8

I've been studying Japanese on my own for only three days. Why does the word "Japanese" sometimes appear like this 日本人 and also like this にほんじん?

3 Answers 3

22

Both are correct. 日本人 is the word for 'Japanese (person)' written in kanji. にほんじん is exactly the same word but written in hiragana. Adults normally use the kanji version (日本人), but にほんじん appears in beginners' textbooks because it's easier to learn at first.

Japanese is a language where three types of scripts are used in one sentence. For an introduction, please read the following articles:

5
  • 2
    I would just like to point out that anyone who considers hiragana and katakana to be distinct "alphabets" ought to, in my opinion, also consider the upper case and the lower case of the English / Latin alphabet as separate. (Certainly, katakana use in Japanese does not correspond 100% to upper case use in English. But still, I think the parallel is quite apt.) I guess it is mostly tradition and history that lies behind this inconsistency in presentation.
    – Arthur
    Commented Mar 26, 2023 at 20:17
  • 7
    @Arthur the pairing of hiragana and katakana is similar to the pairing of uppercase and lowercase, in that both cases involve two parallel sets of glyphs representing the same concepts, and that katakana can be used for a kind of emphasis in certain contexts. However, the similarities pretty much end there. English does not change case for loanwords (preferring italic typesetting), and Japanese does not mix kana within a word except perhaps for some very specific online slang. The differing use patterns have a lot to do with the differing perception of "separate alphabets". Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 1:08
  • 6
    (Technically, hiragana and katakana are "syllabaries", not alphabets. And yes, they're called that even though they represent mora and not syllables.) Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 1:10
  • 1
    Hiragana and katakana may arguably be called an "alphabet" even if it's technically not so, but kanji definitely is not an alphabet.
    – Gene
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 18:45
  • Okay, I finally learned the technical difference between alphabet, abugida, abjad, syllabary and others... Thanks for pointing this out.
    – naruto
    Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 9:11
11

The Japanese language uses 3 different writing systems:

  • kanji, which was originally borrowed from Chinese ideograms: they represent a “picture” of a word, related to the meaning of the word, but not to its pronunciation, for instance, 人 represents a person, which is really easy to memorize since it does look like a bust with two legs,
  • hiragana, a monosyllabic (one character is a syllable - eg. “ka”, “to”, etc.) alphabet used to write mostly prepositions, verb endings, etc. As an “alphabet”, it focuses on pronunciation only, unrelated to the meaning, and you can write absolutely everything in hiragana if you don't know the correct kanji, but Japanese people are used to writing a lot of words with kanji rather than hiragana since it is easier/faster to read/write once you know the meaning of those,
  • katakana, another monosyllabic alphabet, which is graphically very similar to hiragana (it is less round and has more sharp edges), generally used to write words that are not strictly Japanese as well as a few other uses (for instance of foreign origin like アメリカ = “America”, or various onomatopoeias, etc.).

So, 日本人 is the ideogram version of the word “Japanese person”. However, when you learn the language, you have no idea how to pronounce this series of characters. You have to learn all the “kanji”, their pronunciation, and their meaning, and there are thousands of them! Note that one “kanji” can have several meanings, can be combined with other characters to form different meanings as well, and can even be pronounced differently depending on the context. 日本人 is actually pronounced “Nihon-jin”. The first letter is the sun, the second is “origin” and the third is a person - which as I mentioned you can recognize with its two legs. But the first character can also mean “day” (pronounced “hi”). And the character 本 on its own is also a book.

On the other hand, にほんじん is the hiragana version. In this version, once you learn the alphabet, you can immediately pronounce it, even if you have no idea what it means. As there are only a limited number of characters in the alphabet, it is quite easy to learn, which is why manuals for beginners generally use hiragana pretty much everywhere, rather than confusing learners with hundreds of kanji. Sometimes, you'll also find the double version: a large kanji version along with the hiragana version above or under it so that you can learn and memorize the kanji's pronunciation:

Nihonjin in kanji and hiragana

6
  • 15
    It's incorrect to describe katakana as "exclusively used to write words of foreign origin." It is used for a variety of Japanese-origin words as well, such as plants and animals, sometimes onomatopoeia, and historically was the primary way of writing okurigana, which people will encounter if they read old texts.
    – Leebo
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 1:07
  • I second Leebo; katakana is better described as "any non-standard Japanese word", so onomatopoeia, loanwords, distinct slang, and even regular words (if they're always written in kanji but are being spelled out for some reason). For a quick rule of thumb, thinking of it like a combination of italics and acronyms in English is pretty helpful. If it would be italicised in English, it'll probably be in katakana. It also helps with quick reading comprehension--it's like asking "is it spelled 'deoxyribonucleic acid' or DNA?" The answer is "yes, depending on the context."
    – Aos Sidhe
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 13:17
  • 2
    @AosSidhe Given the huge amount of Chinese loanwords in Japanese, including ‘loanwords’ as such makes the category a bit useless. 日本人/にほんじん/ニホンジン is a Chinese loanword, usually written in kanji, but is rarely written in katakana. Conversely, 林檎/りんご/リンゴ ringo ‘apple’, also a Chinese loanword, is not one of those words that’s always written in kanji – but it is very commonly written in katakana. Your rule of thumb is useful, as long as it also comes with the caveat that it’s still quite common to see katakana used in places where there’s no obvious (to the learner) reason for it. Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 17:31
  • @Leebo Thanks for pointing this out, I have fixed it.
    – jytou
    Commented Apr 1, 2023 at 11:45
  • 2
    I'm not really sure your edit resolves the issue (unless I'm misunderstanding the intention of it). Katakana is often used to write words of foreign origin, but any word in Japanese can be written in katakana for a variety of reasons. I just gave some examples of Japanese-origin words that are usually in katakana, but like I said, there's nothing that says it can't be used for any word. It's best to just say that katakana is often used for words of foreign origin but has other uses as well.
    – Leebo
    Commented Apr 1, 2023 at 13:01
1

There is ニッポン人 (nipponjin), too. They are spelling and pronunciation variations of the same word.

When you write normally, it's 日本人. The rest is used for special purposes. にほんじん, ニホンジン, にっぽんじん, ニッポンジン - these spelling are used only when you want to discuss the reading, especially in ruby annotation. ニホン人 and ニッポン人 are a bit different - these are still abnormal but can deliver the effect of emphasizing that you are discussing Japanese from an outsider's perspective or in relation to the rest of the world. The book title 不思議な不思議なニッポン人 seems like a typical example of the last point. (I could be wrong, I haven't read the book.)

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .