Much has been written about how English is taught in Japan. Usually the topic is a critique of the curriculum that teaches to the test instead of for practical communicative use. You can also find multiple articles and videos asking variations of the question, “Why can’t Japanese people speak English?” This of course is a valid question given that Japanese students have at least six years of compulsory English education. Well, this isn’t yet another article about that.
Those questions aside, what you will notice while living in Japan is that Japanese students seem to eat, breathe, and sleep school and studying. So, let’s take a moment and give these students some credit because for all the criticism, warranted or otherwise, Japanese students and the public at large know at least six writing systems and sometimes nine. How many do you know? The answer is probably a couple more than you think but you’ve never thought about it.
Hiragana is the basic Japanese phonetic syllabary. All the sounds the Japanese language produces have a corresponding character in Hiragana. While the English language has 26 letters, Hiragana has 46 different characters called gojūon. Those basic characters are modified with the dakuten (written above and to the right of the character resembling a single quotation mark) and handakuten (again above and to the right but is a small circle) marks to create other sounds. Dakuten and handakuten are usually referred to as “ten-ten” in common speech. Hiragana is mainly used to write native Japanese words, grammar articles, and words with no Kanji equivalent. Adding to that, each character has a specific stroke order in the way that it is to be written.
Also part of the basic Japanese writing system, Katakana is another set of characters. Katakana is similar to Hiragana in that it also contains 46 different characters that also have dakuten and handakuten modified versions. Katakana is used mainly to write foreign words, loan words (known as gairaigo), or to add emphasis. The writing style is less fluid than Hiragana and written with sharp lines and corners. Katakana also follows a specific stroke order when writing the characters.
This is the big boy. Kanji is the set of Chinese characters that Japan uses as part of their writing system. While the number of Kanji that any one person knows or uses varies, there is a set of Jōyō Kanji that consist of 2,136 different characters. While there are roughly 50,000 different Kanji that exist not all are used or known by a single person. The Jōyō Kanji is a set of Kanji standardized by the Japanese Ministry of Education that brings that number down to the 2,136 characters that are said to be needed to be able to read and understand most newspaper articles and books. Each Kanji character varies in the number of strokes needed to write it with some needing only a few strokes while some others needing ten or more. Those strokes also follow a specific stroke order to produce the character. The most difficult Kanji to write was made in Japan and has 84 strokes; this character for taito, daito, or otodo is extremely rare and more than likely even your computer can’t produce it.
If you are reading this obviously you know this writing system. This is the standard system used in the English language and consists of 26 letters commonly known as the English Alphabet. For native English and other Latin derived language speakers this alphabet is easy to use but I think it should be pointed out that many of the sounds these letters produce aren’t native to the Japanese language; unlike Japanese where the majority of the sounds are concluded with just the vowels sounds in English. Several letters and combinations of those letters are difficult to pronounce for Japanese learners – r, l, v, and th for example.
Within the English Alphabet there are three writing systems as well. They are all similar but can be quite different at times. Because we are native speakers we will be inclined to see them as all the same writing system but seeing as how “A” and “a” or “E” and “e” don’t look the same I’d say they are part of a different writing systems. They only look as similar as they do because we know they represent the same letter. These three systems together would be what we use as our English system.
Called ōmoiji or daimoji (basically meaning large character) in Japanese, the uppercase or capital letters of the English alphabet are also learned by Japanese students. As English speakers know, they are necessary for things like starting a sentence or writing proper nouns. There are of course 26 of these guys.
The lowercase letters are called komoji (small character) in Japanese. We usually don’t write in all caps in English unless you are shouting on the internet so Japanese students have to learn these 26 letters of this writing system as well.
Cursive writing is used as much as it used to be. These days it’s being questioned in the United States whether schools should teach it at all. Hawaii and Indiana no longer require teaching it while California and a couple other states do. For the most part cursive looks the same however there are some letters that don’t look like their standard counterparts; uppercase “Q” and lowercase “z” for example. I’ve included it because although the letters are very similar, reading it isn’t as easy for many which is why many documents require you to write in print rather than cursive. I would say that many of the older Japanese people seem to not only be able to read cursive but also write in it as I would imagine it was taught more in their day when it was also being taught more in schools abroad. Don’t forget there are two versions of this; uppercase and lowercase.
Basically the whole world knows the writing of the numbers but that doesn’t mean it’s not a system unto itself. It is the standard 10-character system used in English. It’s widely used in Japan but it isn’t their native system or their only way of writing numbers. Japanese also uses Kanji to write numbers as well.
Here’s one system that you’d be hard-pressed to find a native English speaker who can fluently read it. The phonetic alphabet consists of the 44 phonemes of the English language and is somewhat taught to native speakers but is never really focused upon after the introduction. Do you remember that word “schwa”? This is where it comes from. It is meant to provide the pronunciation of a word so we can properly say it. If you look any dictionary, the phonetic spelling will be sitting next to the word. It’s the funny letters we always overlook on our way to the definition. Native speakers generally don’t use it because they don’t need it. However, many Japanese students of English learn this system as well. In Japanese, Hiragana and Katakana serve the dual function of providing the pronunciation key to Japanese words – especially when unusual Kanji are involved. Unlike English where “read” and “read” can be said differently, Japanese words are written and said the same way so they don’t need an extra system to clear up potential confusion.
So there you have it, the six (sometimes nine) writing systems that Japanese students learn while going through school. So let’s take a moment away from the criticisms to acknowledge the students who are cramming all this into their brains everyday. Good job. Ganbatte!