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Every Japanese child begins to learn to read and write by learning two syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. Both syllabaries contain 48 syllables or sounds. In theory, every Japanese word can be expressed in either hiragana or katakana but, in practice, this is unworkable: Since there are so many homophones in the Japanese language, ideographs (characters) are essential to the comprehension of a written phrase. Katakana is used when writing foreign words arranged in Japanese syllables – e.g. gu/ra/su (glass) – and for certain Japanese dialect and onomatopoeic words. Hiragana is used for some Japanese words and, most importantly, for the inflexions that constitute Japanese grammar. Japanese children begin by reading simple passages written in hiragana only (with katakana where appropriate). After the first year of school, they are rapidly introduced, in a systematic way, to ideographs. By the time they leave school, they know all the standard ideographs and use hiragana only for inflexion and so on. In recent years the number of ideographs in general use has been gradually reduced to around 2,000. Whenever old or non-standard ideographs are used in books or newspapers (full dictionaries list some 40,000 ideographs), the publishers often place hiragana beside them as a guide to the correct reading.
The contents of this site are excerpted from THE OFFICIAL RECORD OF TIME CAPSULE EXPO'70(March 1975). Please note that company and organization names may differ from those of the current ones.
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