Why both kanji and katakana or hiragana?

Why both kanji and katakana or hiragana?

July 10, 2019 14:46PM by , 171 views

Enrolling Japanese company employees with Japan Pension Service (for health insurance, pension insurance, and long-term care insurance), with the Labour Standards Inspection Office (for workers’ accident compensation insurance, child benefits contribution, and Asbestos-related Health Damage Relief Fund contribution), and with the Public Employment Security Office aka “Hello Work” for unemployment insurance, is part of our core Japan HR and payroll business. Our standard procedure is to send a personal information form to the employer for the new Japanese company employee to complete, and upon return, our licensed Japanese HR specialist processes the enrollment.

I suppose that having lived in Japan for 26 years, some of the vagaries of Japanese life became “normal” for me years ago, but not so our clients, the Financial Controller of one of whom (a very exciting Irish financial services company) asked the following question yesterday: “Just so I understand, is kanji different to katakana? I note in the attached file their names are completed in katakana – is this different to kanji?”.

The simple answer is yes, katakana is different from kanji. The longer answer is written Japanese uses kanji, katakana, hiragana, and romaji, as follows:

  • Kanji; these are the characters derived from Chinese characters that Japanese use for verb stems, adjectives, nouns, etc.
  • Hiragana; these are syllabaries (46 characters, each representing a phonic) used for verb endings (such as past, present, and future tenses), conjugation, etc.
  • Katakana; these are also syllabaries (actually 46 simplified forms of the corresponding hiragana character) used to write foreign nouns, both for objects and people names.
  • Romaji; these are the alphabet characters, generally restricted to advertising use and acronyms.

There are several thousand kanji characters, but Japanese only need to memorise 2,136 of them (the “joyo kanji” or “standard kanji”) for everyday use such as reading newspapers. One challenge is there are many family and first names written using kanji that are not in the 2,136 standard kanji. Worse, kanji are generally written in pairs, and their reading can change dramatically depending on which kanji they are paired with. To avoid confusion, government and other official forms require people to write their name both in kanji and either hiragana or (as in the case of Japan Pension Service, the Labour Standards Inspection Office, and Hello Work!) katakana, so the person reading the name will know how to pronounce it. This is also the purpose of the tiny “furigana” aka “yomigana” characters written by law above non-standard (that is, not in the 2,136 joyo kanji) kanji in newspapers and magazines.

Our client’s response? “I’m starting to appreciate the simplicity of only having to know the Roman alphabet!”


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