Wolfgang Hadamitzky

Japan-related Textbooks, Dictionaries, and Reference Works

Linguapedia: Writing System

Types of writing and their function

Modern Japanese is written in a mixture of kanji (Chinese characters) and the two kana syllabaries hiragana and katakana. In addition, roman letters and Hindu-Arabic numerals are used. Each of these types of writing fulfills a certain function in the total system, which is prescribed by orthographic rules and conventions. Because of these assigned roles, none of these types of writing can simply be replaced with another.

The following types of writing are used for the following categories of words:

Kanji: used for concept words like nouns, verbs, and adjectives, as well as native-Japanese, Chinese, and Korean proper names.

Hiragana: used for the inflected part of words written with kanji as well as for all purely Japanese and Sino-Japanese words that are not written with kanji, especially those that have a grammatical function (particles like が, を, に, から, conjunctions like しかし, と, auxiliary verbs like いる, いました, etc.). Hiragana also serve to indicate (transcribe) how words written with kanji are to be read.

Katakana: used for foreign words and foreign proper names (except Chinese proper names which are written with kanji), and for the names of plants and animals in a scientific context; also used to emphasize individual words, for example in advertising.

Roman letters: used for abbreviations, formulas, emphasis.

Hindu-Arabic numerals: used for numbers (in horizontal writing).

Direction in which text is written, separation between words, etc.

Japanese text is written either “European-style” in horizontal lines from left to right with the lines proceeding down the page from the top to the bottom, or in vertical lines from top to bottom with the lines proceeding across the page from the right to the left. The traditional vertical arrangement of lines of text is seen primarily in literary works and calligraphy, while horizontal lines of text are found primarily in scientific and technical writing. In daily newspapers, both kinds of writing are found beside each other.

Every kanji or kana takes up the same amount of space, namely an imaginary or actual square (manuscript paper and paper for writing practice is printed with squares to be filled in). When written in vertical lines, successive characters in calligraphy or rapidly written text can be joined to each other. Separation between words is not usual and is not needed, because the respective functions of kanji and kana give enough information to indicate where one word ends and the next begins.

The characters within a word are all written in the same size, and there is no distinction between uppercase and lowercase letters, apart from when a kana is written in smaller size to indicate that it forms a single syllable with the preceding kana (for example, compare the one-syllable キョ kyo with the two-syllable キヨ kiyo).

Writing styles

Three styles of writing are distinguished according to the form of characters:


The standard style (kaisho), which is taught in school as standard and in which almost all publications are typeset.


The cursive style (gyōsho), a moderate simplification of the standard style that allows one to write more flowingly by hand.


The quick style, or “grass hand” (sōsho), an extreme simplification of the characters from an esthetic standpoint, forming a kind of calligraphic shorthand in which characters are joined to one another.

Reference literature

For a more-detailed presentation of Japanese writing, see:
W. Hadamitzky, M. Spahn: Kanji & Kana. Revised edition. Tuttle 1997.
See in particular: The Kana, pages 16–35; Punctuation, pages 35–41; The Kanji, pages 42–62.

For writing practice, see:
W. Hadamitzky, M. Spahn: A Guide to Writing Kanji & Kana. Book 1, 2. Tuttle 1991.
Contains the kana syllabaries and the 1,945 Jōyō Kanji with writing directions, gray-toned characters for tracing over, and many empty cells to fill in with handwriting practice. Sample page Hiragana. Sample page Kanji. (in preparation)

October 2005, W.H. with Mark Spahn

Wolfgang Hadamitzky

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