Japanese uses three alphabets:

  • kanji, derived from Chinese pictograms,
  • and hiragana and katakana (collectively referred to as kana) two phonetic alphabets made up of simpler glyphs.

薔薇 (kanji) バラ (katakana) ばら (hiragana) rose

Katakana is most often used for foreign words, but can also be used for emphasis. Hiragana is used for native words, particularly for certain parts of speech. Kanji are used for native words and personal and place names.

The audience for a text can determine the extent to which kanji are used – an academic paper will use more kanji to display the specialist nature of the writing, where books aimed at school children will use kana instead of complex characters. Newspapers will often use kanji simply because they take up less space (you can write a short essay in 140 characters on Twitter.)

Around 2,000 kanji are taught in Japanese schools, and whenever a character not on that list is used in newspapers or other publications it often has the pronunciation for the characters written above or beside it in small kana characters.