How did Japan acquire the writing system?

Most likely, spoken Japanese existed since the Neolithic Period. The people passed down old myths and legends. But for a long time it was not necessary to write the stories down and that is why the language did not have a writing system. It was not until the turn of the 4th and the 5th century AD that the first Chinese characters arrived through Korea and then directly from China.

A few centuries later, the Japanese created 2 alphabets of their own by simplifying some Chinese characters. Their use kept changing with time. A clear definition of the rules was provided through a language reform after the Second World War.

Types of script

Written Japanese currently uses 3 types of script. There are the Chinese characters called kanji and 2 syllabaries called hiragana and katakana. The written language is the combination of all 3. Occasionally, there is also Latin alphabet (or rōmaji) in the text, e.g. for internationally known words, abbreviations or product names.

Types of Japanese Script Example Reading
Kanji 寿司 sushi [ˈsuʃi]
Hiragana すし sushi [ˈsuʃi]
Katakana スシ sushi [ˈsuʃi]
Rōmaji SUSHI sushi [ˈsuʃi]

Use of the individual scripts

Both hiragana and katakana consist of the same set of syllables which only differ visually. None of the syllables in either alphabet carry meaning. They only represent sounds.

However, the use of these alphabets is different. Hiragana is used to write grammatical affixes and particles, whereas katakana is used to write foreign loan words, or to distinguish words, for which we would use bold or cursive letters. Foreigners use katakana to transcribe their names, too.

If there are more options…

As you can see in the table above, hiragana can substitute kanji characters if the writer decides not to use them, because they are too complicated, lesser-known, or he does not know them yet. Writing words in katakana or rōmaji usually serves the purpose of highlighting (e.g. in titles etc.).

There are some words in Japanese that still have no fixed form, so we can see them written in all the alphabets Japanese uses. Such is the case of the aforementioned "sushi".

So what does it look like?

As far as the graphic representation is concerned, the current look of the characters stems from the original writing style using a brush and ink. Both the Chinese and the Japanese used to write in columns from top to bottom and from right to left. This writing style is the main reason for the particular stroke order of each kanji. And since it is very difficult to write loops and curves with a brush, these types of strokes are almost non-existent in kanji.

The same writing rules apply to standard and digitized characters. But it is possible to shorten and simplify characters in handwriting. Some strokes can be omitted and some can be linked together. We usually see this simplification in calligraphy.