The Japanese Language left no written record before the seventh century CE, when Japan was absorbing a lot of Chinese culture, including their way of writing and a large amount of vocabulary. While retaining its distinctive phonetics and grammar, Japanese began to acquire loanwords from Western languages in the sixteenth century onward, a process which intensified during the Meiji period. Due to this linguistic history, modern Japanese has a uniquely complex writing system, which combines logography with syllabaries.
- Kanji (漢字, literally "Han characters"; the original pinyin reading is "hànzì") are logographic characters borrowed from Chinese, together with a few characters that were coined or simplified in Japan, to represent words according to their meanings. The jōyō kanji are the 2,136 characters (as of 2010) that are taught in Japanese schools and are most commonly used in words, and 983 more kanji are approved for use in personal names, but thousands more are known to exist. Kanji often have several different pronunciations, broadly divided into the adapted Chinese pronunciation and the native Japanese term for the same concept, and generally depending on whether they occur individually or as part of a compound term with other Kanji. If that sounds confusing, remember that Kanji represent ideas, not sounds, and we often effectively do the same thing in English. For example, we have the word "fear", but when the same idea appears as part of another word we instead say "phobia" — one a native English word, the other borrowed from Greek. The various phonetic readings of kanji, which must be memorized individually, are classed either as on'yomi (音読み, "sound" reading) or as kun'yomi (訓読み, "practice/memorisation" reading); a given character could have more than one reading of each kind, or only one of either. Variant pronunciations are often exploited for wordplay (see e.g. Goroawase Number). Kanji may also have nanori (名乗り) readings used only in personal names, though people are hardly expected to memorize most of these.
- The on'yomi derive from the morphosyllabic character readings of the Chinese Language, but due to Japanese having a simpler phonetic system than Chinese, they often include vowel modifications or consonantal suffixes (usually tsu, ku, ki, chi or n). This contrasts with the predominantly multisyllabic kun'yomi, which mainly represent yamato kotoba, the indigenous Japanese language. ("Zero" is one of the very few loanwords to be adopted as the kun'yomi of a character.)
- The most common on'yomi are the kan-on readings, adapted from Chinese as it was pronounced during the Tang dynasty, followed by the older go-on readings, which date as far back as the 5th century in the Wu region (this econmpasses Zhejiang province, southern half of Jiangsu province, and the city of Shanghai); these readings tend to correspond vaguely at best to modern Chinese pronunciations of the same characters (but in a mostly consistent manner), but for the same reason they have been very useful for linguists trying to reconstruct Middle Chinese.
- Additional on'yomi categories exist, tō-on (also known as sō-on or tōsō-on, sometimes split as two distinct categories) and kan'yō-on. Tō-on literally means "Tang sound", however it actually refers to the entirety of China and comprises later pronunciations from the 10th century and beyond. Unlike preceding categories of readings, tō-on readings are not systematic and are much more rarely used, some of such readings resemble modern Mandarin Chinese much more closely. Kan'yō-on is a category of miscellaneous readings, usually corruptions of existing readings that became standard, or actual imported Chinese readings that don't fit anywhere else.
- Ateji (当て字, literally "assigned characters") are compounds of kanji in which the sounds of the readings are used without regard to the characters' meanings; this is used for some native Japanese words (e.g. "sushi" and "kabuki") as well as some loanwords and foreign names. Ateji is also used to refer to the opposite process, jukujikun (孰字訓), where a multi-character compound is given a reading not based on kun'yomi or on'yomi but corresponding to meaning only.
- One fascinating result of all this is that while Chinese and Japanese are unintelligible to each other in speech, in written language the two are mutually intelligible to a degree that can be shocking to newcomers. A very common example is that a speaker of one language can often pick up a newspaper or other such article written in the other language, and even if they aren't intimately familiar with the grammar of the other language, they can still get the gist of what's written. While the mainland PRC, in particular, has seen some drift in writing over the 20th century (in part out a desire to distance itself from written Japanese, due to the shared histories of the two countries) a lot of the older, more fundamental words from the Tang period remain fully intelligible between the two languages and "traditional" Chinese, used in Taiwan and elsewhere, remains much closer to the kanji of Japanese.
- Kana (仮名) refers to syllabaries capable of writing all sixty-odd phonetic sounds in the Japanese language. (Technically kana represent not syllables but morae; the difference probably won't matter to most readers.) Each of the two syllabaries used today has 46 (formerly 48, and originally 49) basic characters representing five vowels (equivalent to A, I, U, E, O in roman-derived alphabets) either singularly or in combination with the consonants K, S, T, N, H, M, Y, R, W note , plus the vowel-less n. Some of these base characters can be modified by diacritics: a pair of short strokes (dakuten, 濁点 "muddy mark") changes the initial consonants K, S, T, H into the voiced consonants G, Z, D, B, and a small circle (handakuten, 半濁点) changes H into P. note In modern Japanese, the small tsu (sokuon, 促音) represents a glottal stop, doubling the following syllable's consonant, and small versions of ya, yu and yo change the i vowel sound of the previous syllable into a glide. note (The symbol resembling a small katakana ke, however, is actually shorthand for a counter word pronounced either ka or ga.)
