General term for a number of syllabic writing systems developed in Japan, all based on Chinese characters (kanji), used to express the sounds of Japanese rather than the meanings of individual words. Since kana can express all the sounds of Japanese, the language can be written entirely in kana. However, the normal practice is to use a mixture of Chinese characters and kana; the Chinese characters are used to express the meanings of most words (from which the pronunciation can be inferred) and the kana to write inflectional endings, grammatical particles, and certain words officially designated to be written in characters. Two sets of kana are used in the present-day Japanese writing system: hiragana, a cursive form (and the one commonly used for native words and any words of Chinese origin not to be written in characters), and katakana, a noncursive form. The latter is most typically used to write loanwords from other languages, for emphasis, or for representation of onomatapoeic words, thus performing functions similar to the use of italics in Western orthography. Both katakana and hiragana both derive from an earlier set of kana known as man'yōgana. (adapted from Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1993)
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