Reading Japanese

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The Japanese language uses four “alphabets”. Centuries ago they “borrowed” the Characters of written Chinese.  In Japanese these are called the “Kanji”.  You need to read the section on written Chinese as the same characters apply with the same meaning, although they are spoken differently in Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese and in fact in several other oriental languages.  However, in addition there are two written Japanese scripts, Katakana and Hirogana.  These are used to represent the sounds of European and Japanese words.  Modern Japanese also uses Romaji, the characters we use in Western languages such as English and French.   All four “alphabets” may be present in a single sentence.

All of this sounds pretty daunting but as you will see below, it’s not that bad.  These are the four alphabets:


1.     The KANJI

These are the characters of the Chinese language, which the Japanese adopted.  In fact, the Chinese characters are used in several oriental languages.  If you have read the accompanying section on Chinese script you can use the same characters to interpret Japanese script.  As in Chinese itself, these characters represent meaning; the characters mean the same as they do in native Chinese but are pronounced quite differently.

The remaining three scripts represent the sounds of words rather than what they mean.


2.      The ROMAJI

This is the Western script which we use for English and other European languages.  This is often used for numbers, dates and telephone numbers.  They can be easily read as in English.


3.     The KATAKANA

This alphabet consists of forty six phonemes (consonant/vowel combinations) which the Japanese use to write the sounds of words they have borrowed, largely from European languages.  There are only 46 phonemes in the Katakana and anyone with a reasonable visual memory can easily memorise them over a couple of weeks.  Once you have memorised the phonemes you can directly read off a large number of Japanese company names and borrowed words, on packaging, on newsreel footage and in footage from films and documentaries.  In addition to the phonemes shown, a small dot placed after a phoneme changes a “k” sound to “g” and a small dash changes “n” to “b”.


Using the table, try working out which vehicle manufacturers these represent:








(Answers at the bottom of this article).



4.     The HIRAGANA

As with the Katakana, this is an alphabet of 46 phonemes used to write the sounds of indigenous Japanese words.

Obviously you need to know some Japanese to use this alphabet.  However, just as the Japanese have incorporated English words into their language the reverse has also happened.  You probably already know more Japanese words than you realise, such as Saki, Sushi and Geisha.  As a matter of fact, the English spell check on my word processor recognises those words and did not query the spelling as I typed them. 

In reality the Katakana and Hiragana have become somewhat interchangeable.  There is a fashion amongst Japanese pop bands to use Katakana for posters and CD sleeves for words which would normally be in Hiragana.  Japanese word processors often have a conversion between the two much as western-language word processors convert between upper and lower case. 

The Hiragana table is printed below:




If you are interested in learning Japanese there are any number of books available such as Teach Yourself Japanese.  There are plenty of opportunities for practising reading – on the packaging materials for Japanese imported goods for instance, and on instruction manuals where you often have parallel script in English.


Here are the answers to the Katakana translations:


1.     Mitsubishi

2.     Toyota

3.     Kawasaki


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© Ken James 2008