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The Japanese Alphabet

The Japanese language does not have an alphabet per se, but rather uses three scripts: Kanji; Kiragana and Katakana.

Kanji is based on written Chinese symbols that represent ideas or objects, rather than sounds. Kanji is used for nouns, adjective and verb stems and Japanese names.

Hiragana is a syllabary, a list of symbols for syllables. Hiragana is written for inflectional endings for nouns and verbs, grammatical particles, words that do not have Kanji symbols and instructions on how to read kanji.

Katakana is a syllabary for loanwords, scientific names and emphasized words. It is written with short straight strokes and angular corners and is considered the easiest of the scripts to decipher. Students of the Japanese language are taught with katakana script.

Latin is also for acronyms and information intended for distribution outside of Japan.

Most Japanese writing uses a combination of kanji and hiragana. Different kanji symbols are available for words with the same spelling but different meanings.

The Japanese uses five vowels sounds, a, e, i, o and u, and 16 consonants sounds, p, t, k, b, d, g, s, h, z, r, m, n, w, j. N, Q. Native Japanese words do not begin with the "p" sound value.

Sentence structure is subject-object-verb. Modifiers are inserted before the modified. Adjectives are placed before modified nouns. Adverbs are positioned before verbs. Repetitive phrases are employed frequently in Japanese.

Morae and syllables are very important to Japanese phonology. A mora, as defined by Roget's, is "the minimal unit of metrical time in quantitative verse, equal to the short syllable". A poetry device, the Haiku, is famous for its defined number of morae. Syllables contain a vowel. A mora does not have to contain a vowel. A four letter, two syllable, word can be broken down into four morae.

The Japanese language is a word-pitch accent system. Morae and syllables are important to this system as each word has a distinctive tone pattern. The accent differentiates dialects, which all have their own system. The word pitch changes at the mora boundary.

Traditional Japanese is written in columns from right to left. Modern Japanese is often written horizontally from left to right.

The Japanese language has undergone several reforms since the late 1800's. Westernized punctuation was introduced. The number of kanji symbols initiated an unsuccessful proposal that Japanese be written in only simplified kanji, known as kana, or romaji, a system of Latin letters. Colloquial Japanese was instituted, rather than writing in exclusively classical forms.

In 1900, the hiragana script was standardized and the number of kanji taught in schools was reduced to 1,200. A third reform, the transformation of kana into kanji lasted only seven years. Efforts to reduce the number of kanji continued up to World War I.

Reform of the writing system after World War II was once again instituted with major changes. Kana was replaced with new symbols to conform to modern pronunciations. Kanji was further simplified and limited to 1,850 in 1946. Regulated kanji characters were instituted for schools. These changes remain in effect to today, although the number of kanji characters has risen since the last reform of 2004. The Justice Ministry is responsible for the list of kanji characters.

There are five methods of translating Japanese into the Latin alphabet: Hepburn; Kunrei-shiki; Nihon-shiki; JSL and Wāpuro. The Hepburn method is used primarily for English speakers. The Ministry of Education sanctions the Kunrei-shiki.