Japanese 101: Understanding Katakana
In 2021, to help you better understand the Japanese language, we took a look at some of the more interesting aspects of how it intersects with English.
Our June blog post, East Meets West: Six English Words That are Actually Japanese, revealed the origin of some words that may have surprised some readers. For me, #6 was the most surprising! Take a look, and let us know what you think in the comments below.
In our November post, Gairaigo: Making Sense of English Loan Words in Japanese, we switched it up and explored the use of foreign words, called gairaigo (外来語 [imported+word]), which are used in the Japanese language. It was a fascinating trip into how two cultures collide and how languages adapt and evolve.
For today's post, we are going to dive a little bit deeper into the Japanese language and discuss the less well-known katakana, one of the three Japanese alphabets (technically "writing systems), how it is used in Japan, and why it can be so difficult to understand.
Wait! Japanese has three alphabets?
Well, while technically not three "alphabets," like the phonetic system we use in English, it does have three writing systems that can make it a bit complicated. Let's start from the top.
Perhaps the best well-known, kanji (漢字) are the logographic characters that originally came from Chinese and are now the main part of the Japanese language. Many readers will most likely have seen kanji in movies, anime, and manga from and about Japan.
However, there are also situations where someone's interest in Japan and the Japanese language ended up with a tattoo that might not be what they originally wanted...
Unlike English letters, which are characters used to represent sounds directly, kanji are symbols that directly represent words and meanings. Even though kanji do have associated pronunciations, the key difference to understand is that they are NOT phonetic symbols.
More similar to English letters and their representation of sound, hiragana is a Japanese syllabary system in which 48 written characters are used to represent syllables. It is usually used to indicate pronunciation in different cultural contexts or for grammatical or linguistic reasons.
For example, if you wanted to write the word "papa" in English, you would need four letters: two each of the consonant "p" and the vowel "a." However, in Japanese, you would only need to write the two hiragana characters "ぱぱ" to represent the pronunciation. Instead of the letters "p" and "a" required to create "pa" in English, only the one symbol "ぱ" (which includes the "p" and "a" together) is needed in Japanese.
Hiragana symbols are usually easy to distinguish by their rounded shape and simplicity as compared to kanji. For example, the word hiragana itself, when written in hiragana, looks like this: ひらがな.
Created by Japanese monks in the 9th century to be able to transcribe Buddhist texts from India and China, katakana, like hiragana, is also a Japanese syllabary writing system consisting of 48 characters with the same pronunciation method. While it is mainly used to write foreign words, it is also used in some other surprising ways.
Katakana symbols are usually easy to distinguish by their more angular shape and simplicity as compared to kanji. For example, the word katakana itself, when written in katakana, looks like this: カタカナ.
How is katakana used?
As katakana is generally used for foreign words, it is natural to assume that when you see it in text, it represents something other than Japanese, However, unfortunately, this is not always true. To better understand the complexity of katakana, there are some specific and interesting situations that are worth taking a look at to better understand the role of katakana in communication.
Medicine, science, and technology
Similar to many languages that use Latin (or other foreign words), katakana is in the Japanese language to write the words used in the medical, scientific, and technology fields.
Japanese company names
Many successful Japanese companies, like Toyota and Suzuki, are well-known around the world, and their names are usually written in English when used in foreign countries. One might assume that these company names would be written in kanji or hiragana, the more "original" writing systems; however, as will be explained, Toyota is written in katakana as トヨタ, and Suzuki is written as スズキ.
Because many Japanese company names are actually the names of people, usually the founders, katakana is used in text to avoid any confusion. For example, Suzuki, as mentioned above, is the second most common name in Japan. Imagine if the name of your company was simply "Johnson," the second most common name in the US, with, In fact, almost two million Americans sharing that last name. It would be difficult to distinguish your company, especially in advertising, from all the people and businesses with the same or similar names.
Also, writing a company name in kanji could be potentially problematic because the individual symbols can have multiple pronunciations and meanings. Katakana locks in the pronunciation and lessens any cultural or linguistic confusion.
Similar to the use of italics in English, katakana is often used to emphasize or draw the attention of readers. For example, for public signs with location information, "here" is written in katakana as ココ, and for trash disposal, "garbage" is written as ゴミ.
Marketing and advertising
Similar to the emphasis described above, katakana is also used in marketing to draw attention to information. In addition, foreign words and terms are often considered to be cool or fashionable by Japanese audiences and can bring an international or exotic element to advertisements.
Think of it this way: if you are an English speaker, which is more appealing to you when written on a menu - raw fish or sushi?
This is where katakana becomes really interesting, playful even. Onomatopoeia is the use of words to phonetically represent the sounds they represent. For example, in English, a cat's cry is written as "meow," a clock's noise is "tick tock, " and when Batman's fist hits the villain's chin, "POW" shouts from the page.
Japanese is no different. Written as オノマトペ (o-no-ma-to-pe), these words also represent sounds, but they also show a different way of hearing the world and perhaps a greater depth of use.
Obviously, a cat is a cat in any country, and the sound it makes is the same around the world. However, in Japan, a cat's cry is written as にゃーにゃー (nyah-nyah).
There are onomatopoeia words in Japanese to describe a state of mind. キョロキョロ (kyoro-kyoro) is used to describe someone who is fidgeting or nervously looking around.
In terms of talking about food, one of my favorites is ネバネバ. This is used to describe the sticky or viscous "mouth feel" of natto (fermented soybeans), a traditional Japanese food with which many foreigners have a love/hate relationship. Loud, passionate discussions about its pros and cons can often be heard in drinking establishments frequented by long-term, foreign residents.
There are endless lists of Japanese onomatopoeia that will delight and confuse you. Be careful: it is a slippery slope!
Katakana: The most difficult?
While Japanese is by far not the most difficult language in the world, learning the nearly 3,000 kanji used in normal communication and common names can be quite a challenge and is often too much for casual learners. However, there are rules and systems that can be used to learn them.
However, with only 48 phonetic characters, it is katakana that often causes the most frustration. This is because the words are written in a way that represents how they are spoken by Japanese pronunciation rules, which is sometimes wildly different from the original. Or it comes from a different language than you expect.
I always remember an early encounter, even after 14 years. When reading a simple text, I came upon ブラジル. I slowly pronounced the characters, "bu...ra...ji...ru..." I knew it was a foreign word from the context, but I had no idea what it was. I asked a nearby Japanese friend, who quickly rattled off "bu-ra-ji-ru." That did not help. He then said, in English, "It's a country." Eventually, with the help of a dictionary, I figured it out.
It made me want to throw my hands up in the air in exasperation. That feeling still happens today when we run into new katakana words, especially with restaurant menus. My wife and I playfully struggle to decipher the words for a while, then we call the waiter over and ask for some help.
We often joke that the best way to read katakana is to just relax your mind and let the sound of the word wash over you. Trying to force it just doesn't work.
We liken it to those autostereogram posters that were popular in the 1990s. Hidden in what looks like a collection of random dots and colors is a 3D image, most famously a T-Rex dinosaur. The best way to finally see the image was just to gaze at the poster and unfocus your eyes, look through the surface.
Perhaps that is the best way to deal with the Japanese language. Don't fight it. Just let go and embrace it...
What do you think?
Learning Japanese or working with the language can be a wonderful journey with many ups and downs. What’s your favorite story? What’s your favorite (maybe least favorite) katakana? Let us know in the comments below.
Originally from Ohio, USA, Bailey is an experienced freelance writer and editor, especially for technical and scientific content. With an MA in English and a background in science, he also has more than 20 years of experience in teaching English around the world.