If your business has a potential customer base in Japan, you’ll need to understand the basics of the Japanese writing system. Why? Because it’s made up of three different systems – and just to complicate matters, these are generally used together as one.

This article looks at Japan’s different writing systems in more detail and why understanding each system is important when localizing your product for Japan.


Why use different writing systems?

Japanese consists of two scripts called hiragana and katakana, which represent syllable sounds and are together referred to as “kana”. The third is called kanji, a picture-based system from China, with characters that represent entire words.

Kana and kanji combine to create one holistic writing system. Each provides its own functions such as grammar, distinction between different words and emphasis or expression.  

When each system comes together, they complement each other to create one comprehensive writing system.


Understanding the Japanese writing system

Kana

Together, hiragana and katakana are called “kana”. They each contain 46 basic characters which represent sounds, rather than entire words (like kanji). They are both syllabaries; each syllabary is like a letter of the alphabet, but the symbol represents an entire syllable like “da”.

Hiragana

Hiragana’s main purpose is for grammar and for writing Japan’s native words. Every sound in Japanese is represented in hiragana, so in theory you can use it to write anything. The problem comes when you try to decipher it the Japanese writing has no spaces, making it very difficult.

Hiragana was developed by women in the eighth century. It was a simpler alternative to the picture-based system of kanji, used by educated men. Over time, men adopted it into everyday writing as they found it easier to read and write.

Katakana

Katakana is another alphabet system based on sounds. It’s helpful for conveying borrowed or foreign language words other than those from Chinese. For example, “television” is written テレビ (“terebi”).

It’s also used for words that give emphasis, like how italics are used in English.

Kanji

Japan’s oldest writing system, kanji, has been used since the fourth or fifth century. Its symbols derive from Chinese and each kanji symbol was originally matched to the same word in Japanese.

Today, each kanji symbol can be read in the Chinese way or the Japanese way.

Most Japanese nouns, verbs and adjectives can be written in Kanji. But while there are around 40,000 different symbols, over 95% of the characters actually used in written text are represented by 2,000 symbols.

Kanji also plays an important role in helping to distinguish between words in a sentence; there are no spaces and few punctuation marks in Japanese.


Horizontal or vertical?

Japanese was traditionally written vertically like Chinese, in columns that were read from right to left. This vertical style is called “tategaki” (縦書き) and remains the most common style overall in Japan.

However, as the internet has grown in popularity, a horizontal style of writing has become more widespread. This format is called  “yokogaki” (横書き) and is read left to right, top to bottom, like English.

Younger generations in Japan tend to think yokogaki is easier to read. As a result, most websites and apps use the horizontal format.


Why translate to Japanese?

Around 128 million people speak Japanese, making it the ninth most widely-spoken language in the world. 

What’s unusual is that 124 million of those speakers live in Japan and Okinawa. It’s estimated that only around 30% of Japanese people speak English and less than 8% speak it fluently.

Japanese people can be loyal to what they know, but that shouldn’t stop you from taking your business there. Japan’s GDP is almost four times the global average, making it a buoyant marketplace.

If you want to expand into Japan, it’s vital to translate into Japanese and integrate these efforts into a comprehensive localization strategy

Take the time to understand the language, culture and conventions to build trust – customer loyalty should soon follow.