Japan Society of Fairfield County

Tips on Japanese Writing System: Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana

     How kanji differs most significantly from hiragana and katakana is that kanji is ideographic. Thus whenever one sees a kanji, the meaning (or often meanings) automatically pops up in one’s mind, most likely accompanied with its sound(s). Furthermore, in English, as a matter of fact, if one is not familiar with the word or if one does not have Greek knowledge, for example, one cannot figure out what “anemometer” signifies. On the contrary, in Japanese, even an elementary school child who cannot read or who is not familiar with the word still can presume what 風力計(huu ryoku kei) is. It is because if one knows the meaning of each kanji, one can often presume what the word signifies. In the case of 風力計, the first character means “wind,” the second “power,” and the third “measure”; thus, even a young child can guess the meaning of this word “anemometer.”
     Moreover, how one combines kanji, hiragana, and katakana or how one does not combine them often controls the impression readers receive. In general, kanji gives a stiff, official, or perhaps intellectual image to readers, partially because of its straight lines and complexity; hiragana a soft and simple image, again perhaps because of its simple roundish lines; and katakana a sharp crisp image and a foreign flavor because of its shape and general usage. Thus one’s own combination in degrees of usage of kanji, hiragana, and katakana can create one’s particular concoction of images for readers. In other words, Japanese writing is greatly visual.
     In writing tanka poems, too, I carefully take this visual effect into account, not to mention the sound and the meaning of each word or the poem as a whole. I believe the blend of these three effects provides even richer imagination and interpretation to readers.

Note: What we call “kanji” in Japanese has two kinds; namely, one originally derived from China and the other coined in Japan. Specifically, the latter one is called “kokuji.”
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