Japanese Terms Explained for Beginners
Monday, July 12th, 2010
So you just started learning Japanese and you’re wondering what all these crazy new terms are that you’ve never heard of before?
To get you started I’ll kick you off with a quick explanation of some of the more popular terms.
Rōmaji (ローマ字), often mis-spelt as romanji or rōmanji, is where Japanese words are written in the Latin alphabet. For example, konnichiwa rather than こんにちわ.
Rōmaji is mostly used in Japan where tourists need to be able to read signs such as a railway station, hotel, airport or restaurant. The further you get out of the major cities, the less rōmaji you’ll see.
It is also frequently seen in Japanese dictionaries and textbooks for use by Japanese language beginners.
Rōmaji is commonly used to input Japanese characters into computers. Japanese keyboards mostly look exactly the same as Western keyboards. So to input a Japanese word, the user must type in the romanised version of the word (konnichiwa rather than こんにちわ) and the computer will do the rest.
I am not a fan of rōmaji for serious Japanese students as I feel it is better to learn kana and kanji than to rely on rōmaji. Use whatever you feel works best for your situation and level.
Furigana (振り仮名) is the small hiragana or katakana printed next to or above a kanji character to explain its pronunciation. It is mostly found in children’s books or Japanese textbooks for beginners.
Furigana is especially helpful when you are making the transition to learning kanji and don’t yet know the many readings needed to be fluent at Japanese.
Hiragana is the first of three writing systems (hiragana, katakana and kanji) taught to Japanese children and most books for kids are written purely in hiragana. As they move in to grade one, kanji is gradually introduced and hiragana mostly removed. A typical university graduate is expected to know over 2000 kanji!
Although hiragana is used by children and replaced by kanji in grade school, it remains a very important part of Japanese as it is commonly found in the grammatical endings of nouns, verbs and adjectives, as well as for particles like が or から, and many other Japanese words that have no kanji equivalent.
Each hiragana is either an individual vowel or a consonant followed by a vowel. The exception, and there always is one, is “n” (ん).
Katakana (カタカナ) is the second component of the Japanese writing system and is generally learnt alongside or after hiragana.
While a beginner may not initially be able to tell Katakana and Hiragana apart, with a little practice they are distinctively different.
Katakana is generally more angular and has short, straight strokes while hiragana is rounded and more cursive. The difference is much like in the English language where we start off writing in a printing-style before learning cursive writing as we move through school.
Katakana is predominately used to write foreign or loan words in Japanese.
In the photo above you can see the city and country names from around the world, which are all written in katakana as they are loan words.
Kanji (漢字) are the characters that are used in the Japanese writing system along with hiragana and katakana. They were imported from China around 500AD although the timing of its use in Japan varies substantially.
Kanji are taught to Japanese children after learning hiragana and katakana and the Japanese government has strict sets of kanji that are to be learnt at each grade level. By the time a typical Japanese student finishes university they will know approx. 2000 kanji!
The list of 1,945 kanji that must be learnt be all Japanese students is known as Jōyō kanji.
Japanese school children learn 1006 kanji characters from grades one to six and a further 939 kanji characters in secondary school.
There are changes taking place in 2010 that will see the number of official “must-know” kanji move to over 2000.
The total kanji figure is debatable but is said to be around 50,000. Let’s be thankful we don’t need to know all of those!
Kanji readings fit into just two categories, On (On’yomi – Chinese reading) and Kun (Kun’yomi – Japanese reading).
The difficulty for beginners and advanced students alike is that most kanji have more than one reading. So on top of having to learn the approx. 2000 Jōyō kanji there are also multiple readings of each kanji that you must know.
Also, when you add two or more kanji together their meaning might change or expand making the concept different.
For example the kanji for “outside” is 外. This kanji has the On readings – ガイ (gai), ゲ (ge) along with the Kun readings – そと (soto), ほか (hoka), はずす (hazusu), はずれる (hazureru), と- (to).
So when 外 is used in the context of “outside” on it’s own you might pronounce it – そと (soto). However when it is used in 外国 (gaikoku), which means foreign country (eg outside country) then you can see the ガイ (gai) reading is used along with こく (country).
The general rule is that kanji that are on their own are typically read using their kun’yomi, as in the そと (soto) example above.
Kanji that occur in compounds, which are two or more kanji together as in the 外国 (gaikoku) example above are generally read using on’yomi.
These are only general rules and there are many exceptions but that is beyond the scope of this article so I won’t confuse things too much. ^_^
In Japanese, a stroke order refers to the order in which the strokes of a kana or kanji character are written.
As a general rule, strokes are written from top to bottom and left to right. When there are upper and lower parts of the kanji, the upper strokes are written first, then the lower.
It is debatable that you need to focus heavily on learning the exact stroke order for each kanji. My personal view is that it is a good discipline to have but if you are fluent with the rest of your Japanese, not knowing the stroke orders isn’t going to hold you back too much.
Kana is the word used to refer to both hiragana and katakana. When you hear someone say that you need to learn the “kana” when starting Japanese, that just means that you need to learn hiragana and/or katakana.
That’s all for now – I hope this has helped to clear up any questions you may have had about these terms. Please leave a comment if you want to know more or let me know if I have missed anything.