The Japanese writing system consists of several thousand kanji, two phonetic alphabets (kana) and a few punctuation marks. Though many thousands of kanji exist, the Japanese government has made an official list of about 1800 characters (the Jooyoo kanji) that are to be used in official publications, newspapers, etc.

Japanese text is traditionally written vertically, from top to bottom, and the columns are read from right to left. Due to the unique structure of the language, minimal punctuation is required. Exceptions to all this are academic publications, technical writings, and some books, which are written from left to right as in Western countries.

Content words are generally written with the appropriate kanji, followed by okurigana if necessary to provide inflection (conjugation). Particles, some pronouns and demonstratives, and certain words (desu, aru, and suru being examples) are always written in kana. The katakana are used to write words of non-Japanese origin and to emphasize words in a text, much like italics in written English.

Japanese punctuation marks include a period, a type of comma, and more recently quotation marks and the exclamation point.

Though 2000 kanji seems an intimidating number for the student of Japanese to learn, the first 1000 characters are sufficient to read almost 80% of written Japanese you're likely to encounter on a day-to-day basis. Knowing all 1800-some kanji on the official list will bring you up to 90% or so in terms of being able to read frequently-encountered characters. Although all kanji pretty much look similar and unintelligible to the uninitiated, the presence of radicals and repeated graphemes make learning them proceed fairly quickly after the first 500 or so.

Many characters that are used predominantly in names are not on the official list, and many of these are not generally used in ordinary writing; these characters must be learned as you meet people and read.

As far as the pronunciation of Japanese text goes, you have to learn the readings of the kanji as well. Publications for children often have hurigana, which are small kana written above each kanji to indicate the reading.

And of course, Japanese text is written in different styles, including a cursive style, a block style, and a typed style. There is also the famous calligraphy (shodo).