Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. But when do you use which type of symbol?

Q: Hi richard, Genki Japan helped me a lot with learning japanese! Thanks!  But here’s my question:
I learned that Japan has 3 types of symbols.  Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji.   But when do you use which type of symbol? –  Tinke

A: Hi Tinke, thank you for the nice words!  Here’s the general rule of thumb:

Use kanji whenever you can.

Use hiragana if you don’t know the kanji or if there isn’t one.

Use katakana for words that come from countries other than Japan or China.

That’s  basically it!  In practice though the best thing is just to read lots of Japanese and you’ll naturally learn when to use which ones in just the same why you naturally know when to use “i” or “I” or “twelve” or “12”!

Be genki,


10 Responses to “Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. But when do you use which type of symbol?”

  1. fani says:

    My name is Fani, and I have been trying to work out how to write it in japanese characters, but all the websites have been confusing! The japanese learning books I have are pretty basic so do not have any symbols for “fa”. When I have found something, I don’t know if I am supposed to use Katakana, or Kanji, as I have been given kanji translations, but it is essentially a word from another country!
    Please help!

  2. Makoto says:

    What if someone used nothing BUT Kanji (except for wa, o, no, de, etc.)? Has that ever happened? Do some people write way more Kanji than others? Also, does writing in more Kanji seem more fluent?

    Also, I noticed some words are just in plain hiragana and others are in Kanji. What if I wrote words that are supposed to be written in Hiragana in Kanji instead? Would that seem awkward?

  3. Richard says:

    You always need some bits of hiragana to make the sentence complete, other wise you’d end up needed way more kanji like we have in Chinese! Some people do write more kanji than others, and some people like to write katakana words instead of Japanese words. If you write something in kanji that is usually written in hiragana you may come across clever, or you may come across as being too showy offy!

  4. Richard says:

    You’d usually write your name in katakana in Japan. The “fa” sound is ファ (“fu” with a small “a” after it!)

  5. Andy says:

    I’m getting really confused about some things in Japanese.
    Some words are pronounced differently, for example: “water” is pronounced “sui” but I have also seen it been pronounced “mizu”. I am really confused because they use the same kanji character. (I’m Chinese)

  6. Richard says:

    Hi Andy,

    In Japanese it’s because some words were naturally Japanese and some came from Chinese. A very rough rule is that symbols on their own tend to have Japanese style reading e.g. 水Mizu for water, but characters in compounds tend to have the Chinese style reading e.g 水曜日 suiyoubi. But there are plenty of exceptions!

    In English we have the same thing e.g. is 1,500 pronounced “one thousand five hundred” or “fifteen hundred”

    Chinese is much easier!

  7. katsu says:

    is hiragana acceptable in spelling names?

  8. Malachi Goodman says:

    How will I know when to use the katakana or the hiragana?

  9. Richard says:

    @Malachi: You’ll know when you start reading. Always read something before you write it. (And always say it before you read it!)

  10. Richard says:

    @Katsu: Only if you have an officially registered Japanese name and (usually) your parents specifically chose your name to be in hiragana.

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