Japanese characters may look mysterious and impenetrable to the uninitiated - but we'll show in a few examples that they are not at all difficult to understand.
The characters are not just random strokes; each is a picture, and has a meaning based on the content of the picture.
The Japanese write their language with ideograms they borrowed from China nearly two thousand years ago. Some two thousand years before that, the ancient Chinese had formed these ideograms, or characters, from pictures of things they knew. The sun looked like ☀, so that became the written word for "sun." This form was gradually squared off and simplified to make it easier to write, changing its shape to 日. This is still the way the word "sun" is written in both China and Japan today.
The ancient Chinese first drew a tree like 🌳. This was also gradually simplified and squared to 木, which became the written word for "tree." To form the word for "root" or "origin," the Chinese just drew in more roots at the bottom of the tree to emphasize this portion of the picture, then squared and simplified the character to 本. This became the written word for "root" or "origin."
When the characters for sun 日 and origin 本 are put together, they form the written word 日本, which literally means "origin of the sun."
A picture of the sun in the east at sunrise coming up behind a tree forms the written word for "east" 東. A picture of the stone lantern that guarded each ancient Chinese capital, squared off and simplified to abstract form 京, forms the written word for "capital." These two characters put together in a compound, form the written word 東京 "Eastern capital," or "Tokyo."
The Japanese written language contains a number of characters, but fortunately not as many as Westerners often assume. To graduate from grammar school, and to be considered literate, a student must know about nine hundred characters. A high-school graduate must add about a thousand to that. To read college-level textbooks, knowledge of about three thousand characters is necessary.
The secret is that all these thousands of characters are built up from less than three hundred elements, or pictures, many of which are seldom used. Once you learn the most frequently used elements, you will not only know a number of common characters - since some of the elements are characters themselves - but will be able to learn many more characters simply by recombining the elements in different patterns.