How to Write in Japanese – A Beginner’s Guide

how to write in japaneseDo you want to learn how to write in Japanese, but feel confused or intimidated by the script?

This post will break it all down for you, in a step-by-step guide to reading and writing this beautiful language.

I remember when I first started learning Japanese and how daunting the writing system seemed. I even wondered whether I could get away without learning the script altogether and just sticking with romaji (writing Japanese with the roman letters).

I’m glad I didn’t.

If you’re serious about learning Japanese, you have to get to grips with the script sooner or later. If you don’t, you won’t be able to read or write anything useful, and that’s no way to learn a language.

The good news is that it isn’t as hard as you think. And I’ve teamed up with my friend Luca Toma (who’s also a Japanese coach) to bring you this comprehensive guide to reading and writing Japanese.

If you have a friend who’s learning Japanese, you might like to share it with them. Now, let’s get stuck in…

One language, two systems, three scripts

If you are a complete beginner, Japanese writing may appear just like Chinese.

But if you look at it more carefully you’ll notice that it doesn’t just contain complex Chinese characters… there are lots of simpler ones too.

Take a look.

それでも、日本人食生活急速変化してきていますハンバーグカレーライス子供に人気がありますし、都会ではイタリア料理、東南アジア料理、多国籍料理などをエスニック料理店がどんどんえています

Nevertheless, the eating habits of Japanese people are also rapidly changing. Hamburgers and curry rice are popular with children. In cities, ethnic restaurants serving Italian cuisine, Southeast Asian cuisine and multi-national cuisine keep increasing more and more.

(Source: “Japan: Then and Now”, 2001, p. 62-63)

As you can see from this sample, within one Japanese text there are actually three different scripts intertwined. We’ve colour coded them to help you tell them apart.

(What’s really interesting is the different types of words – parts of speech – represented by each colour – it tells you a lot about what you use each of the three scripts for.)

Can you see the contrast between complex characters (orange) and simpler ones (blue and green)?

The complex characters are called kanji (漢字 lit. Chinese characters) and were borrowed from Chinese. They are what’s called a ‘logographic system’ in which each symbol corresponds to a block of meaning (食 ‘to eat’, 南 ‘south’, 国 ‘country’).

Each kanji also has its own pronunciation, which has to be learnt – you can’t “read” an unknown kanji like you could an unknown word in English.

Luckily, the other two sets of characters are simpler!

Those in blue above are called hiragana and those in green are called katakana. They’re both examples of ‘syllabic systems’, and unlike the kanji, each sound corresponds to single sound. For example, そ= so, れ= re; イ= i, タ = ta.

Hiragana and katakana are a godsend for Japanese learners because the pronunciation isn’t a problem. If you see it, you can say it!

So, at this point, you’re probably wondering:

“What’s the point of using three different types of script? How could that have come about?”

In fact, all these scripts have a very specific role to play in a piece of Japanese writing, and you’ll find that they all work together in harmony in representing the Japanese language in a written form.

So let’s check them out in more detail.

First up, the two syllabic systems: hiragana and katakana (known collectively as kana).

The ‘kana’ – one symbol, one sound

Both hiragana and katakana have a fixed number of symbols: 46 characters in each, to be precise.

Each of these corresponds to a combination of the 5 Japanese vowels (a, i, u, e o) and the 9 consonants (k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w).

hiragana katakana comparison chart

(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Hiragana (the blue characters in our sample text) are recognizable for their roundish shape and you’ll find them being used for three functions in Japanese writing:

1. Particles (used to indicate the grammatical function of a word)

は     wa     topic marker

が     ga     subject marker

を     wo     direct object marker

2. To change the meaning of verbs, adverbs or adjectives, which generally have a root written in kanji. (“Inflectional endings”)

急速     kyuusoku ni      rapidly

えています     fuete imasu     are increasing

3. Native Japanese words not covered by the other two scripts

それでも     soredemo     nevertheless

どんどん     dondon     more and more

Katakana (the green characters in our sample text) are recognisable for their straight lines and sharp corners. They are generally reserved for:

1. Loanwords from other languages. See what you can spot!

ハンバーグ     hanbaagu     hamburger

カレーライス     karee raisu     curry rice

エスニック     esunikku     ethnic

2. Transcribing foreign names

イタリア     itaria     Italy

アジア     ajia     Asia

They are also used for emphasis (the equivalent of italics or underlining in English), and for scientific terms (plants, animals, minerals, etc.).

So where did hiragana and katakana come from?

In fact, they were both derived from kanji which had a particular pronunciation; Hiragana took from the Chinese cursive script  (安 an →あ a), whereas katakana developed from single components of the regular Chinese script (阿 a →ア a ).

japanese kana development chart

(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

So that covers the origins the two kana scripts in Japanese, and how we use them.

