I take it that only a few members here know more than a few Japanese words - sushi, sashimi, tsunami and the inevitable knife stuff like nakiri, kasumi, sujihiki etc. In fact you probably know more knife words than other words in Japanese! Anyway, despite spending over 2 years in Japan I'm not really that different as I used English at home and work, and it was also more than 10 years ago. I know a bit of Nihon-go, but would like to learn a bit more - especially knife-related these days - and so was wondering if anyone could contribute to a thread on how to decipher a bit of what those etchings on our knives say? (Or stones...? and so on.) Maybe this kind of stuff hasn't been posted much before and could be useful.
First of all, I can contribute this: I'm not sure how many people are actually aware that Japanese traditionally uses 3 different scripts, of which kanji is just one. Sometimes people post things like, 'I can't read kanji.' However, I'm not completely sure if this means that they can read the 2 other main scripts, hiragana and katakana, or not. Probably not, I'd guess.
They're not that tough to tell apart, with a little practice, and they have different roles. Kanji is the most complex-looking one, Chinese characters that began to be used in Japan a couple thousand years ago, for example: 漢字 (kanji), 日本 (Japan), 東京 (Tokyo), 堺市 (Sakai), 重房 (Shigefusa). They're terribly complex and can mean different things, with many/most characters having more than 1 pronunciation, I believe. I only know a few of these - and for good reason as it's an absolute mess. Unfortunately, these are what we usually find on knives, they give the maker's name, and so I try to recognise them a bit.
Hiragana is the best-looking script, I think. It's less complex than kanji and is kind of loopy: ひらがな (hiragana), おさか (Osaka), はもの (hamono). It's generally used phonetically, which makes it way easier to learn, with each character usually representing one Japanese 'sound', such as ひ (hi) ら (ra) が (ga) な (na). Hiragana's used to represent hard kanji and for grammar, etc. You don't really see it on knives, though.
Then there's katakana, the simplest-looking script; straighter lines than hiragana. It's basically always phonetic and matches the Japanese sounds as hiragana usually does too: ナイフ (knife or 'na-i-fu'), キッチェン (kitchen or 'kii-chi-n'). This is the script I learned first as most words recently imported into the Japanese language are written in katakana. Very helpful when doing grocery shopping and reading labels, for example, even if the Japan-ised version of a word is a bit different. (Canned tuna, I remember, isn't called 'tuna' in Japanese but シーチキン or 'shiichikin' - 'sea chicken' - which I always thought was hilarious.)
(Incidentally, romanji - our roman alphabet - is used quite a lot in Japan. Indo-Arabic numerals - 1,2,3... - are probably more common than their kanji equivalents.)
Here's some useful kanji as an example: 白 is white and 青 is blue, while 一 is 1 and 二 is 2, and so if you see 白 and 二 you can pretty much be sure a knife is shirogami #2. With katakana you might see スウェーデン which is pronounced as 'sue-de-n' and so you know you've got Swedish steel. Or you might see a kanji/katakana combo like 青紙スーパー 鋼 which contains the 'blue' kanji and also the katakana スーパー or 'suu-paa', and so you know you're got Aogami Super steel.
Hope this is interesting/useful. Please post if you have something to add.