TemariKai Logo

About the Japanese Language & Writing
        Since the most beautiful and inspirational books on making Temari are still written in Japanese (no offense to our Western authors who have done admirable jobs!) - there is a growing interest in one becoming able to interpret a small amount of Japanese - enough to be able to decipher and follow the pattern instructions and diagrams in Japanese books. This is not an easy task; in fact, our Sensei agrees that one doesn't need to learn to read Japanese, one needs to learn to read "Temari-ese", which are indeed 2 different things! However, there is still a curiosity, and understanding a little about Japanese writing and reading can help. Japanese (and Chinese) are among if not the most difficult languages to learn. Much of this inherently stems from the writing systems - they do not usually use Roman alphabet characters and have completely different orientations; this makes it impossible to run a "simple" translation, and requires additional keyboard layouts on computers.

        Japanese is written in a mixture of three types of symbols, Kanji, Hiragana, and Katkana; each has its own function. Kanji are pictorial ideographic characters that were adopted from the Chinese. They are used for conceptual words and indigenous names. Kana are phonetic symbols that were developed in Japan. Each one represents the sound of one syllable. They are divided into two groups (each called syllabaries): Hiragana, used to write the inflectional endings of conceptual words written in Kanji and all types of native words not written in Kanji;  and Katakana, are used mostly for words of foreign origin. In addition, you'll often find some Roman characters (for sounds that are not native to the Japanese system) and Arabic numerals mixed in.

        There has never been an independent purely Japanese system of writing. The first attempt to use Chinese characters to note down Japanese speech was in the seventh century. The Japanese simplified the extremely complex Chinese characters into what now are the Kana. It is possible to write exclusively in Kana but causes problems due to the large number of words that are pronounced alike but have different meanings - these are called homophones, and are distinguished from one another by the use of different Kanji.

        Japanese is written either in vertical columns read right to left, top to bottom (this style is seen mostly in literary works), or written horizontally, read from left to right (this is the form recommended by the Ministry of Education, to be found in more technical works and those dealing with natural sciences). Newspapers use both. Letters and other handwritten Japanese may use either. Japanese manuscript paper is formatted into 200 or 400 squares arranged in vertical columns. Each symbol, including punctuation, takes up a full space. Characters are written one right after another, and the characters of one line may not be strung together. Blank spaces are not left in between words; there is no change between capitalization or lowercase. This means deciding where one word ends and another beings adds to the challenge.

        There are different forms of handwriting as in all systems, and three are formally acknowledged. Standard style is called Kaisho and is what is taught in school and is practically identical to printed text. Next is semi-cursive which is slightly simplified over the standard, and allows one to be more flowing and is more rapid. Cursive is called Sosho which is almost like a calligraphy, and is more like a shorthand using extreme simplification and aesthetics.

        The actual number of characters that one must know in order to pass a proficiency test in Japanese, and that most Japanese students learn in their education, numbers about 2000. Characters are also combined with radicals to modify the meanings. Characters have strict governing in terms of placement with each other when they are compounded, and also the strokes used to form them are strictly determined in terms of direction, order and number. Indeed, one of the indexing systems of characters (for example in Japanese translation dictionaries) uses stroke count. Indexing the characters in order to create a bi-directional dictionary is quite difficult, but several systems do exist and use the character and radical placement, the basic construction of the character and stroke count.

        A Japanese child, throughout their schooling will take most of their entire education to learn (as in recognizing, comprehending, and writing) the full 2000 odd required characters needed to pass proficiency exams, so you can see that it is a lengthy process; learning Japanese is much more learning and labor intensive that the Romanic languages. Additionally, the meanings of characters can change based on context, so running pre-fab translation programs are often exercises in frustration when it comes to informational accuracy. In order to be an effective translator, one must be fluent not only in the language but also the subject matter.

Reference: Kanji and Kana, Revised Edition - A Handbook of the Japanese Writing System.
Hadamitzky & Spahn, 1999 by Charles Tuttle and Company


Last updated 12/2013 © 1998 - 2014 G. Thompson/PuffinStuff, Inc.