24 Nov /14


Katakana is one of the Japanese writing systems. Previous blogs have covered kanji (Chinese characters) and hiragana (the phonetic script), and katakana completes the set. The katakana and hiragana scripts are structured the same, though written differently. For example, the hiragana script begins:

a  i  u  e  o

あ い う え お

Ka   ki   ku   ke   ko

か き く   け   こ

Katakana follows the same sounds and order, but instead of the cursive style of hiragana, it’s written with more angular strokes:

a i u e o

ア イ ウ エ オ

Ka   ki   ku   ke   ko

カ キ   ク   ケ   コ

So what is the reason for using katakana, rather than hiragana? The main reason is to write foreign loan words. A simple example is bed (beddo) but a more recent addition is fiidobakku (feedback).

Incidentally, loan words are not limited to English and it’s fascinating to discover words in everyday use in Japan derived from many different languages. These include the word for part time job – arubaito (from the German arbeit), buffet meal – baikin (inspired by the Swedish buffet style smorgasbord, but renamed viking, thus becoming baikin), or the word for questionnaire – ankeeto (from the French word enquete).

What’s more, some foreign load words have developed completely different meanings in Japanese to their original as shown below:

Smaato                スマート

Feminisuto          フェミニスト

Manshon             マンション


You might think the topic is about a smart feminist who lives in a huge house, but it actually means a gentleman who is kind to ladies (feminisuto), slim (smaato) and lives in a modern apartment block with secured entry (manshon).

Back to Katakana, the script was first referenced in English in the translation of Engelbert Kaempfer’s 1727 book The history of Japan (see blog entry: Shinto). Here he wrote about the Japanese and their maps observing: “The other was a map of the whole world, of their own making, in an oval form, and mark’d with the Japanese Kattakanna characters” . Many country names are written with katakana including the U.K. and Germany – Igirisu (イギリス) and Doitsu (ドイツ), though this is not true for all two examples being China and South Korea which are written in kanji.

Katakana is widely used and can be helpful when visiting the country for reading things like café menus where there are a lot of foreign loan words. But to really get by in Japan, there’s no escaping the need to learn all three scripts, and that’s quite a defikaruto tasuko.