The Japanese use three types of writing (four if you want to really get down to it): kanji, hiragana, katakana, and romanji.
The kanji system was passed down from China and consists of a series of symbols each signifying a word or concept. For example, the kanji for kara (空), meaning empty, comes up a lot – you might see this on your gas gauge if your Japanese car is out of fuel. The term te (手), means hand, as in upper body extremity. When combined, kara and te literally mean empty hand but are interpreted as weaponless – as in nothing (no weapon) in one’s hand.
Diving into the Japanese language … brings depth of understanding of the culture
Hiragana is a phonetic system used to write Japanese terms that do not have their own kanji. As an example, the suffix san (さん), when attached to a proper name, is an honourific meaning Mr., Mrs., or Ms. It is written using the characters “sa” (さ) and “n” (ん). For instance, Mr. Yamaguchi is pronounced Yamaguchi San in Japanese or written 山口さん1.
Katakana is a phonetic system used write non-Japanese terms. This includes words, names, or phrases stemming from any culture that is other than Japanese (or Chinese). Here are some examples:
But beware the homonym. Like other languages, Japanese contains words that sound the same but mean different things. The actual meaning of the word is contained in the spelling (usually kanji) and/or in the context. In the examples above, the sound “te” is used in two places: 手 for hand and テ in stereo. In the Dojo, you might hear the sounds “go” and “ju” but their meaning change depending on the context. Go (五) and ju (十) mean five and ten respectively and when combined, goju (五十) mean fifty (50). However, go (剛) and ju (柔) mean hard and soft respectively and when combined, with the addition of ryu (流), meaning style, read as goju ryu (剛柔流) or hard/soft style thus describing the type of karate we practice. Do not confuse 剛柔流 with 五十流. While both are pronounced “goju ryu”, “50 style” is complete gibberish.
Romanji is simply using the Roman alphabet to write Japanese words: sushi, karaoke, Toyota, etc.
Diving into the Japanese language, particularly the written language, brings depth of understanding of the culture that gave birth to karate. The more we learn, the more we understand and this, to me, is a really fun component of practicing karate.
1 Yama (山) means mountain and guchi (口) means mouth
2 The horizontal line (ー) or choonpu elongates the pronunciation of the vowel