The Japanese writing system is quite different from a lot of other languages. It includes three different sets of an alphabet: hiragana (平仮名/ ひらがな), katakana (片仮名/カタカナ), and kanji (漢字). Children are taught the most basic form of writing, hiragana and katakana, in the first years of elementary school, and then move on to kanji, which is becomes more complex and harder in the later school years. All three forms of writing are used together to convey thoughts and ideas.
Hiragana is a simplified version of more complex kanji. There are a total of 48 characters, and the characters either stand for a vowel or a consonant followed by a vowel. Hiragana is used for writing particles, verb and adjective endings, and other words that have no kanji or whose kanji is not common or too hard to remember. Hiragana may also be used as furigana (振り仮名), which is a reading aid for difficult or uncommon kanji or pronunciation of the kanji. To have additional consonant sounds, a dakuten marker ( ゛) or a handakuten marker ( ゜) may be added to the character. For example, は (ha) can change to ば (ba) when a dakuten marker is added, or it can change to ぱ (pa) when a handakuten marker is added. To combine vowel sounds together, a small version of the hiragana is added after the consonant character. An example of this would be: き(ki) → きゃ(kya). The choonpu (―) is used when the vowel sound is longer, but is mostly used with katakana.
Katakana is very similar to hiragana, for it also has 48 characters and the sounds that it represents are the same as hiragana. The same additional marks and smaller forms of the writing apply to katakana as it does with hiragana. However, katakana is used mainly for onomatopoeia, foreign words, or names of certain plants or animals. It is also more rigid in look, with short, straight strokes and sharp corners.
The most complex form of writing is kanji, which includes more than 50,000 different characters, with only about 3,000 in common use. These characters often have two different types of reading, onyomi (a sound) or kunyomi (the meaning). Thus, depending on the context, a kanji character may stand for one vowel or consonant sound or several sounds.
Compared to other languages and the alphabets, Japanese writing may seem hard for some. Clearly, it takes time to learn it, just like any other language, but with practice and determination it can be a fun experience.