The Japanese Language – Part 2

Posted On Oct 1 2016 by


            Hiragana was developed in Japan sometime after A.D. 800 as a phonetic language for handwriting and personal documents. They originated as simplified kanji, but compared to the thousands of kanji, there are only forty-six hiragana, each one expressing a different sound. A few markers and combinations of hiragana up the total number of sounds to 104: for instance, “chi” plus a small “ya” makes the sound “cha” . The entire Japanese language can be expressed with these sounds, and so long as hiragana are provided in the text, Japanese speakers always know how a word should be spoken. (In other words, you can’t really write intentionally unpronounceable words like “Mxyzpltk” and “Cthulhu” in Japanese.) Hiragana encode sound, not meaning.Read Attack on Titan Manga

            Hiragana is the most commonly used script in manga. Because it’s possible to write Japanese entirely in hiragana, the choice of how much kanji to use is one way to choose between formal and informal writing. For instance, yami (“dark”) has the same meaning whether it’s written in kanji  or in hiragana . Manga for younger readers usually has few kanji.


            Last, but not least for English readers, is the angular, even simpler-looking katakana, also developed sometime after A.D. 800. Each one of the 104 katakana characters corresponds to a hiragana character and expresses the same sound, but katakana are used primarily in phonetic spellings of foreign names and words, such as jump . They make strange words stand out. Katakana usually indicate that the sound is emphasized or somehow unusual; thus, it is often used in manga to indicate when foreigners or other strange-sounding characters such as robots and aliens are speaking. Katakana are also frequently used in sound effects. A long dash (—) indicates that the sound is drawn out.Read Hajime no Ippo Manga


            Furigana, also known as rubi or yomigana, aren’t an alphabet of their own; they’re the training wheels for Japanese readers who don’t know all their kanji yet. In manga for younger readers, all kanji have tiny hiragana or katakana letters printed alongside them, showing how the kanji is pronounced. These are furigana. If readers don’t recognize the meaning of the kanji, they can read the furigana phonetically. Although even grown-up manga sometimes use furigana for particularly obscure words, they are used mostly in children’s manga. In fact, the strictest technical difference between a seinen or jôsei magazine and a shônen or shôjo magazine is that the former do not have furigana.

            Furigana are also a handy way to encode double meanings, such as puns or translations of foreign words. For instance, the original Japanese title of Etsuko Ikeda and Yuho Ashibe’s Bride of Deimos  uses the furigana for “Deimos”  over the kanji meaning akuma, or “devil” . Thus, the Japanese reader knows that Deimos is, for all intents and purposes, the devil. An example of a pun meaning is the Japanese title of Kazuya Minekura’s Saiyuki , a semimodernized, semiserious version of the classic Chinese novel Saiyuki . The sai  in the original Chinese version means “West,” so the original title is Journey to the West; but the sai  in Minekura’s version means “long” or “far.” Thus the title of Minekura’s version could be translated as Journey to the Extreme

Last Updated on: October 1st, 2016 at 3:58 am, by

Written by Katherine K. Vaca

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