Japanese Language: Kanji Characters

Think you have a knack for foreign languages? Try picking up Japanese – all 2,000 characters of it!

In place of an alphabet, Japanese has an extensive set of pictograms called kanji. According to the Koujiten, an ancient dictionary compiled between 1644-1912 during the Ching dynasty, there are a total of 47,000 kanji! But aspiring learners need not balk – Japan’s Ministry of Education prescribes a mere 1,945 kanji for learning basic Japanese (enough to peruse a newspaper or book).

History of Japanese Language

Japanese belongs to the Ural-Altaic group of languages that include Korean, Mongolian, Turkish and Manchu. An indigenous Japanese language existed around the 3rd century AD, but it was only much later that Japanese adopted a written script from China, which took the form of kanji. Unlike Chinese, the Japanese language is polysyllabic. As a result, two more sets of symbols were developed in Japan so as to adapt the original Chinese to local language characteristics. These sets are known as hiragana and katakana.

Hiragana and Katakana

A kanji is a symbol that represents the root meaning of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Hiragana, when added to kanji, act as modifiers (for example, adding hiragana to the kanji for “eat” changes the verb to “to eat”, “ate” or “is eating”.) Hiragana are also used as particles or link words, showing the relationship between words in a sentence.

Katakana is for writing foreign language words such as names of places and people. They were invented in Japan by 9th-century Buddhist students as shorthand for taking down lecture notes, a simpler alternative to the elaborate Chinese kanji. Katakana is also employed for commonly used foreign words, though their pronunciation may change (for example, “television” in Japanese is “terebi”). Both hiragana and katakana are simpler than kanji, with 46 characters each. You can identify hiragana symbols by their rounded shape, while katakana is angular.

Apart from linguists, the elegant, aesthetically pleasing kanji is popular with tattoo aficionados and calligraphy enthusiasts!