This enlightening bit of trivia comes from The Japan SAQ (Seldom Asked Questions):

Q.  If there is a waiting list in a restaurant, Japanese people write their names on it not in kanji or hiragana (how they would usually write their name if you asked them to), but in katakana.  Why is this?  I’ve heard that it is considered less personal to use katakana, but I do not understand why.  (I can understand that kana is less personal than kanji, but why katakana not hiragana?)–Question submitted by Tim Gershon

A.  Actually, it’s all about legibility.  Katakana, being stark and angular, is easier to read than hiragana.  Hiragana, being curvy and loopy is easily distorted and a lot of people have idiosyncratic ways of writing it.  When they write characters using straight lines, it makes word much more legible. It’s the same reason that people are asked to print rather than write when filling out forms using English.

(Via MetaFilter.)

Addendum. Joe Tomei in the comments has provided an excellent Hiragana & Katakana site that has tables showing more features and forms of both systems than I ever knew existed. Check it out.


  1. I’m puzzled by this explanation. I can certainly see how writing the name in kanji would be difficult to read, but the differences in legibility between hiragana and katakana are so minor as to be insignificant to my, admittedly not very well-trained, eye.

  2. I don’t buy it either. I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule, but writing a name in hiragana would imply that’s how it’s really supposed to be written; writing it in katakana implies “I really use kanji ordinarily to write my name, but for the sake of readability, I’ll use kana.” People can write any Japanese character clearly or not, it has nothing to do with the nature of the character, and has everything to do with the writer’s haste.
    There are some given names for women that are written partly or completely in hiragana. And of course, the costume designer Emi Wada chooses to write her entire name in katakana all the time…

  3. So are you guys denying that people do in fact write their names in katakana under those circumstances, or are you saying there’s another explanation?

  4. I’m not denying or confirming it, as I’ve never observed the practice, but I’m saying that if it happens, that’s why it happens.

  5. I don’t have any firsthand experience to draw on, so I can’t say unequivocally that this explanation is bogus. I’m just saying that using katakana to write something that would be equally legible in hiragana strikes me as a weird affectation rather than anything that’s being done out of necessity.
    For example, signs in Tokyo train stations have the names of each stop printed in kanji with hiragana underneath so children can read them. Therefore, the argument that people would use katakana because it makes their name more legible doesn’t make any sense to me.
    On preview, what Adam said.

  6. But the signs are printed. The Q&A’s point is that handwritten hiragana is harder to read. No idea whether it’s true, but that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

  7. It is not a legivility between kanji, hiragana and katakana. It is a case of custermar is considerate. It is more convinience for attendee to call custermaer’s name accurately. If attendee read someone’s kanji differently, waiting custermar cannot notice own name. If emphasize are on the pronounciation usually use katakana not hiragana.

  8. dungbeattle says

    Back in the late 1970’s I was involved in making a credit card “early computer discrete components creater” and in order to sell it in Japan it used Katakana. When it was up and running, I showed it off to a Japanese Co. Leader. Like the the Idiot that I am, not having any thing to copy, I proceeded to type the CC as if it was in English using my own data. When the honorable gentleman read this fake Card there was that smile not a smile. He never did say anything, but did buy the device for production in Japan.

  9. I tend to concur with dd’s explanation, in that I suspect that the use of katakana isn’t really because it’s more readable than hiragana; of course, both could be written in an equally legible fashion (and with equal speed).
    I imagine it came to be used on waiting lists as a way for guests to say “since you may not know the reading for my name, I’ll do you the courtesy of showing you how it’s pronounced.” Since katakana is used for lots of onomatopoetic words and hence places emphasis on the sound of the word, its use in this case would probably reinforce its interpretation as a courtesy…
    … is my guess.

  10. I think that there are multiple self reinforcing reasons, so it’s reductive to say that _the_ reason is X. Katakana is like block printing (please write in block letters is often on English forms), so the impression of clarity is certainly related to that. Check out this site and compare legibility of hiragana and katakana ‘maru-moji’ fonts. It may not seem like a big difference, but it is like the difference between block and cursive. There are differences that are obscured in katakana (n/so, u/ku/fu) but one does have to write katakana more slowly.
    Katakana is also used I think because the traditional use of katakana is to assist in pronunciation (in Buddhist texts called kanamajiri) While the current ‘readings'(furigana) are in a sense ‘pronunciations’ written in hiragana, I think that this is because katakana is emphatic (per Brian’s post) and to use it for furigana is akin to saying ‘hey, I know you don’t understand this’ rather than ‘for the one or two of you who don’t know how this is read…’ .
    In addition, on forms, one is generally asked to write katakana above their name for dealing with pronunciation.
    Adam notes that some women’s names are written in hiragana, but this is not a rule, just fashion. About 15 years ago, when I was single and living in Sendai and would go out to various bars, often, if the mama-san of the bar was on the other side of 50, her work name would be in katakana. It was rather common for women to have katakana names before the war.

