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HANDS-ON: CHINESE AND JAPANESE > JAPANESE PRIMER

JAPANESE PRIMER

Japanese is a complex written language, using a combination of syllabaries, Chinese characters, and, occasionally, Latin characters. A syllabary is a group of phonetic characters that represent syllables. English relies on an alphabet of 26 letters, but Japanese relies on an alphabet of roughly 100 syllables, collectively known as kana. Many Japanese brand names, when transliterated into English, can be easily broken down into these syllables, such as “Su-zu-ki” or “To-yo-ta.” In all, the Japanese language relies on four unique sets of characters:

  • Hiragana: A syllabary used to represent words of Japanese origin. Notice in Figure 3 how the characters flow like handwriting.

    Figure 3. Twenty-five of the 46 basic hiragana characters and their Latin equivalents.

  • Katakana: A syllabary used to represent words imported from other languages. These characters are more angular and boxlike, as shown in Figure 4.

    Figure 4. Twenty-five of the 46 basic katakana characters and their Latin equivalents.

  • Kanji: Nearly 2,000 Chinese characters. If you were to break down a typical Japanese sentence, kanji would account for roughly 40% of the characters, with kana making up the rest.

  • Latin: Occasionally, Latin characters are used to represent brand names and personal names.


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