Complexity or Simplicity: A History of Japanese Orthography

The Japanese writing system, with its origins in Chinese, is among the most complicated writing systems in the world (Hallen, 1999).  It is this complexity however that makes it so fascinating, as Japanese writing combines the use of four writing systems.  These are: kanji, hiragana, katakana and romaji.  Kanji, which was adopted from Chinese has symbols that have one or more meanings (Hallen, 1999).  One of the first kanji that is taught is the single symbol that represents sun, moon, fire and water (Hallen, 1999).  There are under two-thousand kanji being used in Japan today, as each unique idea requires a symbol and they must all be different from one another which only adds to the complexity as some symbols differ by a simple stroke direction (Hallen, 1999).  The next two systems, which are commonly known as kana, are easier to learn and understand because they are syllabic.  The first is katakana, which is identified by the angular shape of its characters is used for transcribing foreign works like erebētā (elevator).  The second kana, which is much more cursive, is hiragana, and it is used to write words that have no kanji associated with them.  The last system of writing is romaji, which uses the Western alphabet to write Japanese (Hallen, 1999).

The combination of these four writing systems makes Japanese writing among the most difficult to learn.  There were actually numerous attempts throughout Japanese history to either adopt a western-style alphabet or abolish the Chinese kanji completely, but none of these attempts ever came to fruition.  Japanese children are required to learn all three writing systems, including up to one-hundred kanji each year starting in elementary school.

The origin of Japanese orthography can be traced back to the 6th century A.D.  It was during this period that the diplomatic relationship between the the Chinese Han Dynasty and the Japanese Yamato rulers resulted in an influx of Chinese culture into Japan, including: religious beliefs, art, practices for governing and manufacturing, and most importantly the Chinese writing system (Accredited, 2010).  The introduction of Chinese characters allowed the Japanese to write their first books, the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan) (Accredited, 2010).  However, it was the limitations of the Chinese writing system that had the greatest impact.

The 9th century brought about the emergence of syllabic writing in Japan with two sets of characters: hiragana and katakana.  While both of these systems are based on Chinese characters, they are much less visually complex, and are easier to memorize as each system is made up of approximately fifty syllables in comparison to the nearly two-thousand kanji characters (known as Jōyō kanji hyō) required by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (Today Translations, 2010).

It was Buddhist monks who developed the script that would eventually become katakana.  While reading and translating Chinese scriptures, the priests would use a shorthand script of characters that they would write beside the original kanji to help them represent the Japanese intonations that were not native to Chinese.  These symbols, which are recognized by their angular appearance, were commonly used by men in combination with kanji before the 10th century when hiragana became more widely used among the Japanese population (Accredited, 2010).  Hiragana, which translates to “ordinary syllabic script” was developed by women who desired a more elegant script for writing (Accredited, 2010).  It is because of its origins that hiragana is also known as onna-de (“women’s hand”).  It is almost completely phonetic and is used for words that are either native to Japan or those that were inherited from Chinese.

In addition to the Chinese, Japanese orthography was heavily influenced by the Portugese who arrived in the 16th century in hope of establishing trade relations between Japan and Europe.  While initially developed by Yajiro (a Japanese Catholic), it was the Portugese missionaries who initially printed the romanized system of writing Japanese (, 2010).  In additional to helping promote and refine the romaji writing system, the Portugese introduced moveable type and printing technology to the Japanese and were also responsible for the first Japanese (to Portugese) dictionary called Nippo Jisho, which contained the over thirty-thousand Japanese words (Foreign Translations, 2010).

In modern Japan, each of the four writing styles has a unique role in Japanese orthography.  Kanji, which was historically considered the language of the educated is still very commonly used as approximately 40% of Japanese words originated in Chinese (Accredited, 2010). The ease with which words and phrases can be identified using this ideographic writing system allows it to remain popular.  Katakana, which was used in combination with kanji by men in Japan until the 10th century is now used mostly for foreign words, advertising in magazines and television and the transliteration of names.  Hiragana is used for linguistic elements such as adverbs, nouns and adjectives and is also the writing style of choice for children’s books, textbooks, and in print to help with pronunciation.  The term for the hiragana used for the latter is furigana.  It is actually illegal for newspapers to be published without furigana in instances where kanji are used that are not in the official list of kanji provided by the Japanese government (Ager, 2010).

There are three modern systems of romaji: Hepburn, Nippon-siki, and Kunrei-shiki.  The most popular of the three systems is Hepburn, which is named after Rev. James Curtis Hepburn who transcribed it in his dictionary (Breen, 2004).  Since World War II, the reading and writing of romaji has been taught to all Japanese students  when they are introduced to English as part of the junior high school curriculum.  Romaji is also used in Japanese passports, menus, educational materials for foreigners, and on the majority of street signs so that those people who do not understand Japanese may still visit the country without being completely overwhelmed.  Romaji is also used on electronic devices that are unable to display Japanese characters, although the localization of software programs into Japanese is quite common (, 2010).

To the uninformed, it would be easy to regard Japanese orthography as complex and overwhelming.  The reality is that it is a very logical combination of writing systems that blend the past and present while preparing for the future through the initiative of the Japanese government who understands the importance of writing and vocabulary as part of an education.  And what better way to prepare students for the future then to teach them a writing system that was developed with the help of countries throughout the world.