  11. Fascinating! We’ve not only cleared up the original question but learned something about bar sociology. Thanks, Joe!

  12. Why have the katakana / hiragana distinction at all? **Can of worms opens.**
    I was told once that hiragana was more for foreign words and feminine things, and that perhaps there’s a relation to the “women’s language” of urban legend.
    Regarding the Japanese “women’s language”, the very existence of which has been questioned here, it could be that it’s just what we call a “femme” way of talking just as in the US — as parodied by drag queens or comedians.
    I was told by a Chinese in Taiwan that the “ne” final particle was mostly used by women; someone else explained that this is because it can be used for timidly making suggestions, or for complaining in a sort of pitiful way.

  13. Just to root around zizka’s can o’ worms, the original distinction between katakana and hiragana is that katakana was a scholarly device, and so it was probably inevitable to think of it as ‘guy stuff’.
    I’m undecided about women’s language being urban legend. I think we underestimate the amount of separation between the sexes and the remarkable progress in that area. The idea that women required chaperones is not so long ago in American culture. A number of Australian languages have a separate women’s language that has taken a while to discover, in part because women are better at keeping their mouth shut when linguists come calling. (there was also a huge row about the existence of women’s language in Australia when it was invoked to oppose the construction of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge, a really fascinating study that doesn’t yield simple answers)
    One of the big complaints about the strict division of Chinese characters/men, hiragana/women is that it often assumes that the women didn’t have any facility with the men’s language. Yet for women to teach male children, they must have been fluent in both types of language. This is something that is often not noted, that anytime you have a gendered distinction in the language, you are underlining the fact that women have to know the distinctions.
    One more distinction between katakana and hiragana is that katakana are partial, in that they only use a portion of the kanji, while hiragana are simplified versions of the full character. I leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions about what this says about the two sexes.
    This page has some hentaigana, which were phased out during Meiji (page is in Japanese and am trying html in comments again, LH had to fix up my first attempt, but I put the url just in case
    and there are some interesting appendices in O’Neil’s _Reader of Handwritten Japanese_ showing variants that clearly illustrate how the katakana are really just parts of the kanji whose sounds they take.

  14. I wasn’t really referring to scientific questions of “women’s languages”, but the anecdote about a man who learned Japanese from his girlfriend and ended up talking like a girl.
    It’s never taught in school, but there are quite a few expressions mostly used by women. Most people can’t specify what these words are, and besides that men frequently use women’s language in special ways (drag queens, flaming gay men, comedians, and most annoyingly, Donald Rumsfeld.) But almost everyone notices mistakes, and a 15 year old boy who really doesn’t understand the rules will have problems.
    If you take the American case and intensify it, you can see how a guy who talked like a Japanese girl would have problems.

  15. Sorry about that, zizka, still haven’t gotten the hang of reading comment threads. Yes, I think you are right, and it is just a case where a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind. The example I remember of that was Jack Seward’s book _Japanese in Action_ where he talks about a black serviceman who learned all his Japanese from his Japanese girlfriend (from Akita?) and ended up speaking the women’s version of a very difficult accent. The book is really dated, but quite interesting.
    Of course, women/men’s language is just one of the barriers. Oftentimes people who study Japanese and learn it very well often find that their use of masu/desu forms often puts distance between them and Japanese, whereas people who learn Japanese in a naturalistic setting tend to use the informal more often and often get closer to Japanese people they get to know. I noticed this a lot on the JET program.
    On the other hand, the reverse problem occurs in the raising of bi-lingual children here in Japan, in that a lot of parents have their children go to international schools, where they are taught in English and speak Japanese at home. Unfortunately, the children’s English is good, but they lack exposure to keigo and polite Japanese because the bulk of their input occurs within the family, which is not going to use polite language. Of course, the reason is that the parents want to give as broad a range of possibilities to their kids, and graduating from an international school generally means they can attend uni in either Japan or in English speaking countries. But having a 16 year old addressing a 45 year old on a first meeting with perfectly fluent, but very informal Japanese can often lead to greater misunderstandings.
    Getting back to women/men language, I’d like to think that the difference here is becoming blurred, but seeing the socialization patterns (my daughter is 4 and goes to a Japanese youchien) makes me see that language is just an outward manifestation of a really deep process of gender separation that occurs here.

