What’s the difference between rōmaji and kiriji? When should I use hiragana and when katakana? What on earth is an IME?
When you’re new to learning Japanese, or a foreign language in general, one of the surprising hurdles to overcome is the jargon… in your own language! So many technical terms are thrown around flippantly and rarely explained outright that it’s easy to get lost.
This series will serve as a basic introduction to some terms that you’re bound to meet on your journey towards Japanese fluency. This won’t be an exhaustive vocabulary list but rather a primer on a few terms that you might find difficult to wrap your head around as a beginner.
We’ll start with Writing today and move on to Grammar in the near future.
- Japanese writing vocab refresh
- Japanese grammar vocab refresh
- Japanese pronunciation vocab refresh
- Japanese etiquette vocab refresh
One of the things the Japanese language is notorious for is its writing system that is seemingly impossible to master. Other than kanji, one of the reasons for this misconception is the painful amount of new English vocabulary you need to learn and understand before you even begin writing your very first character.
You’ll often hear the word script thrown around when talking about the Japanese writing system. The problem is—it can mean two entirely different things!
The first is the actual sets of characters used to write Japanese. This is the meaning used when you hear that ‘Japanese has the highest number of scripts of all languages.’
The four scripts in question are kanji (漢字, Chinese characters), hiragana and katakana (ひらがな and カタカナ, two native Japanese syllabaries collectively called kana 仮名) and rōmaji (ローマ字, our very own Latin characters used in English).
Rōmaji, often misspelled as romanji, comes from ‘Roman characters,’ which are more commonly called Latin characters in English. This is the alphabet you use every day, the script this article is written in. You’ll often meet rōmaji in Japanese ads, company names, abbreviations and on food packaging.
Many teachers and textbooks use rōmaji to teach beginners Japanese, and some even think that rōmaji should completely replace traditional scripts. While it comes to teaching Japanese, at LinguaLift, we are of the opinion that hiragana and katakana should both be taught as soon as possible.
While it may be tempting to stay with rōmaji for as long as possible, learning kana is in fact crucial and helps one to avoid many difficulties in the future. Bad pronunciation, incorrect understanding of verb conjugation & particles, and insufficient knowledge of kanji are all cause for regret in the long term.
There are countless different romanization systems, such as Hepburn romanization, Kunrei-shiki Rōmaji (ISO 3602), and Nihon-shiki Rōmaji, used by different organizations and governmental bodies.
For example, 東京 could be transcribed as Tōkyō, Toukyou, Tokio, among many others.
The actual act of writing Japanese words in non-Japanese scripts is called transliteration, which encompasses not only rōmaji but also the Cyrillic kiriji.
A syllabary is similar to an alphabet, except that each symbol represents a syllable and not just one of its constituent sounds. A syllabogram is to syllabary what a letter is to alphabet.
Japanese has two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, eac used in different context but featuring the exact same set of characters representing exactly the same sounds, so it’s just a matter of learn two symbols for each of them.
Hiragana is very curvy and its primary uses include phonetic readings for difficult Japanese words and various grammar features such as verb conjugation.
Katakana is very angular and its primary use is to provide phonetic readings for words borrowed from other languages.
You might also come across the word man’yōgana, a precursor to kana that used a number of Chinese characters for their sound alone.
Kanji are the elaborate logographic characters adapted from China when the first writing system developed in Japan. If you’ve learned Chinese or Korean, you will knows them as hanzi or hanja respectively.
A logograph is a character that represents a word. Don’t confuse them with ideographs (character representing an idea) and pictographs (character conveying its meaning through its pictorial resemblance to a physical object).
All kanji are logographs, but only some are pictographs:
As you learn more kanji, you’ll notice that patterns are often repeated between them, and that more complex characters can often be decomposed into simple constituent parts. These are commonly called radicals.
Most radicals are based on other kanji, though their appearance can change substantially in radical form. For example, one of the radical forms of 水 (water) is 氵, and it can appear in kanji such as 海 (sea), 洋 (ocean), or 池 (pond).
Although the original meaning does not always indicate that of the character as a whole, its a good idea to look for radicals in the kanji you learn, as it’ll make the task so much more fun and manageable.
You may also come across the word component, sometimes used as a name for kanji parts that are repeated across a number of characters but are not considered among the official, historical radicals.
Zooming out, the are compounds—words that are made of several kanji. For example, the word for ‘fireworks’ is 花火 (hanabi), composed of the characters for ‘flower’ 花 and ‘fire’ 火.
Most Japanese vocabulary is composed of two or more kanji, and it is a good idea to learn kanji in context of these larger groups that are actually used in day-to-day writing.
Finally, sooner or later you’re bound to come across some yojijukugo (四字熟語). Literally ‘four-character compounds’, these are four-kanji words, often possessing an idiomatic meaning.
