How to write Japanese

Writing Japanese isn't that hard, it's not a difficult script but there are a lot of symbols and learning them all can take a long time!

Japanese has 3 "alphabets": hiragana, katakana and the kanji.

The importance of writing Japanese in the correct way: Stroke Order

Stroke order is very important in writing Japanese. Each symbol has a number of strokes. A stoke being one interrupted movement with the pen or brush on the paper. If you don't use the correct stroke order - your text will be readable but look odd. When children are small they sometimes write their e's backwards - that's how your writing will look to a Japanese person if you get the stroke wrong!

Stroke order is so ingrained that when I was teaching there; I had students ask what the correct stroke order for some of the Latin letters were. I also heard of some Japanese, English teacher who taught the "correct" stroke order for the English letters!

The Kana

The kana comprise of Hiragana and Katakana which have 48 characters each. Hiragana and Katakana are similar to our uppercase and lowercase letters such as how the symbol 'A' and 'a' refer to the same thing but are different symbols. In Japanese the symbol あ and ア are the same (this symbol is written in our alphabet as 'a' and has a similar sound).

You can easily learn the katakana and hiragana in a week, if you had a full day free and were motivated you could probably memorize them in a day. I learned by referring to a stroke order chart, covering up the Japanese characters 5 at a time and then trying to write them out. Then repeating this until I could write them all our perfectly.

Katakana is used for foreign words. Foreign words are usually translated almost directly, so it's more like a simple code that a different language. If you learn that katatana you'll suddenly be able to read a lot of words, which is cool :D Though not all foreign words in Japan are English, bread for instance is written in katana because it's a foreign word but it's written pan (パン). Pan - is Portuguese for bread and because the Portuguese interacted with Japan early on there are lots of random katana words you'll be unlikely to understand! (As a general rule Japanese people will generally assume you'll understand *any* word written in katakana which can lead to some misunderstanding.

The Kanji

The kanji are the big task 2000 for just the basic everyday set and a few 1000 more as you become more literate. Not a light undertaking!

I've written in more detail about my methods of learning these in the post:

How to learn the Japanese alphabets better than most natives in only three months!

Shodō - Japanese calligraphy

If you want to get serious about writing Japanese then it's worth have a look at Japanese calligraphy for writing some seriously beautiful characters. To get started on this you'll need to get some brushes and an inkstick and stone - your local Japanese cultural center should be able to help!

If you can't find a good instructor then you can always but a copybook and the materials and go from there!

Japanese Calligraphy paper (you need special paper to absorb the ink)

A copybook that gives you the stroke order and instructs on technique. This book "Brush Writing: Calligraphy Techniques for Beginners" by Ryokushu Kuiseko is supposed to be excellent when you're just starting out.

The symbol in the top right of this book is 書道「しょ・どう」which in English is 'shodō' - Japanese Calligraphy.

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