Japanese has three writing systems:
Hiragana – ひらがな
Katakana – カタカナ
Kanji – 漢字
Well, you might say there are four types of writing if you include the English that pops up in Japanese from time to time, but since you’re reading this you already have English mastered.
Hiragana and katakana are collectively referred to as “kana,” which refers to their syllabic nature (as opposed to Chinese characters, which will be addressed later).
Hiragana is the “curvy” style of writing. Each character is phonetic and is always pronounced the same way (with two exceptions which are very easy to learn). So every individual sound in the Japanese language has its own hiragana. It is used for native Japanese words, and can be learned rather easily. Here is an example:
inu wa ookii desu (the dog is large)
Katakana is the “angular” style of writing. Each hiragana has a katakana counterpart, so there is one character for each sound in the language, and each one is always pronounced the same way. It is used for writing foreign words, foreign names, emphasis, and sound effects in comic books. Much like hiragana, it is learned very easily. Here is an example:
Kanji are Chinese characters that have been imported into Japanese. They are not phonetic and each character can have two or more pronunciations. Unfortunately, each one must be learned individually, although the attentive student may notice some logical patterns. Kanji are used to write all parts of the Japanese language and once, learned, are actually more efficient for reading than kana. Here is an example using the same sentence as in the first example, except using some kanji instead of all hiragana:
Inu wa ookii desu (the dog is large)
That sentence is also a decent example of how some kanji can look very similar and be confusing. Note how the kanji for dog (犬) is very similar to the kanji used in “large” (大).