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Japanese writing - Kanji, hiragana, katakana, romaji

The Japanese use four different character sets in their writing:

1. Kanji
2. Hiragana
3. Katakana
4. Romaji

Kanji - Originally from China, Japanese kanji are pictographs with meanings and sounds. Words and created by combining the kanji with other kanji and hiragana. Japanese kanji usually have at least two pronunciations, and can have more, depending on their combination with other characters, making the memorizing of kanji and the words they represent more complex. For example, the symbol for "day" can be pronounced as nichi, ni, bi, ka, or jitsu. Kanji are normally read from top to bottom, starting at the right of the page and working towards the left. On signs, labels, products, and other places however, they can be read from left to right, similar to the Western alphabet.

Hiragana and Katakana - Japanese hiragana and katakana are phonetic alphabets where symbols have a set sound rather than representing a meaning. Hiragana are used for Japanese words, while katakana are used for foreign words such as words that came from other languages (like computer) or names of places or people from other countries. The two alphabets have the same number of symbols for the same number of sounds and are sometimes even similar in appearance. An interesting thing about the Japanese alphabets is that except for the letter n, there are no separate consonants. Usually consonants and vowels are combined together in a symbol. For example, there is not a symbol for the k sound, but there are symbols for ka, ke, ki, ko, and ku. This is similar for the other consonants. This can make spelling foreign words difficult, and combined with the limited range of vowel sounds in Japanese, the spelling and sounding out of foreign words can be fairly different from the original foreign word. For example, McDonald's would sound like Ma-ku-do-na-ru-do in Japanese. Click here to view a table of hiragana and katakana.

Romaji - Romaji is basically the alphabet many western languages use (English, Spanish, French, German, etc.) The name "romaji" means Roman characters, and it is due to the fact that the symbols used for letters in English and other languages originated with the Romans.

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