Shwa for Japanese
日本語のためのシュワー

I don't have to explain to you that Japanese writing is crazy - you learned that in school. There are more than 20,000 kanji, but we only use about 6,000-7,000, and the average person only knows about 3,000. Each kanji has several readings, both onyomi and kunyomi, and each reading has many kanji, so the writing system doesn't really record spoken Japanese - it's almost a different language. For instance, when we read a passage aloud, we often need to add additional explanation.

In addition, we use hiragana, katakana and rōmaji because the kanji can't write okurigana, joshi, gairaigo, and even many Japanese words and names. But why do we need all three phonetic alphabets when only one would be enough? The answer is "history", but we don't still wear kimono and geta, even though those are historic, too!

It has been estimated that it takes a Japanese student two full extra years of school to learn how to write his native language, compared to students in other countries. Those are two years in which we could be learning science, or engineering, or even a foreign language, to help Japan become a great country. Instead, we are wasting our time memorizing Chinese characters!

And think how convenient it would be if we shared a script with foreigners. When we travel abroad, we could read names like Louvre, Παρθενών, Эрмитаж, الأقصر, and ताजमहल. And foreigners (and schoolchildren) could read the names of buildings and train stations all over Japan.

People say that we need the kanji because so many Japanese words sound alike. For example, the word yōshi means

So if we don't use kanji, how will we tell these words apart? The answer is: we will tell them apart in writing the same way we tell them apart in speech, using context. Many other languages, like French for example, also have many homophones, and they still write with a phonetic script! But if using a phonetic script brings written Japanese closer to spoken Japanese, that is only a good thing.

Some people are worried that if we don't write kanji, we will lose the connection between onyomi and kunyomi, that people won't realize that the Seikan Tunnel is named from the first kanji of Aomori and Hakodate. But the same phenomenon occurs in English without kanji, where people have to know that the adjective for dogs is canine, and the adjective for seas is marine.

If we are going to write with a phonetic script, why don't we just use one of the existing kana? Two reasons: first, it doesn't help us communicate with foreigners, and second, the kana aren't actually very good at writing Japanese! Consider the word kyakkō 脚光, which would be written きゃっこう in hiragana, even though it's only two syllables (and two characters in kanji). Between chōon, dakuon, yōon and sokuon, there are too many awkward mechanisms: we deserve a better script! Even Hebon-shiki would be better than kana, but Shwa is better still.

One of the most unusual aspects of our current writing system is that it employs 4 different scripts - kanji, katakana, hiragana and romaji, each in particular contexts. But Shwa uses one gait for all of these, the Syllabary gait (which is like our kana).

Shwa Moji

Here are all the Shwa letters you need to write Japanese, called 文字 moji:

i e a o u i̥ u̥
b d dz dj g :
p t ts ch k '
ph s sh ç h
m n ng ɴ
r z y w .

As in Hebon-shiki, the letters show the sounds as they are pronounced.

Here are some hints for the vowels, shown on the top row :

The consonants change to show their actual pronunciation :

This is a level of spelling which is closer to speech than the current Japanese writing, so it takes some getting used to. Shwa Kana

Japanese is normally written in the Syllabary gait. Here is a chart of all the Shwa kana, with low vowels :

And here is the same chart with high vowels :

In addition to these kana, Japanese text in Shwa uses moji for the mikan, the sokuon, and the chōonpu. These half-width symbols highlight the cases when a new mora is not a new syllable. Moji is also used when a word starts with a vowel.

Now that you've learned the script, why don't you try reading a sentence?

犬も歩けば棒に当たる


© 2002-2017 Shwa shwa@shwa.org 16may17