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Japanese Writing

Historically, the Japanese writing system came from China, with the many Chinese pictograph-like characters, called kanji (meaning Chinese letter), being adopted in Japan. Like many things that Japan adopts, however, the writing system was adapted to fit the Japanese way of doing things. The writing has also evolved over time along its own path and been affected by other influences such as Japan's current strong ties to the West. As the Chinese pronunciation, grammatical order, and verb tenses were different than in Japanese, the Chinese characters were given different pronunciations and other symbols were added to help modify these characters. Later other words from other countries didn't fit well with Chinese characters and were often just written phonetically. For these reasons among others, Japanese uses the Chinese characters along with two other phonetic alphabets unique to Japan. Below is a short description:

Kanji - There are thousands of kanji, though it is said if you can use 2000 well then you can be technically fluent in writing Japanese. Since the kanji were originally from China, Chinese and Japanese can understand some of the meaning in viewing the other country's language, even if they never studied it. Many of the Japanese kanji have changed over the years though so they can be slightly different or unrecognizable from their original Chinese versions.

Japanese kanji often have more than one pronunciation, depending on their combination with other characters, making the memorizing of kanji and the words they represent more complex. For example, the symbol for day can be pronounced as nichi, ni, pi, kA, or jitsu. Kanji are normally red from top to bottom, starting at the right of the page and working towards the left. On signs and in other places however they can be read from left to right, similar to the Western alphabet.

Hiragana and Katakana - Japanese hiragana and katakana are phonetic alphabets where symbols have a set sound rather than representing a meaning. Hiragana are used for Japanese words, while katakana are used for foreign words such as words that came from other languages (like computer) or names of places or people from other countries. The two alphabets have the same number of symbols for the same number of sounds and are sometimes even similar in appearance. An interesting thing about the Japanese alphabets is that except for the letter n, there are no separate consonants. Usually consonants and vowels are combined together in a symbol. For example, there is not a symbol for the k sound, but there are symbols for ka, ke, ki, ko, and ku. This is similar for the other consonants. This can make spelling foreign words difficult, and combined with the limited range of vowel sounds in Japanese, the spelling and sounding out of foreign words can be fairly different from the original foreign word. For example, McDonald's would sound like Ma-Ku-do-NA-RU-do in Japanese.