Notes on Japanese Scripts


I'm not a Japanese expert by any means, but here are of my notes on what I've discovered about Japanese scripts.

Japanese is an East Asian script, but differs significantly from the Chinese script because it uses three phonetic scripts in addition to the Chinese kanji characters.

Multiple Scripts

The Japanese script is considered one of the most complex because it combines four writing systems in one. Fortunately, three of them are phonetic, but you cannot be considered an educated until you can also read Chinese Kanji. The scripts are:

  • Katakana - Based on Chinese, but each symbol is a syllable. Used for foreign words or technical vocabular.
  • Hiragana - Also based on Chinese, but rounder. Each symbol is also a syllable. Often used for grammatical endings.
  • Romāji - Roman (English) alphabet, often mixed in with other scripts in modern Japan
  • Kanji - the set of Chinese characters used in Japanese. However, not all Japanese characters are the same as the characters used for Chinese (hanzi) (Japan Reference)

Phonetic scripts developed in Japan partly as a way to write Japanese case endings (okurigana) not found in Chinese.

Still more

In addition to the forms found on the Web, there are a few more variants

  • Furigana - Kanji Characters with minature Katakana or Hiragana above or below to show the phonetic pronunciation. Technially
  • Hentaigana - an archaic syllabary found in soba noodle shops, diplomas, invitations and other times when a formal script might be used. Can also refer to a style of Japanese calligraphy.
  • Manyogana - Another syllabary with Chinese Kanji used only for their phonetic value (not their meaning). These were used in ancient poetry.

Information about these additional scripts can be found at these sites:

As of September 2006, neither Hentaigana or Manyogana blocks had been develeoped in Unicode, but there may be non-Unicode fonts that could be used.

Computing Set up

If you just want to set up on Japanese on your Windows or Mac, see the Penn State Japanese Set Up Page.

About The Blog

I am a Penn State technology specialist with a degree in linguistics and have maintained the Penn State Computing with Accents page since 2000.

See Elizabeth Pyatt's Homepage ( for a profile.


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