  16. This is fascinating to me — I’ve had that book Japanese in Action for years and often quote it, but I figured it must be getting out of date, so it’s great to get a contemporary take on things. (Is that where I got the story about the guy taking great pains to learn the kanji for ringo ‘apple’ only to discover nobody ever used it?)
    That “deep process of gender separation” is one of the things that bothers me about Japanese culture (and, of course, others), and I hope it’s being eroded. Life would be much better if men and women could manage to get along as members of more or less the same species.

  17. My experiences with the American gendere system leave me reluctant to criticize any other system.
    When I went to high school one of the teachers was a friend of my parents’ named Paul. I learned very quickly to call him “Mr. Jorgenson”.
    Alternative politeness — once I refused to buy cigarettes for an sweet, ingratiating, underage skateboarder who called me “sir”. His response to my refusal was “Fuck you, nature boy”. Being called “Sir” already made me uneasy before that.

  18. About six of the katakana are common, easily-recognizable standard Chinese graphs, and not a single one of them had anything even resembling the Chinese pronunciation.

  19. Back to the original topic, my interpretation is:
    Writing your name in hiragana looks childish, like a kid at primary school who writes in hiragana because he can’t write kanji yet. That alone would make people want to write in katakana.

  20. Found a site with the Chinese characters that are the origin for kana. For katakana
    and for hiragana
    Go up the url for more interesting stuff.
    There’s also a ‘katakana’ for Chinese called bopomofo or zhuyin fuhao which was created by Chinese intellectuals in 1912. Many of them were educated in Japan and influenced by the idea of furigana, developed a system that is still used in Taiwan. It’s rather disorienting because some of the graphs are identical to Japanese katakana, others look like English letters, but the sound values are completely unrelated

  21. I LOVE bopomofo, which incidentally has a formal name which no one uses (bopomofo is what you say in kindergarten, sort of like “a-b-c’s” for “alphabet”). Whenever you come across a rare character in Chinese you don’t feel good until you know its pronunciation. But often the meaning is irrelevant (e.g. in proper names) and it’s a waste of time looking it up. Furthermore, if you have to look up a word bopomofo tells you where. I own a number of Chinese classics in this format.

  22. I thought I might just put this link in here for Glossika since we got onto Taiwan. It has some Taiwanese (not Mandarin) language learning audio files and such plus ambitions for teaching Wu, Yue and other languages in China.

  23. That’s a great site, jobson — thanks!

  24. Joe is on the money. Zizka is off on one point: hiragana is not used for foreign words: katakana is used for western loan words (as opposed to Chinese loan words, which are written in kanji of course) except those few that have been so completely adopted into the language that they are written in hiragana or even kanji; eg tabako (tobacco, usually ??? but occasionally ??), shingou (signal, ??), tenpura (from the Portuguese tempere, I think, and often written in a combo of kanji and hiragana: ???). Etc.
    On preview: LH, you might want to consider changing the default encoding of your blog to UTF-8. You’ll need to edit the mt.cfg file to do this.

  25. xiaolongnu says

    While we’re on the subject of gendered language, it’s worth making a distinction between gendered speech and gendered writing systems. It’s well known that women’s writing in Heian Japan was generally done in kana rather than kanji, as you can tell from Sei Shonagon always kvetching about how people give her a hard time for using (and even knowing) Chinese characters, thought inappropriate for women. The contribution of Heian noblewomen to the development of Japanese vernacular literature is of course well documented. But it’s less well known that in a particular region of south China there’s a women’s script called nushu (“women’s script;” that first u should have an umlaut but I can’t figure out how to do it) which was used to negotiate relationships of friendship and sisterhood between women and which really wasn’t read at all by the men. There’s a recent book on the subject, I think also titled “Nushu.”
    Slightly off topic: LH, I have the summary of this weekend’s conference paper but it keeps getting bounced from your mailbox, which the mailer-daemon claims is full. E-mail me and let me know what to do with it (and then you can delete this part of the comment).

  26. Yikes! Thanks for the heads-up; I’ve been allowing the mailbox to go untended, unaware that it was filling up (at least YahooMail lets you know). I was also unaware that when I send mail from the inbox to the trash it’s not deleted but sits there in the trash folder. When I visited the latter for the first time, I found thousands of messages, mostly spam, many quite large. I clicked on “all” and hit the trashcan image, and they all went bye-bye. So retry sending me the message; I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
    Oh, and for an umlauted vowel you prepose & and postpose uml; and the magic of HTML renders it thus: ü

  27. alex marie sordia says

    how do I write my name in katakana

  28. Please send me Candice Pearsall spelled in katakana and the symbol for her name thank you

  29. David Rees-Thomas says

    Just stumbled across this thread whilst pretty much stumbling around the Japanese language!! Very interesting. It has been bothering me for quite a while why the E on the Ebisu beer can looked so odd but now that I realise it is actually an old WE I feel that I have made another small step in my rather long journey in understanding!! Cheers!

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