Kanji is logographic, with each character representing an idea. It uses symbols borrowed from Han Chinese. Hiragana is a phonetic alphabet — used to spell out native Japanese words. Technically, it is a mora syllabary, known as a kana. Katakana is also a kana. Both hiragana and katakana derive from an older Chinese syllabary from the 7th Century C.E., known as 万葉仮名 (Man’yōgana).
Though if hiragana and katakana both serve as phonetic alphabets, the natural question occurs: why keep both? Though they derive from a common origin, today, each is used pragmatically for very different purposes. Hiragana is used to write out native Japanese words phonetically, whereas katakana is used for foreign loan-words borrowed into Japanese. “Ah hah!” you might think, “Now, I can translate any word from English using katakana to simply translate it. Maybe not. First, loan words are usually changed, adapting consonants and vowels to those common in Japanese rather than their original language constructs. Also, many words have already been “borrowed” into Japanese, and not all of them come from English. Some of them have rather curious etymologies. For example, in Japanese, you have the word for “pants” spelled in katakana thusly:
This is pronounced zubon. “Er. Wait,” I can hear you say, “‘Zubon’ doesn’t sound at all like ‘pants’ in English!” Precisely! Because it doesn’t derive from English. Instead, it derives from French, jupon, which means “petticoat” or “underskirt.” I can hear you now, “That makes even less sense! Pants are not petticoats!” That is quite true. It’s puzzled etymologists too. The closest guess is how it related to the native Japanese onomatopoeia, ずぼん (zubon), which appeared around the same time in the 1860s, and refers to the sound of something rubbing or sliding and then coming to a stop (either in or out of place). Like the sound of slipping on or off your pants. Note closely: the foreign loan word (ズボン) is written in katakana, and the native onomatopoeia (ずぼん) is written in hiragana. Though pronounced the same way, the character set used indicates completely different meanings.
Now knowing what you know about the different character sets, can you look at the illustration above and pick out which words or characters are from which character set? It’s not so easy, actually. Here are a few examples:
- Belt loop: ベルト通し(Beruto tōshi) : mostly katakana; ベルト (beruto) means “belt”, with the addition of the kanji symbol 通, which symbolizes “pass through.” Belt is a loan-word, paired with a native word implying passing through the belt loop.
- Crease: 折り目 (Orime) : mixed; 折 is kanji, り is hiragana, and 目 is kanji again. This is a native expression, and can also mean a crease or fold in paper (such as in origami).
As you can see, there are often mixes and matches in Japanese phrases. Yet if you see any katakana, you know one thing for sure: the word most likely has a foreign origin.