About Japanese

Written Japanese basically consists of three types of characters: kanji, hiragana and katakana. Arabic numerals and the Roman alphabet are also used.

Kanji are ideograms with each kanji representing a concept. They usually have one or more “readings.” (For example, the kanji “愛” (ai) means “love” on its own.) Hiragana and katakana, meanwhile, represent sounds, and individual characters have no meaning in themselves.

There are 1,945 kanji that are taught in Japanese schools and are designated as those for everyday use. There are also countless other kanji. Even just kanji used in personal computers – as established under the Japanese Industrial Standard (JIS) – number 6,877.

While kanji has its origin in Chinese characters, hiragana and katakana are uniquely Japanese. They developed from kanji roughly 1,100 to 1,200 years ago as a simplified way of writing.

Hiragana and katakana are based on 50 characters each, which are modified in various ways. A dakuten (゛) diacritic is added to indicate that an unvoiced consonant should be pronounced as a voiced consonant (e.g. ハ ⇒ バ / ha ⇒ ba), while a handakuten (゜) is usually added to consonants beginning with “h” to indicate that it should be pronounced “p” (e.g. ハ ⇒ パ / ha ⇒ pa). A small version of certain characters is also added in combination with other characters to express sounds not contained in the original 50 (e.g. シャ /sha, シュ /shu, and ショ / sho). Note that usage differs from that of a “small letter” in English.

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