The Japanese language is believed to be descended from a branch of languages known as the Altaic family. It shares similarities with other Oriental languages, such as Turkish, Chinese, Mongolian, Korean and Polynesian. The ties between these languages are obvious in their writing systems. The written form of Japanese consists of three different character sets; namely kanji, hiragana and katakana.

Kanji is an elegant form of writing which consists of thousands of Chinese characters. This is because the first Japanese texts were originally written by immigrants from China during ancient times. This writing system relies heavily on abstract concepts, such as picture representation, to convey the message. For example, several kanji can be assigned to represent a single Japanese word. When this happens, the various kanji is intended to infer several degrees of meaning. The kanji for the word “snow”, may have up to 20 different kanji which all refer to snow, but each describes a different attributes of snow. Consequently, few people, apart from scholars and scribes, are able to translate kanji due to its complexity and number of characters involved.

Over time, a language system called “kana bun” emerged which combined Chinese characters with diacritical marks to allow the Japanese Chinese characters in accordance to the rules of Japanese grammar. Kanji is still used in modern Japan; however, it is less common in everyday use than hiragana or katakana.

Hiragana and katakana are forms of writing were developed by the Japanese around the 9th century. Hiragana is the formal Japanese writing system. It is used to represent words for which the kanji form is too obscure or too formal for writing purposes. The complete hiragana alphabet consists of 48 characters, which are used to represent Japanese words, which have no kanji equivalent.

Katakana, on the other hand, is the simplest of the Japanese scripts. It is used in a day-to-day basis and is characterized by straight, short strokes with angular corners. Unlike hiragana or kanji, katakana can be slightly altered by adding a small circle or two small strokes in the right hand corner of the character to change its meaning. The complete katakana alphabet consists of 51 characters, not including functional or diacritic marks.

Unlike kanji, hiragana and katakana are syllabyle-based writing systems which is designed to be a more direct interpretation of the spoken language. It is likely that the Japanese developed this simplified form of kanji to spread literacy across Japan by creating a writing system which represented vowels and consonants which were joined together to make words.

Learning the written Japanese language is a difficult task. School children are expected to learn at least 2,000 kanji characters in order to read literature or newspapers in Japanese. Luckily, there are only 1945 kanji designated by the government for use in everyday life. For a foreigner learning Japanese, it is estimated that a full year of study is required to learn the 1945 characters, and two years to become fluent.

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