Hey, how'd I let this one go untouched for so long? Of all the misconceptions about the Japanese language, "three writing systems" has got to be the most widespread, even among people who really should know better. Lately the meme has been working overtime on this Slashdot thread – which is so all-round packed with misconceptions about Japanese that my head gets all asplodey just trying to keep track.
I'll stick to addressing just one mistake here. The question to be answered is: How many writing systems does Japanese use?
And the answer is: ONE.
Yes, whatever you may have heard, Japanese does not use "three writing systems". It uses precisely one. No more, no fewer.
"Huh? There are three: Kanji, then hiragana, then katakana.. That's three writing syst..."
Writing systems are a big fat topic, and a primer on the Japanese or any other writing system is a fine topic for a whole book. For purposes of this short article, here's the packed-in-a-nutshell point I want to get across:
A writing system will contain multiple character sets, and that's where the mistaken "three" comes in. The character sets found in Japanese do indeed include the three mentioned above: Chinese characters (aka kanji), and then home-grown phonetic characters called kana. The latter come in two variants, hiragana and katakana. Staying within my really cramped nutshell, hiragana is the original and generally "standard" set of characters used to write Japanese phonetically, and katakana is a later-developed set whose usages include (but are not limited to) writing foreign words and indicating emphasis.
All right, all right, so the claims of "three writing systems" should simply be changed to "three character sets". Make that pedantic little change, and it's perfectly okay to speak of the difficulty of Japanese's three character sets vs English's one character set. Right, Mr Picky Home Japan Guy?
Nope. Still wrong.
Japanese uses more than three character sets! On top of those kanji and kana, we naturally have to add a full set of punctuation and typographic symbols (which includes some symbols taken from European languages). Then there's the set of Arabic numerals; gotta include those!
Are there other character sets I'm failing to mention? Linguists might divide the punctuation and typographic symbols into two or more sets; I leave that to them. I'll suggest, though, that you might want to include the Latin alphabet (aka the Roman alphabet, or romaji in Japanese) as yet another character set within Japanese! I know, that may sound funny, but literally everyone literate in Japan learns the Latin alphabet, and really, those letters are plastered everywhere in Japan in acronyms, company and product names, English words... Frankly, if you somehow didn't know the alphabet from chicken scratch, I think you'd have a hard time getting by in Japan!
Anyway. Wow. Add them up, and that's a lot of character sets in one writing system! Japanese sure is special... Or is it? By way of comparison, let's ask the obvious question: How many character sets are there in the English writing system?
Well. If you're still breathing, you clearly didn't answer "uh, one?" (because if you had, my hands would have popped out of your screen to strangle you). Just like Japanese, English uses multiple character sets. Let's count:
We start with that famed Latin alphabet. But be careful how you count: there are two variants, upper case and lower case. (Think you could read an English book if you only knew one set? You couldn't.)
Go ahead, bring on the objection: "But those are just two versions of the same character set!" That's true, they are, with each character in one set having a corresponding partner in the other set. But that's equally true for hiragana and katakana! If upper and lower case count as only one character set, then the two variants of kana also count as one set. So, one or two? You make the call if you like, but you have to be even-handed about it.
Sorry, back to the topic. In the English writing system, we then have a set (or sets?) of punctuation and typographic symbols, plus, once again, those Arabic numerals. So by my count, that's at least four character sets in English, right there.
Actually, for both Japanese and English, we could keep on going. How about basic mathematical symbols (if those aren't already included in typographic symbols)? Likewise, if you studied even a smidgen of math or sciences under either language, you'll have at least a little recognition of the Greek letter set. Moving on from there, how about the smilies or emoji of modern digital communication? Moreover, do basic musical notes – pretty much universally recognized as such, even by complete non-musicians – count as yet another character set a typical person will know a tiny bit of?
You get the picture. We all use lots of character sets. But however you count them, the multiple character sets that are recognized as "part of" a given language combine to form ONE writing system for that language.
Taking the discussion back to Japanese, the inclusion of thousands of Chinese characters as one of its component character sets adds a lot of complexity and richness to the Japanese writing system. That particular character set definitely isn't part of the English writing system, and that does make for a very real difference! Further, the way the Chinese characters work within Japanese, and how they interact with the kana character set(s), is interesting stuff.
But that's all interesting stuff for later. For now, let's wrap this up with a repetition of the short, simple point. We'll say it all together now: "Japanese has ONE writing system."