Kanji is one form of Japanese writing. They are often referred to as Chinese characters. The word kanji is written 漢字. 漢 means Han or Chinese and 字 means character. Kanji characters are logographs which means that each character represents an idea. Some examples include: 田 = rice field, 川 = river, and 山 = mountain. This is unlike Hiragana and Katakana, which are the other two Japanese writing systems. Hiragana and Katakana do not have any meaning on their own but are used for children, grammar and to write non-Japanese words, respectively. An example of Hiragana is あめ, or “a me”, which can mean rain (雨) or candy (飴) when written with kanji. An example of Katakana is アメリカ, or ” a me ri ka”, which means America and can not be written in Kanji. (BTW: 米国 “bei koku” is how Japanese write America in kanji.)
There are 2,136 kanji that you must know in order to read Japanese, especially a novel or newspaper. These characters are known as Jōyō kanji. They are taught to all Japanese children. Elementary school students learn 1,006 of them and the other 1,130 are taught in secondary school. These are the characters that non-Japanese speakers must study to become literate in Japanese.
The total number of kanji is not known but some believe that there are as many as 50,000 kanji. Most native Japanese speakers do not know this many. Fortunately, as mentioned above you only need to study 2,136 to be fluent.
A Brief History
Kanji was brought to Japan in the 5th century and was used for diplomatic correspondence with China. At that time Japan had no written language. Empress Suiko sent diplomats to China in the early 600’s and this led to increased Chinese literacy in the Japanese court. A system was created to allow the correspondences the be read and understood in Japanese. This system was necessary because the grammar of the Japanese language was very different from Chinese and they needed a way to be able to translate.
Kanji characters were transformed to create the other two writing forms in Japanese: hiragana and katakana. In modern Japanese hiragana is used to support grammar and word forms. 食べる, or “I eat.” and 食べた “I ate.” are visibly different. This is one simple way to show how Hiragana is often used.
Last note: This is a living document. I plan to update and refine it over time so I would appreciate any feedback that you could give! Thanks!
Last edit: 4/20/2012 3am Tokyo Time.