and the Chinese characters is that the kana are a phonetic system where the individual signs have no meaning associated with them; the kanji, on the other hand, have a meaning associated with them.

Kanji come from China. Although the phonetic aspect once played an important part in the development of kanji, in today's Japan kanji primarily function as an ideographic, or logographic, system. What this means is that they are used for their meaning, kind of like symbols. Thus the Japanese write word for "water" is pronounced "mizu" and is written with a particular kanji. Apart from "mizu," in certain cases the kanji can also be pronounced as "sui."`Nevertheless, it always means "water," regardless of its pronunciation. The same kanji makes perfect sense to a Chinese person who pronounces it "shui" and knows that it means water. It is kind of like the number "4" which is understood by both the English and the French but pronounced as "four" and "quatre."

Hiragana and katakana originally it evolved from kanji by means of simplification. Because the writing system was adopted from China, it did not perfectly fit the Japanese language and thus modifications had to be made. Some kanji came to be used for their phonetic value. Because they were commonly used for their sound and their meaning was irrelevant anymore, they gradually became simplified and formed a syllabary. A syllabary is a phonetic system, just like an alphabet, where the symbols stand for syllables, not letters as in an alphabet.

In today's Japan, hiragana is used for everything that needs to be written phonetically, such as verb endings, particles, etc. Other things are written in kanji. Since even those words that are usually written with kanji could be written with hiragana as well, there is a certain degree of flexibility on the part of the writer. The writer can chose the way he or she decides to write a certain word. Naturally, convention plays an important role here too.

Katakana is used for words of foreign origin and words imitating sound. Foreign words include words that are already part of the Japanese language but originally come from English or Portuguese. For example, the word "door" is pronounced in Japanese as "doa" and comes from the English word; this word is written with katakana. Then again, words that are not part of the Japanese language but are necessary in daily life, such as "Coca Cola," "McDonald's," as well as foreign names, are written in katakana. And at last, there are the words that imitate sound, such as "bang," "boom," etc, of which there are plenty in Japanese. Modern manga novels are full of such katakana characters.

Chinese writing with three kinds of script
A Japanese menu in front of a
restaurant with different scripts


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Why do Japanese people use three different kinds of writing?