sci.lang.japan FAQ / 1. Writing / 1.1. and

1.1.9. What is katakana used for?

Katakana signs
Photo credit: Sébastien Bertrand
Used under a Creative Commons licence

Japanese has two forms of phonetic writing, hiragana and katakana. In modern Japanese, most writing is done in a mixture of hiragana and kanji (Chinese characters). What is the other script, katakana, used for?

In modern Japanese, katakana is most often used for transcription of words from foreign languages. For example, "tomato" is written トマト (tomato). Similarly for foreign names. For example, "America" is written アメリカ (amerika) and "John" is written ジョン (jon). To see how a particular English word is represented in katakana, try the following tool which converts English into katakana based on a dictionary of pronunciations:

Turn English into katakana:

The names of animal and plant species and minerals are commonly written in katakana. See 1.3.2. How are animal and plant names written in Japanese?.

Katakana are also often used for Japanese company names. For example Suzuki is スズキ,and Mitsubishi is ミツビシ. Katakana are also used for emphasis, especially on signs and advertisements. For example, ゴミ gomi (rubbish) or メガネ megane (glasses).

Japanese contains many words borrowed from Chinese up to a thousand years ago. These words are usually written in kanji. Words from modern Chinese are often written in katakana. For example,
Katakana Kanji Rōmaji Meaning
マージャン 麻雀 mājan mahjong
ウーロン 烏龍茶 ūroncha oolong tea
チャーハン 炒飯 chāhan fried rice
チャーシュー 叉焼 chāshū roast pork
シューマイ 焼売 shūmai a kind of dim sum
ラーメン 拉麺 rāmen Chinese-style noodles

Telegrams are written in katakana, and before the introduction of multibyte characters in computer systems in the 1980s, computer output was entirely in katakana. The Japanese banking system still requires account names to be in katakana. See 14.3. What is half-width katakana?

Katakana are also sometimes used to indicate words being spoken in a foreign accent or "robotic" speech. For example, in a manga, the speech of a foreign character or a robot may be represented by コンニチ ワ ("konnichiwa") instead of the more usual hiragana こんにちは ("konnichi wa").

Katakana are sometimes used instead of hiragana as furigana (see 1.3.3. What is ?). Katakana are often used to indicate the on'yomi readings (see 1.2.7. Why do have several different pronunciations?) of a kanji in a kanji dictionary (see 1.2.11. How is a kanji dictionary used?).

Some personal names are written in katakana, especially female ones. This was more common in the past, hence women of past generations often had katakana names such as セツ (setsu). This is less common today. Nowadays most female babies are given kanji or hiragana names.

Words with uncommon kanji are sometimes partly written in katakana. For example, in the word "dermatologist", hifuka (皮膚科), the second kanji, 膚, is quite unusual, and thus the word is commonly written as 皮フ科, with the second character in katakana only.

Katakana are also used when letters are used to represent sounds. For example hii (ヒー), meaning "sigh" is usually written in katakana, as are the calls of animals (see 15.3. What noises do animals make?).

Historically, katakana was used in a different way. Until the end of World War 2, official documents used a mix of katakana and kanji in the same way that hiragana and kanji are mixed in modern Japanese texts, that is, katakana were used for okurigana (see 1.1.8. What is ?) and particles (see 2.3. Particles (助詞)) such as wa or wo.


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