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Japanese Writing

Three different types of characters are used to write Japanese: ひらがな hiragana, カタカナ katakana, and かんじ kanji characters. Kanji is derived from the Chinese script, and is made up of ideographic symbols representing concepts or ideas rather than single sounds or syllables. In contrast, hiragana and katakana are syllabic: each character represents a single sound. Every Japanese word and expression can be written in hiragana, except for foreign loan words, which are written in katakana. Therefore, most students of Japanese first learn hiragana and katakana and add kanji later. As you learn kanji characters, you’ll be able to write some words in kanji instead of hiragana.

In Essential Japanese, all Japanese words and expressions will be written in hiragana (and katakana for foreign loan words). You’ll also see the Japanese sounds transcribed into the Roman alphabet (also called romaji). Feel free to study only with the Roman alphabet transcriptions first.