▶ There are four different character sets in Japanese. Hiragana, katakana, kanji, and romaji. Hiragana is for sounds. Katakana is a sister character set of hiragana and is used to write foreign words. Kanji are derived from Chinese characters. The last one, romaji, uses the Roman alphabet to write Japanese.
▶ Hiragana and katakana each have 46 (forty-six) letters. They are simple and grade one children know all of them. Kanji are more complicated. Japanese children learn about 1,000 (one thousand) of them in elementary school.
▶ Romaji is not normally used to write Japanese, but you will see it used in names of products or businesses.
Origin of the Japanese Language
Linguists are still not sure about the origins of the Japanese language. Although it shares many common features with Korean, a relationship between the two languages has not yet been proven. Some think it belongs to the Ural-Altaic language family, like Turkish, but others say that it is similar to a Tamil language. In terms of vocabulary, Japanese borrowed many words from China in ancient times, while today many are taken from English.
Kanji and Kana
The Japanese did not have a written form of their language until they encountered Chinese in ancient times. In order to learn from China, a culturally advanced nation, ancient Japanese adopted Chinese characters. Kanji are ideograms, which were originally derived from pictograms; for example, the kanji meaning “river” consists of three vertical lines which look like streams of water. There are said to be more than 50,000 Chinese characters, 3,000 of which are commonly used, 1,945 of which are taught during the period of compulsory education in Japan. Additionally, Japanese has two sets of phonetic characters, hiragana and katakana, which were created by simplifying kanji in the 9th century to lessen the inconvenience of using it. Both hiragana and katakana have 48 characters each, which represent single syllables.
Japanese has various levels of honorific expressions like other Asian languages such as Chinese, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese. This makes it a difficult language to master for speakers of other languages. There are basically two kinds of honorifics: one kind is respectful expressions used for others and the other is humble expressions used for oneself.