Beyond Words - Language Blog

Kana: The Elegance of Japanese Writing

By guest contributor John Hubert

The Japanese Alphabet is an elegant system of writing that consists of two main scripts known as the Hiragana and Katakana alphabets.

It’s these two writing scripts that comprise the some 100 kana characters that are used to write and pronounce every sound in the Japanese language. Learning the alphabet has always been a difficult task for new students, as the characters often bare little if any resemblance to one another.

One of the best strategies that people use to learn the kana is to associate mnemonics with each of the hiragana and katakana Japanese alphabet characters.

An example would be examining the character ‘tsu’ and associating it with a tsunami wave. The character resembles a wave that is curved. Since anyone can associate a tsunami with a wave, all we need to take is the ‘tsu’ sound, and think of ‘tsunami’.

Through a mnemonic technique such as this we’re able to memorise a character that we perhaps normally wouldn’t be able to. We can do this for a number of other characters, however it’s often the ‘tsu’ character that poses many problems for new students of the Japanese alphabet.

As ones studies of the Japanese language progress, the other writing system or alphabet known as the kanji is learnt. This system of writing is quite complex as it consists of many thousands of characters, and thus a mastery of it would involve a mastery of Japanese itself. New students however will find the kanji to be quite daunting, and so the kana is the preferred system of writing, as it is used by the Japanese each and every day, and is also easier to learn than the kanji.

The kana is divided into both the hiragana and katakana alphabets. The hiragana is used by Japanese for native words whilst the katakana is more frequently used for foreign words and foreign names. A native Japanese person will typically write their name in the hiragana alphabet, whilst a foreigner will usually write their name in katakana.

There are a number of changes that can take place with the Japanese alphabet characters, such as the dakuten and handakuten. These modifications typically result in different sounds and meanings of characters. One thing is for certain is that learning the kana becomes easier the more you associate mnemonics with each character.