The Japanese alphabet has, in fact, three different types of writing: the katakana, the hiragana and the kanji.
The hiragana consists of 46 syllables and is used on a daily basis to replace the words that are not commonly written with kanji. However, any Japanese word can be written using hiragana. Therefore, this is the first alphabet learned by children and is used in children’s books, since they know fewer kanjis. Hiragana is also used to write particles, endings of verbs and adjectives.
When the kanji is less well known, above them the word is written with hiragana, these characters are called furigana.
The katakana is used to write words of foreign origin, onomatopoeia, slang and scientific names of living beings. The katakana has also 46 characters. It is easy to identify, because its features are the simplest of the Japanese alphabet, and have a more straight appearance.
Examples of words in katakana:
Supermarket: ス ー パ ー マ ー ケ ッ ト – “suupaamaaketto” comes from the English word supermarket.
America: ア メ リ カ – “Amerika”, comes from the English word America.
Meow meow: ニ ャ ー ニ ャ ー – “nyaa nyaa” onomatopoeia of meow.
Homo sapiens: ホ モ · サ ピ エ ン ス – Homo sapiens.
The kanji characters are derived from the Chinese. There are over 40,000 kanji, but the Japanese language commonly uses 2136 kanji, called Jōyō Kanji. This list was created by Japan’s Ministry of Education to regulate the use of kanji. In primary education children learn 1006 kanji and in the secondary they learn 1130.
The kanji has two or more readings; the type of reading to be used will depend on the context, intended use and location of the word in the sentence.
The first type of reading is the “Chinese” reading called “on-yomi”, its main feature is the approximation of the Chinese pronunciation of the character. The on-yomi reading is especially used in words compound of multiples kanji.
The kun’yomi or Japanese reading is based on original Japanese word. This reading is used usually when a kanji is isolated or accompanied by a kana (hiragana or katakana).