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Writing Systems


Unlike any other language you've ever seen, Japanese is made up of three writing systems. Yes, you heard me right. Three. This makes the number of characters you'll need to recognize in the literal thousands. Wait, don't leave yet! It's still possible to learn them all, we promise. These three syllabaries (you can think of these as the "alphabets" of Japanese) are all used together and each serve a specific purposes.
As you can see in the following sentence (English translation: "We are Saori and Frank") all three writing systems are used together.

(We) Are

Hiragana is a set of 46 characters that represent sounds. They are comprised of one consonant sound and one vowel sound (with a few exceptions we'll explain later) and are always pronounced how they appear. There are 9 consonant sounds and 5 vowel sounds. The consonats are k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, and w, which combine with the five vowel sounds a, i, u, e, and o. For example, 「か」(pronounced ka) is a the consonant k and vowel a,「せ」(se) is s and e,「ぬ」(nu) n and u, etc.
Read more in the intro to hiragana

Katakana is another set of 46 characters that also represent sounds and are primarily used to represent foreign words. These contain the same set of sounds found in Hiragana (consonants k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w and vowels a, i, u, e, o) but different symbols.
Read more in the intro to katakana

Kanji is the third character set, and is actually made up of thousands of characters borrowed (mostly) from Chinese. The main Kanji you'll see on a daily basis are from a set of 2136 Kanji called the Jouyou kanji (常用漢字, meaning regular-use Chinese characters). Each Kanji has its own meaning(s) and reading(s) that change depending on what word/context it's used in. The readings are comprised of combinations of the 46 sounds found in the Hiragana and Katakana syllabaries.
Read more in the intro to kanji