For example, 一石二鳥 means ‘killing two birds with one stone,’ the four characters being ‘one,’ ‘stone,’ ‘two,’ and ‘bird’ respectively.
The second meaning of the word script are different writing styles used in calligraphy.
Calligraphy (書道, shodō) is quintessential to the Japanese culture, and how you write is often as important as what you write, so it’s a good idea to master your stroke order (the set sequence of strokes used to write the individual characters) early on.
Read more about how to write kanji
Seal script (篆書) is the oldest writing style that continues to be widely practised. Today, this style of Chinese writing is used predominantly in seals, hence the English name.
Most people today cannot read the seal script, but since seals act like legal signatures in Japan, and because vermillion seal impressions are a fundamental part of works of art such as calligraphy and painting, seal script remains ubiquitous.
Clerical script (隷書) is thought to have developed directly from seal script, and presents flat, wide characters with strokes that have dramatically flared tails, famously called ‘silkworm head and wild goose tail’ (蠶頭雁尾) in Chinese.
You’ll commonly meet clerical script used for decorative purposes, such as in adverts and signage, akin to the use of Blackletter in the west.
Also called running script (行書), the semi-cursive script approximates normal handwriting in which strokes, and occasionally characters, are allowed to run into one another.
An educated Japanese can read characters written in the semi-cursive script with relative ease, but may have occasional difficulties with certain shapes.
The cursive script, sometimes called grass script (草書), employs drastic simplifications requiring specialized knowledge; even a person who can read the semi-cursive script cannot be expected to read the cursive script without training.
Entire characters may be written without lifting the brush from the paper and characters frequently flow into one another.
Regular script (楷書) is one of the last major scripts to develop, emerging from a neatly written, early period semi-cursive form of clerical script
This is the style to which children in East Asian countries and beginners of East Asian languages are introduced first, as are learners of calligraphy, in order to get a feel for correct placement and balance, as well as to provide a proper base for the other, more flowing styles.
Like with scripts in calligraphy, characters in print and on computer screens can adapt many different appearances, type styles used to categorize Japanese fonts, or more precisely—typefaces.
The most commonly used Japanese type style is minchō (明朝), also known as ming. It is roughly equivalent to the Western serif typefaces, possessing variable line weight and characteristic decorations at the end of lines, called uroko (鱗, ‘fish scales’).
Gothic (ゴシック体) style is akin to sans serif in Western typography, with strokes of even thickness, reduced curves, and lack of decorations. It is the second most commonly used style after Minchō.
It can be further subdivided into 角ゴシック, with lines featuring squared ends, and 丸ゴシック, in which line ends and corners are rounded. The latter is the style used for Japanese road signs.
Horizontal vs. vertical
Japanese is quite unique in that it can be written both from right to left in vertical columns (called tategaki) and left to right in horizontal lines (called yokogaki).
Horizontal writing was first used during the Meiji period (1868–1912) in Western language dictionaries of Japanese. Initially, the dictionaries were printed in a mixture of horizontal Western and vertical Japanese text, which meant that the book had to be rotated, but this proved to be very uncomfortable.
As kana and kanji characters are nearly equally well adapted to vertical and horizontal writing systems, both orientations are used today. Most novels, newspapers and manga are written vertically with pages progressing to the left. Scientific books, on the other hand, are commonly written horizontally and work identically to their Western counterparts. Postcards and handwritten letters may be written either way, but the more formal the letter, the more likely it is going to use tategaki.
In addition to these two systems, right-to-left horizontal writing can also be seen in Japan. Historically, tategaki with one character per column was used where vertical text could not fit, for example on horizontal signs and newspaper captions.
In the Meiji era, when some publications started to transition to yokogaki, entire Japanese texts were seldom written right-to-left, similarly to Arabic or Hebrew. Nowadays, right-to-left inscriptions can still be seen on some signs, as well as on the right-hand side of vehicles and stands.
Last but not least, an acronym you’ll meet frequently is IME, short for ‘input method editor.’ This is a program or operating system component that allows you to enter Japanese characters on your keyboard.
Whether you use Windows or Mac OSX, your best free option for a quality Japanese IME is Google IME which uses Google’s immense database of indexed websites to calculate the most used kanji compounds to make suggestions, though it is somewhat biased toward colloquial Japanese. When you reach a more advanced level of Japanese, it might be a good idea to upgrade to the more advanced, but also much more expensive ATOK.
What terms do you struggle with?
I hope this brief glossary has shed a little light onto some potentially confusing topics.
Are there any other terms related to the Japanese language that either currently confuse you or have confused you in the past? Let us know in the comments and be sure to check back soon for our Japanese grammar vocab refresh!