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Japanese characters

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Japanese Characters

The Japanese written language is composed of three different types of Japanese characters - kanji , hiragana and katakana − all of which were borrowed or developed from the Chinese writing system.

Historically Japan and China have had much interaction of people, trade and culture. When Japanese culture developed to the stage where a writing system was needed many centuries ago, Japanese had already been exposed to the Chinese writing system.  As a result, the Japanese writing system and Japanese characters were developed from the Chinese writing system.

Chinese characters were first imported from China with the analects of Confucius and Buddhism about 500 A.D. and used in Japanese temples by monks. Later, in the seventh to eighth centuries, Japanese envoys to T’ang China and priests brought Chinese characters back to Japan where they began to be more widely used.  Another wave of Chinese characters arrived 1200 to 1600 A.D. with priests and merchants.

In modern Japanese about 2000 of these Chinese characters called kanji in Japanese (literally Han Chinese characters) make up the bulk of Japanese characters. The remainder of the Japanese characters are phonetic symbols grouped into two sets of kana − hiragana and katakana.

The kanji used in modern Japan often have differences from the Chinese characters used in modern China and Taiwan. After the Second World War, the Japanese government simplified some of the Chinese characters used in Japan by reducing the number of strokes needed to write them so these became much less complex to write than the Chinese characters used in China and Taiwan. Then in the 1960s the Chinese government radically simplified the Chinese characters used in China so most of these are now much less complex than those used in Japan. However Chinese characters used in Taiwan have not been simplified so they are the most complex.

There are also a few Chinese characters that have actually been made in Japan. For example, 働 which means work is one of them.  It is made up of two Chinese characters  イ, which means person or people and 動, which means motion. Thus the Japanese kanji for work is literally person or people in motion. Japanese who work hard made this character and now it is even used informally by Chinese in China. This is interesting and a little ironic.

Some Chinese characters are ideographs, which means the character is a picture of what the character represents. For example, can you guess what 山 means?  In Japanese it is pronounced yama. 山' means mountain. Did you guess correctly? The character, 回, means `turn, spin, twist`. This character was made from a curly Q. 高 means high. This character comes from a picture of a tall observation tower.

Here is a quiz on some Japanese ideograph characters. The word in brackets (   ) is the pronunciation in Japanese.

1. 川(kawa)  2. 日 (hi)  3. 月 (tsuki)   4. 口 (kuchi)  5. 耳 (mimi)  6. 目 (me)   7. 虫 (mushi)   8. 門 (mon)   9. 竹 (take)   10. 一 (ichi )   11. 二 (ni)   12. 三 (san)  13. 木 (ki)  14. 林 (hayashi)  15. 森 (mori)

1. river   2. sun   3. moon ( Does it look like a crescent moon?)  4. mouth   5. ear   6. eye   7. insect   8. gate   9. bamboo   10. one  11. two   12. three   13. tree   14. woods   15. forest

Can you guess what 田 (ta) means? This character means rice field. The character 力 (chikara) means power. Can you guess what 男 (otoko) means? Rice field and power suggests a man in Asia. So the correct answer is a `man`. We introduced the character イ above which means person. Then what does 休 mean? This character means resting. It looks like a person is resting under a tree.  

As mentioned above, there are two more types of Japanese characters: hiragana and katakana.  The Japanese and Chinese languages are very different in structure, grammar and pronunciation. As a result, over the centuries the Japanese modified the use of Chinese characters and developed hiragana and katakana to fit the Japanese language.

Hiragana are syllabic characters. In other words they have a sound but no meaning. The hiragana were developed over time by simplifying Chinese certain characters. There are 50 hiragana.

Here are two examples. The hiragana あ (ah) is simplified from 安 which can be pronounced ah. The hiragana い (ee) is simplified from 以 which can be pronounced ee. 

Hiragana are the most commonly used Japanese characters. A sentence in Japanese can be written entirely in hiragana. Books for preschool children are written this way. However it is more common to mix Chinese characters, kanji,and hiragana in sentences. Kanji are generally used to express nouns, roots of adjectives and adverbs, and verb stems. Hiragana are added to adjectives and adverbs as suffixes and to verb stems to indicate tense. Hiragana are also used as postpositions, which are words that serve the same function as prepositions in English except that they come after the noun or phrase. 

Katakana is the third type of Japanese character. Like hiragana, they are syllabic characters and were developed by simplifying Chinese characters.

Here are two examples. The katakana ア (ah) is simplified from 部 which can be pronounced ah. The katakana イ (ee) is simplified from 伊 which can be pronounced ee. 

As you may have guessed, there is a corresponding katakana character for each hiragana character, however katakana are only used in certain limited circumstances. They are mostly used to write foreign words and names, scientific names and onomatopoeia or words representing a sound.

At Tanoshii Japanese School, you quickly learn Japanese characters in fun ways such as with flash cards and card games.




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