A Short Explanation of the Japanese Alphabet
I said “Japanese alphabet,” but Japanese actually uses four: hiragana, katakana, kanji, and romaji. And with the exception of romaji, none of them are alphabets at all.
Hiragana and katakana together are called kana. They are not alphabets, rather, they are phonetic syllabaries. So what is the difference between a phonetic syllabary and an alphabet, you ask? If I were to get serious and start using linguistic terminology here, things would get complicated, so I'll give you a quick-and-dirty explanation. In reality it's more complicated than this, but basically, in an alphabet, each letter represents a single sound, or phoneme. Though a given letter in an alphabet might be pronounced differently depending on the context in appears in (for example, the letter "g" is pronounced one way in the word "English," and another way in the word "page," and yet another way in the word "knight") each letter only ever represents one phoneme at a time.
But what is a syllbary, then? Unlike letters in an alphabet, each letter in a syllabary, rather than representing a single phoneme, represents a whole syllable, and for those of you who aren't experts in linguistics, a syllable is basically a consonant + vowel combination. So in Japanese, each kana letter, that is, each hiragana or katakana character, represents a whole syllable, such as “ba” or “ku” or "chi." With a few exceptions, each kana letter is always pronounced exactly the same way regardless of the context it appears in, and each letter has no meaning other than its phonetic pronunciation. So when you write "Buck-Tick" in kana, you write it in four letters: "ba-ku-chi-ku."
There are 46 hiragana letters, and 46 katakana letters, and both sets of letters represent exactly the same set of sounds. So, for example, you can write "ba-ku-chi-ku" in either hiragana "ばくちく" or katakana "バクチク", it doesn't matter. There is a hiragana letter "ku" (く) and a katakana letter "ku" (ク), and they're both pronounced exactly the same way. Also like I said, hiragana and katakana letters have no meaning other than their phonetic pronunciation, so the hiragana letter "ku" and the katakana letter "ku" mean the same thing, too (which is to say, they don't mean anything besides "ku").
So what's the difference between hiragana and katakana, then? The difference is the context in which the two syllabaries are used. Hiragana is used for writing native Japanese words, while katakana is used to write words borrowed from foreign languages. Katakana is also used for emphasis, in much the same way that italics are used in English.
Kanji is also not an alphabet at all. Kanji are Chinese characters used in Japanese. These days mainland China has been using Simplified Chinese, which uses a restricted set of Chinese characters that have been drastically simplified from their traditional forms. Many Japanese kanji are also slightly simplified from their traditional Chinese variants, but in general, kanji are much closer to traditional Chinese characters than are Simplified Chinese characters. That is to say, kanji are a lot more complicated than the characters of Simplified Chinese!
Unlike kana, which have no meaning other than their phonetic pronunciation, each kanji character has a meaning. That is to say, each kanji character represents an idea, such as “fun,” “last night,” or “your mom.” Some kanji represent more than one idea, though usually if a kanji has multiple meanings the meanings will be related in some way. Sometimes the meanings of kanji characters differ slightly between Japanese and Chinese, but usually the meanings stay more or less the same. Kanji usually have different pronunciations or “readings,” depending on the context. Many words are compounds made up of more than one kanji. Japanese officially uses approximately 2000 kanji, and the government publishes a guide for which kanji are allowed in official documents, along with guidelines for their standardized use.
Japanese poets have long taken advantage of the unique properties of kanji to create interesting word plays. Many kanji look different and have different meanings, but are pronounced the same way. By spelling a word with a kanji that has the correct pronunciation but a different meaning, a poet or lyricist can create a double meaning. Japanese rock artists do this frequently.
Romaji are English letters—specifically, English letters used to spell out Japanese words. So for example, when I write the pronunciation of the kanji 今井寿 out in English letters, I get the romaji "Imai Hisashi."
The act of writing Japanese words out in English is known as “romanizing” or “romanization.” Contrary to popular belief, there is no “n” in the word “romaji.” The word “romaji” is derived from the Japanese words ローマ ("rooma," meaning “Roman”), and 字 ("ji," meaning “letters”)…therefore, the word "romaji" is itself a romanization of a Japanese word. There are several different systems for romanizing Japanese, and each system is useful for a different purpose. For this website I have developed my own system, explained in the following section.
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