For the Novice: Tips on reading (and eventually writing ) the Japanese language

A local newspaper article in Iwamizawa featuring myself and two of my teachers.

A local newspaper article in Iwamizawa featuring myself and two of my teachers. But look at the newspaper to get a feel of the everyday Japanese!

Nooooo . . .  the above picture is not here to blow my own trumpet and boast that I was in a Japanese newspaper. . .  Rather, the above picture is to serve two main goals:

  1.  It is to give you a glimpse of the script, style and punctuation that is seen and used everyday by millions of people who speak, read and write in Japanese.
  2. And, to hopefully give a person who has no or very little knowledge of Japanese, an idea of the language and how it is written and read.

So, go ahead – take a minute or two to study the picture above before reading below.

one minute . . .

two minutes . . .

Okay, had a look?

Then firstly, let’s state the more than obvious: it is written in Japanese.

But just what is ‘Japanese’ ?

Yes – we know that unlike the Romance Languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Latin), Japanese is made up of a script that does not include any symbols or letterings that are similar to English*. Instead, it has a unique system of characters that, frankly, looks Greek to many of us.

HOWEVER . . . . did you know that when reading and writing Japanese, it consists of the blending of THREE (yes, three!) types of scripts? Not kidding!

There is so much information that is intrinsic to the understanding of each system, that it would probably be necessary to dedicate some time later on to explain each in more detail.

For now, here is a summary of each system:


  1. HIRAGANA   ひらがな
Chart courtesy:

Chart courtesy:

This is the first script that all Japanese people first learn while in school.

Generally, it is used in the following manner:

  • As grammatical particles – for example, in, to (a place or person), of
  • At the inflectional ending of verbs and adjectives, such as る in 見る (miru – ‘to see’)
  • For words that may be too difficult to understand (for example, for children).
  • Words that can not or are not written in any of the other scripts.
  • To clarify sounds and meanings of words that are ambiguous in different scripts (these are called Furigana 振り仮名 ).


2. KATAKANA   カタカナ

Courtesy of:

Chart courtesy:

This next script is used in the following ways:

  • To indicate foreign language loan words and foreign names (except those borrowed from Ancient Chinese). Sounds in the native or source language are matched to the nearest sounds in the Japanese language (as seen in chart to the left). It is then transcribed in Katakana. For example, my name – Sonia –  would be written as ソニア. What about our country – Trinidad and Tobago? It would be written as トリニダード・トバゴ. Popular examples of foreign loan words are Konpyu-ta-  (Computer) written as コンピューター, and Petto (pet) written as ペット .
  • For plants and animals. For example, bara (rose) is written as バラ.
  • To give the feeling of something being said in a foreign accent.
  • For sound symbolism, for example the sounds of animals (a cat’s meow in Japanese, sounds like ‘nyaa nyaa’ ニャーニャー).


3. KANJI  漢字

Kanji Provinces. Courtesy of:

Kanji Provinces. Courtesy of:

Oh Kanji . . . I love you but I am oh so terrified of you! There is so much to be said about this particular script, that we definitely would have to dedicate a post on this topic!

To summarize, Kanji are Chinese characters that were introduced to Japan at a time it did not possess a written form of language. Actually, the literal translation of the word ‘Kanji – 漢字‘ means ‘ Han Characters’ (referring to Han Chinese).  About 2,000 -3,000 characters are in common use everyday, while a few thousand more are used less frequently!

Although Hiragana and Katakana evolved from  modified writing systems that were based on these Chinese characters; there are several uses of Kanji that still make them most valid:

  • For nouns, adjective stems and verb stems. For example, taberu (to eat) is written as 食べる, with 食 (ta) being the stem of the verb.
  • To represent a meaning, idea or thought. A single kanji could be used to denote several words, as well as possess several pronunciations. Meaning that several readings could be derived from a single kanji. The best example would be 生, which has 12 distinct readings (including the verbs it denotes).
  • And vice-versa: same sounds could have different meanings and thus written in kanji differently.  It should be noted that the script that is used to depict the sound of the word depends largely on the context and the meaning of that word that is being used in conversation! 漢字, 感じ, 幹事, 監事 are all pronounced the same way . . . ‘kanji’ . . . But they each have different meanings.
  • It helps to separate words from each other. It may sound strange, but it is true! Writing sentences solely in hiragana would not only make reading more difficult; but the author’s meanings would also be lost. The reason why this is needed to separate words from each other will be touched upon later in this post.
  • It makes reading easier and faster. Although this may seem like a pain to learn, it is worth it. Once you get an understanding of some kanji, you are able to get the jist of sentences and topics faster!
  • It minimizes writing space. Two or three sounds or characters could be summarized with one character!


