This page has a very brief overview of Japanese writing systems. I wrote it to avoid having to answer individually the many emailed requests I receive.
For a much more complete discussions, see Jack Halpern's articles here.
Romaji is the Japanese word for writing Japanese using the letters of the Latin alphabet. There are several methods for romaji, but the one I will use on this page is a variant of the Hepburn romaji system, named after the Rev. Dr Hepburn, who popularized it it in the 1870s when he used it in his dictionary. The other main system is called "kunrei" romaji (because it was made official by a Japanese government directive in the 1930s ["kunrei" means "directive"]). You will most often see Hepburn romaji.
Romaji is not used a lot in Japan, although you will see it in station names, and the like.
Key components of Japanese writing are the two "kana"; hiragana and katakana. An important thing to recognize is that the kana are not alphabets. Each is a "syllabary", i.e. each symbol represents a syllable. Some syllabaries are quite complex (most have died out), but the Japanese ones are relatively straightforward.
Here a word in hiragana: せんせい and here is a word in katakana: コンピューター.
The Japanese syllabaries consist of:
Absolutely central to Japanese writing are the 漢字 (kanji), which literally means "Chinese letters". These comprise a system of Chinese characters that have been adopted in Japan for writing the Japanese language. The writing of Japanese using kanji began about 1500 years ago. About 44,000 kanji exist, but following a major series of writing reforms which began in the late 1940s, the number of kanji in common use has been reduced. Students who have completed compulsory primary and secondary schooling in Japan will have studied the 1,945 常用漢字 (jouyou kanji: regular use kanji) designated for common use. You can view these kanji here.
Japanese is written in a mixture of kanji and the two kana. Typically in modern Japanese:
In Hepburn romaji this is "Kyô, watashi wa sûpâ de pan o kaimashita." (In my preferred form of romaji it is "kyou, watashi wa su-pa- de pan wo kaimashita", as it is closer to the Japanese and will work properly in a word-processor.)
Vertical and Horizontal
Japanese can be written both vertically (known as 縦書き - tategaki in Japanese) and horizontally (横書き - yokogaki). When written horizontally it goes Left to Right in rows, just like European languages. When written vertically it goes Top to Bottom in columns starting on the right of the page. Newspapers, novels, etc. are usually written vertically. Textbooks, WWW pages, etc. are usually written horizontally. In fact in newspapers you sometimes see headlines and captions to pictures in yokogaki and articles in tategaki. One soon gets used to using them both.
Years ago signs on stations, text on banknotes and coins, etc. was sometimes written Right to Left. My friend Bart Mathais, a retired professor of Japanese, tells me this was not true Right to Left text but more a form of tategaki where there was only one character per column.
Often the text on ships, buses, taxis, etc. is written from the front of the vehicle, so on the right side the text gets reversed. This even happens sometimes to English text. I once saw a taxi with "Golden Taxi" on the left side, and "ixaT nedloG" on the right.
June 2001 (modified November 2004).