Japanese Writing System

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Japanese Writing System


a writing system consisting of about 15,000 characters, or kanji, each of which represents a morpheme or several synonymous morphemes (either Japanese or borrowed from Chinese), and two parallel syllabic alphabets, each containing 47 syllabic symbols, or kana. The first alphabet, hiragana, is used to transcribe syntactic morphemes and onomatopoeic words. The second alphabet, katakana, is used in writing new loanwords. The Japanese writing system is therefore both ideographic and phonetic.

Japanese characters were borrowed from China in the sixth and seventh centuries; separate characters were fused together in Japan. The Japanese initially wrote in Chinese and later began indicating Japanese word order and syntactic morphemes; sacred words and poetry were written in characters that performed the role of syllabic signs. Each syllable could be represented by any of five to 20 homonymous signs. By the 12th century two sets of kana remained: the simpler, truncated syllabic signs— katakana—and the rounded, cursive signs— hiragana. A mixed writing system came to prevail (see Figure 1).

In 1946 the number of kanji characters for general use was reduced to 1,800, and the shapes of 700 characters were simplified; it was recommended that kana be used to write words that previously had been written with kanji characters. The orthography was standardized to conform with modern pronunciation; for example, wi and we were replaced by i and e, a-u by o-u (for [ó]), and e-u by yo-u. Japanese is written without spaces from the top of the page downward and from right to left. Sometimes, texts are printed from left to right. The Latin alphabet is little used.


Fel’dman-Konrad, N. I. laponsko-russkii uchebnyi slovar’ ieroglifov, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1977.
Syromiatnikov, N. A. Drevneiaponskii iazyk. Moscow, 1972.


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