AskDefine | Define katakana

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. A Japanese syllabary used when writing words borrowed from foreign languages other than Chinese, specific names of plants and animals and other jargon, or to emphasize a word or phrase.
  2. A letter thereof



  • /katakana/


  1. Katakana: a set of phonetic symbols used to render the Japanese language

Extensive Definition

is a Japanese syllabary, one component of the Japanese writing system along with hiragana, kanji, and in some cases the Latin alphabet. The word katakana means "fragmentary kana," as the katakana scripts are derived from components of more complex kanji.
Katakana are characterized by short, straight strokes and angular corners, and are the simplest of the Japanese scripts.
There are two main systems of ordering katakana: the old-fashioned iroha ordering, and the more prevalent gojūon ordering.


In modern Japanese, katakana are most often used for transcription of words from foreign languages (called gairaigo). For example, "television" is written . Similarly, katakana is usually used for country names, foreign places, and personal names. For example America is written アメリカ Amerika (America also has its own kanji (ateji) or for short, which literally means "Rice Country").
Katakana are also used for onomatopoeia, words used to represent sounds; for example , the "ding-dong" sound of a doorbell, would usually be written in katakana.
Technical and scientific terms, such as the names of animal and plant species and minerals, are also commonly written in katakana.
Katakana are also often, but not always, used for transcription of Japanese company names. For example Suzuki is written スズキ, and Toyota is written トヨタ. Katakana are also used for emphasis, especially on signs, advertisements, and hoardings (i.e., billboards). For example, it is common to see ココ koko ("here"), ゴミ gomi ("trash") or メガネ megane ("glasses"), and words to be emphasized in a sentence are also sometimes written in katakana, mirroring the European usage of italics.
Pre-World War II official documents mix katakana and kanji in the same way that hiragana and kanji are mixed in modern Japanese texts, that is, katakana were used for okurigana and particles such as wa or o.
Katakana were also used for telegrams in Japan before 1988, and for computer systems - before the introduction of multibyte characters - in the 1980s. Most computers in that era used katakana instead of kanji and/or hiragana for output.
Although words borrowed from ancient Chinese are usually written in kanji, loanwords from modern Chinese dialects which are borrowed directly rather than using the Sino-Japanese on'yomi readings, are often written in katakana. Examples include:
  • マージャン (麻將/麻雀), mājan (mahjong); in Mandarin májiàng
  • ウーロン茶 (烏龍茶), ūroncha (Oolong tea), from Mandarin wūlóng
  • チャーハン (炒飯), chāhan (fried rice)
  • チャーシュー (叉焼), chāshū (barbecued pork), from Cantonese cha siu
  • シューマイ (焼売), shūmai (a kind of dim sum), from Cantonese siu maai.
The very common Chinese loanword ラーメン (rāmen) is rarely written with its kanji 拉麺.
There are rare cases where the opposite has occurred, with kanji forms created from words originally written in katakana. An example of this is コーヒー (kōhī), "coffee", which can be alternatively written as 珈琲. This kanji usage is occasionally employed by coffee manufacturers or coffee shops for novelty.
Katakana are sometimes used instead of hiragana as furigana to give the pronunciation of a word written in Roman characters, or for a foreign word, which is written as kanji for the meaning, but intended to be pronounced as the original.
Katakana are also sometimes used to indicate words being spoken in a foreign or otherwise unusual accent, by foreign characters, robots, etc. For example, in a manga, the speech of a foreign character or a robot may be represented by, for example, コンニチワ (konnichiwa, meaning "hello") instead of the more usual hiragana こんにちは (konnichiwa).
Katakana are also used to indicate the on'yomi (Chinese-derived readings) of a kanji in a kanji dictionary.
Some Japanese personal names are written in katakana. This was more common in the past, hence elderly women often have katakana names.
It is very common to write words with difficult-to-read kanji in katakana. This phenomenon is often seen with medical terminology. For example, in the word 皮膚科 hifuka (dermatology), the second kanji, 膚, is considered difficult to read, and thus the word hifuka is commonly written as 皮フ科 or ヒフ科, mixing kanji and katakana. Similarly, difficult-to-read kanji such as 癌 gan (cancer) are often written in katakana or hiragana.
Katakana is also used for traditional musical notations, as in the Tozan-ryū of shakuhachi, and in sankyoku ensembles with koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi.


Foreign phrases are sometimes transliterated with a middle dot called or a space separating the words. However, in cases where it is assumed that the reader knows the separate gairaigo words in the phrase, the middle dot is not used. For example, the phrase コンピュータゲーム ("konpyūta gēmu," or "computer game"), containing two very well-known gairaigo, is not written with a middle dot.
Katakana spelling differs slightly from hiragana. While hiragana spells long vowels with the addition of a second vowel kana, katakana usually uses a vowel extender mark called a chōon. This mark is a short line following the direction of the text, horizontal in yokogaki, or horizontal text, and vertical in tategaki, or vertical text. However, it is more often used when writing foreign loanwords; long vowels in Japanese words written in katakana are usually written as they would be in hiragana. There are exceptions such as ローソク(蝋燭)(rōsoku)(candle) or ケータイ(携帯)(kētai)(mobile phone).
A small tsu ッ called a sokuon indicates a geminate consonant, which is represented in rōmaji by doubling the following consonant. For example, bed is written in katakana as ベッド (beddo).
The sokuon is sometimes used in places which have no equivalent in native sounds. For example, double-h in place of "ch" is common in German names. Bach, for example, comes out as バッハ (Bahha); Mach is マッハ (Mahha). The doubling of the "h" in Bach and Mach (via use of the underlying small tsu) is probably the kana that best fits those German names.
Related sounds in various languages are hard to express in Japanese, so Khrushchev becomes フルシチョフ (Furushichofu). Ali Khamenei is アリー・ハーメネイー (Arī Hāmeneī). The Japanese Wikipedia has references to both イツハク・パールマン (Itsuhaku Pāruman) and イツァーク・パールマン (Itsāku Pāruman), Itzhak Perlman.

Table of katakana

This is a table of katakana together with their Hepburn romanization. Katakana with dakuten or handakuten follow the gojūon kana without them. Characters in red are obsolete, and characters in green are modern additions, used mainly to represent sounds from other languages. Learning to read katakana is often complicated by the similarities between different characters. For example, shi シ and tsu ツ , as well as so ソ and n ン , look very similar in print except for the slant and stroke shape. (These differences in slant and shape are more prominent when written with an ink brush.)
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