Japanese is a complicated language to read and write. With four different alphabet systems, it takes the average person until high school to be able to read a newspaper without referring to a dictionary. Even so, Japan has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
Formal Japanese writing includes kanji, or elaborate characters which originally came from Chinese. Each character has a meaning, and can be combined with other characters to give new words. For example, the characters “writing” plus “way” becomes the word that means “calligraphy.” Students are required to know over 2,000 kanji to graduate from high school, and there are several thousand more that are less commonly used. One kanji may have up to about 20 different ways it can be pronounced.
The second Japanese writing system is called hiragana. It is an alphabet of simplified letters used to modify the kanji. For example, the kanji with the meaning “happy” can have hiragana suffixes added to make it “happily” or “happiness.” This alphabet has consistent pronunciation, so it is the first one learned by children. It is used in small letters over kanji in books to learn the correct pronunciation of kanji words.
There is another alphabet system based on sounds called katakana. This is used for foreign words and names. Because it is very angular, it is also often used for filling out forms.
The final addition to the Japanese alphabets is called romanji, or letters from the Roman alphabet. This is basically using foreign letters to spell the pronunciation of Japanese words. It is a good way for a foreigner to learn the language, but is seldom used by Japanese except in signage or on the computer.
With all these writing systems, Japanese is complicated to learn. It makes signs exotic and sometimes illegible for the tourist. But if you take time to learn a few simple kanji such as “enter,” “toilet,” and “north gate,” your ability to get around can be a lot less frustrating.
JapananesePod101.com has a series of Japanese writing courses on youtube. Here is a good intro to writing on ‘Learn Hiragana – Kantan Kana Lesson 1 Learn to Read and Write Japanese’