Modern Japanese

Modern Japanese Alphabet

The modern Japanese language, as well as the writing system, consists of a combination of syllabic kana and logographic kanji. The last one represents adopted Chinese characters. Kana consists of a pair of syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. Hiragana is used initially for native or naturalized Japanese words and grammatical elements. Katakana, however, is mainly used for foreign words and names, scientific names, onomatopoeia, loanwords, and sometimes for emphasis. Almost all written Japanese sentences include a mixture of kana and kanji. Due to this mixture of scripts, and a comprehensive inventory of kanji characters, the Japanese writing system is frequently considered to be one of the most complicated in use anywhere in the world.

Several thousand kanji characters are in regular use, mostly originated from traditional Chinese characters (表意文字 hyōui moji). Others made in Japan are referred to as “Japanese Kanji” (和製漢字 wasei kanji; also referred to as “country’s kanji” 国字 kokuji). Each has an intrinsic meaning (or range of purposes), and most even have more than one pronunciation, which depends on the context. Primary and secondary school students in Japan are required to learn 2,136 jōyō kanji. The total number of kanji is over 50,000, though few if any native speakers know anywhere near this number.


In modern Japanese, the katakana and hiragana syllabaries each include 46 primary characters or 71, with diacritics. With one or two insignificant exceptions, each different sound in the Japanese language corresponds to one character in each syllabary. Unlike kanji, these characters represent sounds only; they carry meaning only as part of words. Katakana and hiragana characters also originally derived from Chinese characters. However, they have been modified and simplified to such an extent that their origins are no longer visually apparent.

Texts without kanji are met very rarely. Most can be seen in either children’s books—because children tend to know few kanji at an early age—or old electronics like phones, computers, and video games, which were not able to display complex graphemes because of both graphical and technological limitations.


To a lesser extent, modern written Japanese also uses acronyms from the Latin alphabet, for instance in popular terms like “BC/AD,” “a.m./p.m.”, “FBI,” and “CD.” Native speakers most commonly use romanized Japanese for computer input or by international students of Japanese who have not yet mastered kana.


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