Although a national survey hasn’t been carried out since 1948, the literacy rate in Japan is often claimed to be 99%. Realistically, the actual rate is unlikely to be quite as high as claimed, but illiteracy in Japan is still pretty rare – and considering the pervasiveness of text-based communication in the age of mobile phones (especially in Japan, where SMS lost out to mobile email, and LINE is more popular than Facebook), it’s quite possible that actual literacy rates these days are almost as high as claimed.
When reading and writing, Japanese people typically draw from three – and sometimes even four – different writing systems. These are: Hiragana and katakana (collectively known as ‘kana’), kanji (‘Chinese characters’), as well as rōmaji.
Japan first learned how to write by importing China’s writing system many centuries ago, but even by that point, there was already a distinct Japanese language, and while it was awesome to be able to write things down, Chinese characters (kanji) alone couldn’t adequately express the Japanese language – so hiragana and katakana were developed, as purely Japanese characters. Both of these ‘alphabets’ are based on the same system of 48 sounds, and these days their usage is clearly separate, so it’s often assumed that hiragana developed first, and katakana was created from the hiragana – but actually, they were both based on kanji, and evolved in parallel. Surprisingly, within these systems, voiced consonants (the sounds starting with [g], [z], [d] and [b]) and half-voiced consonants ([p]) were originally left to be guessed at, although now a system of dots and dashes altering the applicable characters is used to indicate the correct sound.
Today, hiragana (the rounder characters) is used as the main Japanese script, usually in combination with kanji. Katakana (the sharper script), on the other hand, is a supporting system which is mostly used for foreign words, or to add emphasis, much as we would use italics. But there’s something else interesting about the kana alphabets – over the years, there are a couple of characters in each system which have fallen out of common use. In hiragana and katakana respectively, these are ゐ/ヰ (‘wi’) andゑ/ヱ (‘we’ or ‘ye’). Most Japanese people now struggle to pronounce these sounds, and the pronunciation of several of the characters still in use also seems to have changed over time.
Kanji has also changed since it was first borrowed from China. Most of the kanji in use today are simplified versions of the original characters. Since they’ve been adapted for use with the Japanese language, they also typically have several different sounds associated with each character, which are generally categorised as ‘kun-yomi’ (reading it as it fits into purely Japanese words) and ‘on-yomi’ (reading it based on the sound in Chinese). There are also some readings that fit into neither of these categories, and the words which use them can be very hard to figure out if you don’t already know them. Altogether, there are around 50,000 kanji in Japanese, but the ones needed to be considered literate in Japan are on a list comprised by the government which is known as the ‘jōyō kanji’ (kanji for regular use). This list is revised occasionally, but typically includes around 2,000 characters.
Traditionally, kanji was used by itself for official documents and writing of an intellectual nature, a system known as ‘kanbun’ (classical Chinese). Thus, it was considered the domain of men, and women were expected to stick to kana – 11th century literary classic, ‘The Tale of Genji’ (considered to be the world’s first novel) was written by a woman, and was thus written entirely in kana. These days, hardly anyone actually reads or writes kanbun, and official documents generally use the same scripts as everything else, but Japanese high school students still study kanbun in the Japanese language curriculum – and you thought reading Shakespeare was hard.
Finally, and less commonly than any of the others, is the writing system of rōmaji. Rōmaji means ‘Roman characters’, and it’s a system of writing using the Latin alphabet that you’re reading now. Well, to be more accurate, it loosely includes several different systems of making Japanese words readable in English. Everyone has their own rule preferences, and so far nobody has really been able to agree on a standard system (although the Hepburn system is the most common today), so it’s not unusual for two Japanese people with the exact same name to spell it differently when they need to write it in rōmaji. It’s also the way many Japanese people input Japanese text into a computer, although kana-based keyboards do exist. A rōmaji-based input system will typically accept and convert most known methods of Romanising Japanese text.
Rōmaji is all over the place in modern Japan, but it’s still not used as commonly as the other three writing systems, so a lot of Japanese people still feel less comfortable with it – young Japanese people are more likely to use it casually than those who are older.
With the rōmaji included, that’s a lot to learn just to be able to read and write. But even with just the Japanese scripts, no one learns all of them at the same time. Children’s picture books in Japan are usually written entirely in hiragana, and that’s what they learn to read first – katakana is added later, and kanji is an ongoing process, with about half of the characters they need to know to be considered literate learned after finishing primary school.