How long has katakana been used as today, to represent non-Japanese words, onomatopoeia et al.? But specifically, has this usage been around since before U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan in the 19th century? I read in Goto-Jones' A Very Short Introduction to Modern Japan that Japan around this time was very insular and distrusting of foreigners, Perry's arrival being a catalyst that changed this. So I assumed that around that time, the Japanese wouldn't have used katakana to represent foreign words if they didn't associate with other countries anyway.

  • 2
    As important as the arrival and subsequent activities of Perry and his gunboats were, they were part of a chain of events. You may be giving him a bit too much credit for all the changes that took place in the latter part of the 19C.
    – Tim
    Sep 27, 2014 at 1:29
  • Japanese orthography has gone through several eras. For a while, katakana was used to write grammatical terms. Early meiji documents had this pattern. It still kind of is in dictionaries. The flip to using katakana for foreign words happened well after Perry.
    – virmaior
    Sep 27, 2014 at 3:01
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    Another thing to keep in mind is that the whole concept that Japan was shutting out foreigners during the so-called "sakoku" period is a very western-centric view. Many historians argue that the real point of that time was to prevent individual warlords and regional powers within Japan from making their own deals with foreigners and importing their own weapons, which could potentially destabilize the nation. It's a big topic, but the point is that Japan was importing foreign ideas before Perry showed up, just in a way the ruling powers tried to keep under tight control.
    – Questioner
    Sep 28, 2014 at 4:32

2 Answers 2


My understanding is that until the Meiji era, through the early 1900's, foreign words were most often written in kanji. Perhaps the sudden exposure to foreign cultures and the rise of the merchant class and marketing led to it's emergence as the definitive way to write foreign non-Chinese words. As the script was imported centuries ago, it is possible that it has had always been widely regarded as non-native.

  • 檸檬 (レモン) lemon
  • 仏蘭西 (フランス) France
  • 麦酒 (ビール) beer
  • I think "until the meiji era" is the wrong way to describe it. The meiji era had a strong love for 当て字 -- which I think was not constantly true before that.
    – virmaior
    Sep 27, 2014 at 3:00
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    I suspect katakana did not become the kana for loan-words until after the war, when the likes of English was no longer prohibited as the enemy language and a large no of words must have been imported, and there were many other reforms, but I have not been able to confirm it (in English at least).
    – Tim
    Sep 27, 2014 at 9:39

My informal understanding is that hiragana was originally "woman's alphabet" and katakana was "man's alphabet." Now, it has evolved to hiragana to represents Japanese native words and grammar parts while katakana represents foreign words. Of course, sometimes katakana is used instead of hiragana just to be rude or funny or whatever. For example, ゴメン was used instead of ごめん just to be less polite or whatever.

Just a fun tidbit I learned myself......

  • No, man actually used 真名 (aka. kanji).
    – Jimmy Yang
    Mar 25 at 19:46
  • “Early on, katakana was almost exclusively used by men for official text and text imported from China.“ from Wikipedia with citation: Taku Sugimoto; James A. Levin (2000). Global Literacies and the World-Wide Web. London: Routledge. p. 137. ISBN 9781134657759.
    – Sagecedar
    Mar 25 at 19:56

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