Kanji are Chinese characters which the Japanese borrowed about 1600 years ago, via Korea, to write their language. Each character is a word with a meaning; in Japanese, the characters are used mostly to write nouns and the stems of verbs, proper names, etc. Today the Japanese use roughly 2,000 of the existing 50,000 or so Chinese characters. Hiragana and katana were derived from the kanji but are syllabaries, i.e., each symbol is a full syllable (ka, shi, na, hu, etc.), and there are just under 50 signs in both hiragana and katakana. Basically, hiragana is used to write everything that's not in kanji, i.e., all kinds of words but especially verb endings, grammatical particles, and words for which people don't bother to write the kanji. Katakana is used mostly for foreign words, but also for the names of plants and animals and as we would use Italics. All three, plus the Roman alphabet, are used to write Japanese, and you have to know all three to be literate in Japanese.
· 1 decade ago