In its written form, the Japanese language is one of the most interesting but potentially intimidating languages for a Westerner to learn. For languages that only use the standard 26 letter Latin alphabet, written Japanese has no common ground on which to compare or learn from.
There are three different "alphabets" or character sets used in written Japanese, they are: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. The first two are collectively known as kana and each set consists of 46 characters with each symbol representing a single syllable. The third set of Japanese characters is a very large set of symbols called Japanese Kanji.
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Estimates vary on exactly how many Kanji are in existence, but the total is over 5000 symbols. The Japanese did not have a formal system of writing over 2000 years ago so they adopted Kanji from the Chinese language. Many of the Kanji were changed and over the years many of the Kanji characters fell out of common usage.
In an attempt to simplify the system, the Japanese government has compiled a list of 1945 Kanji that are considered the 'essential Kanji characters'. To be fully proficient in reading and writing Japanese one needs to know the kana and this list of nearly 2000 Kanji characters, although many native Japanese do not learn them all until nearing completion of high school.
Unlike the kana which are single syllables, each Kanji represents whole words or parts of words. Many of the Kanji are picture-like in design and many of the characters represent the words that they actually look like, for example, the Kanji symbol for 'two' is two horizontal lines, the Kanji symbol for 'tree' looks very much like a tree. This helps for the beginner that wants to get off to a good start but the picture learning is just that, a start.