- Man'yōgana (万葉仮名) were the earliest, nonstandardized attempts at using Chinese characters to represent Japanese sounds. Named for the Man'yōshū, the oldest surviving anthology of Japanese poetry dating from the Nara period, though earlier examples of man'yōgana have been found. The Iroha-uta, a famous poem whose 47 characters formerly defined the phonetic ordering system for Japanese, was originally written in man'yōgana.
- Hiragana (平仮名, ひらがな) originated as a simplified version of Chinese cursive script, which in ancient Japan was practiced mainly by women; The Tale of Genji was written primarily in hiragana. Many variant hiragana characters existed until 1900, when a unique set was codified. In modern Japanese, hiragana is the "everyday" system for writing the particles that are essential to sentence structure, and the okurigana (送り仮名) suffixes used to inflect verbs and adjectives. Many everyday idiomatic expressions are more commonly written in hiragana rather than kanji. Hiragana is also often preferred by parents to write the names of their baby girls with, rather than kanji. The reason for this varies; some cite the inherent cuteness of the script, while others claim that by using hiragana, the names' meanings become ambiguous, preventing people from making a particular assumption or expectation of those girls. Vowel sounds are lengthened in hiragana by tacking on additional vowel characters, though straight or curved dashes may be used instead in informal writing, particularly when hiragana is used in place of katakana for the sake of cuteness. note
- Katakana (片仮名, カタカナ) is more angular than hiragana. It was probably invented sometime during the Heian period by Buddhist monks, who used it to insert Japanese particles into Chinese texts, and is still used in dictionaries for writing on'yomi. Nowadays, however, katakana is the usual way of writing loanwords and foreign names in Japanese text, though this tends to distort their pronunciations in ways that Japanese Romanization often attempts to correct for. Besides its use to represent foreign words, katakana is also used for onomatopoeia, for emphasizing words. Like Hiragana, Katakana is sometimes used to write girls' names, though the trend is much less common compared to its sister script. In katakana, long vowels are represented by a dash following a character. To reduce pronunciation distortions, "extended kakatana" adds several additional symbols that are sometimes used for representing sounds that are not part of the Japanese language, particularly "v" (「ヴ」).
- Furigana (振り仮名), also known as "ruby" characters, are small hiragana or katakana written above kanji or rōmaji to show how they are intended to be pronounced. Furigana tends to be ubiquitous in works written for younger readers and learners of Japanese, who are not expected to know many kanji. Furigana is a conventional way of indicating how the kanji in people's names should be read, particularly on business cards and so that Chinese people can have their names pronounced closer to modern Chinese than the on'yomi reading. They can also be used for creative Alternate Character Readings, or even indicate what an invented "foreign" term in katakana is meant to mean; some modern fiction can get extremely elaborate with this.
- Rōmaji (ローマ字) are Roman letters used for the exact representation foreign names. They can also be used as initials, in which case they are pronounced approximately as they would be in English. "L" and "R" are distinguished (pronounced "eru" and "aru", respectively), as are "V" and "B" ("bui" and "bii"). Romanized Japanese text is also known as rōmaji.
- Yakumono (約もの "punctuation") was not originally part of Japanese writing, but was adopted on the Western model during the Meiji Restoration. Punctuation marks in printed Japanese look different from their Western counterparts, not least in that they are almost invariably monospaced (like other Japanese characters).
- Spaces are not inserted between Japanese words. In the rare cases where words require separation (especially transliterations of foreign phrases), the interpunct (・) is used.
- Periods (。) and commas (、) are modified to look more Japanese, but are used more or less as in Western writing, though with slightly less consistency.
- Single quotation marks (「 」) and double quotation marks (『 』) are shaped very different from their Western counterparts, and are used to set off titles and even proper nouns as well as quotations.
Japanese can be written in two directions: Western-style left-to-right, top-to-bottom (横書き Yokogaki, "horizontal writing"), or Chinese-style top-to-bottom, right-to-left (縦書き Tategaki, "vertical writing")note . The former system is pervasive on the Internet, while the latter system is used in traditional Japanese literature and manga, with panels in the upper right read first and those in the lower left read last; this also tends to appear in Jidaigeki productions, where the Opening Scroll will move rightward rather than upward. Before the left-to-right writing was introduced to Japan, all horizontal writings (e.g. signs above doors) were done in the opposite direction, right-to-left. Even after the left-to-right writing started to be used in books, the public signs still continued to be written right-to-left until World War II. note There are still some old-style and legacy signs written right-to-left. Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple plays with this when Boris Ivanov breaks into the Ryôzanpaku dojo. Since its horizontal sign is written in the old way (right-to-left), and Boris is unfamiliar with this legacy writing direction, he misreads it as "Hakuzanryô".