Accredited. (2010). Japanese. Retrieved from

Ager, S. (2010). Omniglot: Writing systems and language of the world. Retrieved from

Breen, J. (2004). Japanese Writing. Retrieved from

Foreign Translations. (2010). Japanese Language History. Retrieved from

Hallen, C. L. (1999). An Overview of the history of the Japanese language. Retrieved from (2010).Romaji. Retrieved from

Today Translations. (2010). Japanese Language History. Retrieved from Romaji. Retrieved from

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8 Responses to Complexity or Simplicity: A History of Japanese Orthography

  1. Joe Dobson says:

    Hi Ashley,

    This is a good overview of Japanese writing.

    A couple thoughts to add – hiragana was oft-referred to as onna no te as kanji was considered as being too difficult for them. Ironically, female writers led the charge in literature in Japan and Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatari is considered one of the oldest books in the world (penned in the 11th century).

    To “One of the first kanji that is taught is the single symbol that represents sun, moon, fire and water (Hallen, 1999). ” – That’s not quite accurate – there are different characters for each of these, but they among the first taught.

    “The reality is that it is a very logical combination of writing systems that blend the past and present while preparing for the future through the initiative of the Japanese government who understands the importance of writing and vocabulary as part of an education.”

    – I`m not sure I agree. Japan`s ministry of education is a powerful and very conservative institution, so while literacy is valued, there are plenty of valid and strong criticisms of it. A simple example is that unlike China which moved to simplified characters (making learning more accessible), Japan is very conservative and traditional in this regard. As far as logic in the combination of writing systems – yes it is in some regards, but in many ways it is unnecessarily cumbersome, particularly with regard to new vocabulary.


    • ashleyross says:

      Hi Joe,

      Thank you for your informed comments and critique. I am interested to learning more about this topic and would appreciate it if you could send me your resource about there being multiple characters for each of the kanji mentioned by Hallen.

      In regards to the Japanese Ministry of Education, you make some interesting points. In my research, it was clear that Japan is “conservative and traditional” in many ways, not just education. That being said, it seemed from the readings that Japanese government had their reasons for not shifting to simplified characters. It isn’t to say that this was the most logical choice, but none the less it was the choice they made and there wasn’t any evidence that this had a negative impact on Japan’s literacy rate.

      Thanks again for your comments, it is great to receive feedback from someone with first-hand knowledge of Japan.


      • Joe Dobson says:

        Hi Ashley,

        I don’t have a source per se, and that comment is based on my own knowledge of the Japanese language (I’ve taught both it and courses on Japanese culture at the tertiary level).

        Simply put there are separate characters for:

        “One of the first kanji that is taught is the single symbol that represents sun, moon, fire and water (Hallen, 1999). ”

        For example, see:

        Hallen’s paper ( that you cite, appears to be that of an undergraduate linguistics student at BYU, thus he/she may have absolutely no real ability to speak or read (which appears to be the case) Japanese. I think that in general it’s a very weak reference.


  2. iirene says:

    Hi Ashley,

    I have lived in Japan for over 10 years and have an MA in Japanese Studies, but still managed to learn some interesting information from your assignment. It was all very well organized. One number I’m not sure if I agree with however is:

    “Japanese children are required to learn all three writing systems, including up to one-hundred kanji each year starting in elementary school.”

    My son is in Japanese public school, grade 4. He is learning about 200 characters a year. The Japanese newspapers I think it is estimated to require an ability to know 2000 characters, so the average kid is in around grade 10 before they can really comprehend the contents of a daily newspaper. I think it might be one of the reasons why there is a comparative lag in awareness of social and political issues between Canadian and Japanese school children. I can’t even read a newspaper as I can only read about 1000, like grade 7 level.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your writing!

    • Joe Dobson says:

      Hi Irene,

      That’s a good point – I hadn’t thought of reading for Japanese folks in those terms previously. It is time consuming to get to newspaper-level reading. It took me a long time to get there – and now after living back in Canada for close to ten years, I’ve lost a lot of fluency in that regard. My wife did her Ph.D. in Japan (applied sciences) and has the same struggles with reading. Literacy differs with logograms vs. an alphabet. It would take a lot for a high-level speaker of English to ever forget the alphabet, but the 2000 or so joyokanji are another matter.


    • ashleyross says:

      Hi Irene,

      Thank you for your feedback, I really appreciate your insight. It is interesting that you feel as though there is a reduced awareness for Japanese youth, as Canada and Japan are ranked equally (21st) in terms of their literacy rate (99%).

      I wonder if the lack of interest in social and political issues is related to young people being members of the “Net Generation”, with their interest being limited to what their friends are up to on Twitter and Facebook. It is probably accurate to say that this is a global issue though.

      • Annette Smith says:

        I’m curious whether the literacy rate (99%) includes knowledge of all the characters and symbols of the language. Youth literacy in English certainly does not imply a knowledge or familiarity with all English words. I wonder what the threshold is to be considered literate?


  3. Joe Dobson says:

    Just read a friend’s blog entry on his recent trip to renew his passport in Japan (he’s a naturalized J-citizen and activist there). In any event, his trip and discussions about romanization of his name, not to mention the flawed system used by the J. bureaucracy (Hepburn method – always hated it) is interesting.

    Check out:


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