4. RōMAJI  ローマ字

Yes, the Japanese language consists of three scripts.

Yes, this is number four.

Yes, I know how to count!

Rōmaji, which literally means ‘roman letters‘, is the ‘romanization’ of the Japanese language (which is typically written in the aforementioned scripts). That is; rōmaji transcribes the sounds of the Japanese language into Latin script.  For example, the rōmaji of 富士山 or ふじさん is Fujisan – meaning Mount Fuji.

To put it simply, it was developed for foreigners –  people like you and I.

So, why is it here? Of what use does it provide?

  • It is used to make Japanese easier for any foreigner – especially those persons who have little or no knowledge of hiragana, katakana and kanji. This makes it easier for learners of the language to understand what is being said and about who or what it is being said about.
  • It makes understanding basic landmarks, buildings, streets and instructions easier. There are many foreigners who could listen and understand Japanese very well, but find that reading and writing it is very difficult. This helps to close the gap as well as encourage a better understanding of what is being said.

Rōmaji therefore is not actually part of the written language: it is basically a transliteration of its sounds to make reading easier for foreigners. It is a tool meant to bridge the gap between your native tongue and Japanese.

WAIT! Where are you going?

You thought that after that lengthy yet useful, summarized introduction on the Japanese writing systems; that there were no more tips to reading Japanese?

Guess again! There are still a few more that we have to mention!

So, return to the top, have a quick scan of the pictured newspaper and try to figure out what other tips could exist. Then come back here so that we could continue!


The second tip regards its ‘Typography’ – the direction of the script.

Japanese could be written both vertically and horizontally! Yes! It is very true!

A vertical orientation (from up to down) is usually used when the topic of conversation is considered to be ‘traditional’, inherently ‘Japanese’ in nature and novels. The bindings on these books are on the right side – with pages to be read from right to left.

A horizontal orientation (from left to right) is utilized when topics of business, scientific, mathematical or language related topics are covered. The binding for such books are on the left side – with pages to be read just like most books in the western world – from left to right.

In cases where space is an issue (like with our newspaper pictured), the text is written in both directions. The header or title is written in bold, horizontally while the body of the article is written vertically. It should be noted that newspapers are typically read from right to left.


There are also slight variations of the punctuations used in Japanese writing:

kuten (句点) or maru (丸) – This is a period or full stop. It is a full circle, not a dot.

tōten (読点) or ten (点) – Essentially a comma. Used just the same way as its western counterpart.

nakaten (中点), nakaguro (中黒) or potsu (ぽつ) – Used between katakana words to separate them. Remember Trinidad and Tobago in katakana? トリニダード・トバゴ

「     」kagikakko (鉤括弧) – Essentially Japanese single quotation marks that are written as corner brackets. These are very commonly used to quote most things.

『     』nijūkagikakko (二重鉤括弧) – Double quotation marks that are used solely when you have to quote something that is quoting something else. For example, “Sam said, ‘Yummy’ and gave me a dollar.” In Japanese, these quotes would be on the outside borders of the sentence and the single quotes would be inside the sentence.

nyoro (にょろ), naishi (ないし), nami (波, “wave”) or kara (から) – Similar to the western dash, it is used to show the range of something, for example 月 金曜日, from Monday to Friday. It is also used to show where something is from or originates, to mark subtitles and drawing out vowel sounds!

kantanfu (感嘆符) – It is used the same way as a normal exclamation mark.

? – gimonfu (疑問符) – Yes, it is a question mark. But with Japanese, a question mark is usually denoted with the grammar-based marker (か) written in its sentence structure. In formal writing, the question mark is not used as か would be used (like in a newspaper). However, in a less formal setting, the か is dropped for a questioning tone of voice – with the question mark being used to depict this.

Although it is not officially a type of punctuation, its use in everyday casual Japanese cannot be ignored. Similar to emoticons; Kaomoji (顔文字), or “Face Letters” ,  are little faces drawn with text to denote the writer’s feelings and emotions.

Like a period, they are normally placed at the end of sentences – except with a lot more feeling!

Okay – we are on the last stretch!

Just one final tip on reading Japanese before this oh-so-very-long post ends: there are no spaces between words.

It is the truth (have a look again of the newspaper or the picture above if you do not believe me!)!

Japanese characters effortlessly flow into one another. that is why, as mentioned earlier, kanji is of great use. It helps to break the flurry of characters into words and acts as unintentional spaces so that you could understand what you are reading.

But, if your vocabulary is limited and grammar is non-existent; reading will also be non-existent!

There – F  I  N  I  S  H  E  D   !  !  ! ヽ(*⌒∇⌒*)ノ