Omniglot - a guide to writing systems
What is writing? | Writing systems: alphabetic | syllabic | logographic | alternative

Japanese (Nihongo)   Nihongo (Japanese)

Before the 5th century AD, the Japanese had no writing system of their own. In the 5th century they imported the Chinese script and Chinese language, along with many other aspects of Chinese culture.

For a long time, most writing in Japan was in Classical Chinese, which was read either in the conventional Chinese way, or with Japanese pronunciation. Over a period of about 1,000 years, Chinese characters were adapted in a variety of ways to write the Japanese language.

Modern Japanese is written with a mixture of two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, plus kanji (Chinese characters). Romaji, or 'Roman letters', the standard way of writing Japanese with the Latin alphabet, are also used in Japanese texts.

Sample of written Japanese
Like Chinese and Korean, Japanese is traditionally written in vertical columns running from top to bottom and from right to left. The Chinese text below is there to give you an idea of the similarities and differences between the two writing systems.

Sample of written Japanese

This sample is also available written entirely in hiragana, katakana and romaji.

Longer sample text


An abbreviation of "kara (empty = no singing) oukesutora" (orchestra). It began in Okayama Prefecture. Karaoke originated from tapes featuring just a musical accompaniment used by professionals for recording practice. They were sold for general use in the 1970s, but it was after the LD (laser disk) penetrated the market in the 1980s that the karaoke boom exploded. For the first time, the LDs contained captions for the songs' lyrics, which meant you didn't have to read the lyric sheet, and could look up and sing imposingly instead.

Romaji (Roman letters)

The Latin alphabet was first used in Japan in the 16th century by Portuguese missionaries, who devised a romanisation system based on Portuguese spelling. Later the Dutch introduced a romanisation system based on Dutch.

By the 20th century, there were a number of different romanisation systems in use, including the Nipponsiki system, the Kunrei system and the Hepburn system, which became the official system.

Romaji is the standard way of transliterating Japanese into the Latin alphabet. In everyday written Japanese, romaji can be used to write numbers and abbreviations, such as CD and LD (see above). It is also used in dictionaries, text books and phrase books for foreign learners of Japanese.

In romaji, a long vowel is indicated by a macron (a line over the letter).

Sample of Japanese written entirely in romaji

Sample of Japanese written entirely in romaji


The Japanese language (Nihongo)

Japanese is thought to be distantly related to the Altaic family of languages. Japanese grammar is very similar to Korean, though whether this resemblance is a result of extensive borrowing or sharing a common ancestor is not known. Japanese is not related to Chinese, though it does contain a huge number of Chinese 'loan' words, in fact perhaps 50% of the words used in Japanse are of Chinese origin.

Japanese is spoken by 120 million people in Japan. There are also some Japanese speakers in South American countries such as Brazil and Peru, in the USA (especially in Hawaii), the UK and many other countries.

Free Japanese fonts

Learn Japanese Online

Japanese <> English Dictionaries

English > Japanese Dictionary

Free online translation of English <> Japanese

Your name in Japanese

Other writing systems: Ahom | Albanian | Ancient Berber | Arabic | Aramaic | Armenian | Atlantean | Avestan | Balinese | Bassa | Batak | Bengali | Brahmi | Buhid | Burmese | Carrier | Celtiberian | Cham | Cherokee | Chinese | Chu nom | Cirth | Coptic | Cree | Cypriot | Cyrillic | Dehong | Devanagari | Divehi hakura | D'ni | Egyptian | Ethiopic | Elamite | Etruscan | Georgian | Geyinzi | Glagolitic | Gothic | Greek | Gujarati | Gurmukhi | Hanunoo | Hebrew | Hmong | Hotc‚k | Hungarian Runes | Iberian | Inuktitut | Irish | Japanese | Javanese | Jurchen | Kannada | Kharosthi | Khitan | Khmer | Klingon | Korean | Lao | Latin | Lepcha | Limbu | Linear B | Lontara | Malayalam | Manchu | Mayan | MeroÔtic | Middle Persian | Mongolian | Nabataean | Naxi | NdjukŠ | N'Ko | Ogham | Ojibwe | Old Church Slavonic | Old Italic | Old Permic | Old Persian Cuneiform | Oriya | Orkhon | Parthian | Phags-pa | Phoenician | Pollard Miao | Psalter | Ranjana | Redjang | Runic | Sabaean | Samaritan | Santali | Sarati | Shavian | Sinhala | Somali | Sorang Sompeng | South Arabian | Sylhettan | Syriac | Tagalog | Tagbanwa | Tai Dam | Tai Lue | Tamil | Tangut | Telugu | Tengwar | Thaana | Thai | Tibetan | Tifinagh | Tocharian | Ugaritic | Vai | Varang Kshiti | Yi