Now let’s get on to the fun stuff… kanji!

The kanji – one symbol, one meaning

Kanji – the most formidable hurdle for learners of Japanese!

We said earlier that kanji is a logographic system, in which each symbol corresponds to a “block of meaning”.

食     eating

生     life, birth

活     vivid, lively

“Block of meaning” is the best phrase, because one kanji is not necessarily a “word” on its own.

You might have to combine one kanji with another in order to make an actual word, and also to express more complex concepts:

生 + 活   =   生活     lifestyle

食 + 生活   =  食生活     eating habits

If that sounds complicated, remember that you see the same principle in other languages.

Think about the word ‘telephone’ in English – you can break it down into two main components derived from Greek:

‘tele’ (far)  +  ‘phone’ (sound)  = telephone

Neither of them are words in their own right.

So there are lots and lots of kanji, but in order to make more sense of them we can start by categorising them.

There are several categories of kanji, starting with the ‘pictographs’ (象形文字shōkei moji), which look like the objects they represent:

the origin of kanji

(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

In fact, there aren’t too many of these pictographs.

Around 90% of the kanji in fact come from six other categories, in which several basic elements (called ‘radicals’) are combined to form new concepts.

For example:

人 (‘man’ as a radical)   +   木 (‘tree’)    =  休 (‘to rest’)

These are known as 形声文字 keisei moji or ‘radical-phonetic compounds’.

You can think of these characters as being made up of two parts:

  1. A radical that tells you what category of word it is: animals, plants, metals, etc.)
  2. A second component that completes the character and give it its pronunciation (a sort of Japanese approximation from Chinese).

So that’s the story behind the kanji, but what are they used for in Japanese writing?

Typically, they are used to represent concrete concepts.

When you look at a piece of Japanese writing, you’ll see kanji being used for nouns, and in the stem of verbs, adjectives and adverbs.

Here are some of them from our sample text at the start of the article:

日本人     Japanese people
多国籍料理     multinational cuisine
東南     Southeast

Now, here’s the big question!

Once you’ve learnt to read or write a kanji, how do you pronounce it?

If you took the character from the original Chinese, it would usually only have one pronunciation.

However, by the time these characters leave China and reach Japan, they usually have two or sometimes even more pronunciations.

Aggh! 🙂

How or why does this happen?

Let’s look at an example.

To say ‘mountain’, the Chinese use the pictograph 山 which depicts a mountain with three peaks. The pronunciation of this character in Chinese is shān (in the first tone).

yama kanji mountain

Now, in Japanese the word for ‘mountain’ is  ‘yama’.

So in this case, the Japanese decided to borrow the character山from Chinese, but to pronounce it differently: yama.

However, this isn’t the end of the story!

The Japanese did decide to borrow the pronunciation from the original Chinese, but only to use it when that character is used in compound words.

So, in this case, when the character 山 is part of a compound word, it is pronounced as san/zan – clearly an approximation to the original Chinese pronunciation.

Here’s the kanji on its own:

山は…     Yama wa…     The mountain….

And here’s the kanji when it appears in compound words:

火山は…     Kazan wa     The volcano…

富士山は…     Fujisan wa…     Mount Fuji….

To recap, every kanji has at least two pronunciations.

The first one (the so-called訓読み kun’yomi or ‘meaning reading’) has an original Japanese pronunciation, and is used with one kanji on it’s own.

The second one (called音読み on’yomi or ‘sound-based reading’) is used in compound words, and comes from the original Chinese.

Makes sense, right? 😉

In Japan, there’s an official number of kanji that are classified for “daily use” (常用漢字joyō kanji) by the Japanese Ministry of Education – currently 2,136.

(Although remember that the number of actual words that you can form using these characters is much higher.)

So now… if you wanted to actually learn all these kanji, how should you go about it?

To answer this question, Luca’s going to give us an insight into how he did it. 

How I learnt kanji

I started to learn kanji more than 10 years ago at a time when you couldn’t find all the great resources that are available nowadays. I only had paper kanji dictionary and simple lists from my textbook.

What I did have, however, was the memory of a fantastic teacher.

I studied Chinese for two years in college, and this teacher taught us characters in two helpful ways:

  1. He would analyse them in terms of their radicals and other components
  2. He kept us motivated and interested in the process by using fascinating stories based on etymology (the origin of the characters)

Once I’d learnt to recognise the 214 radicals which make up all characters – the building blocks of Chinese characters – it was then much easier to go on and learn the characters and the words themselves.

It’s back to the earlier analogy of dividing the word ‘telephone’ into tele and phone.

But here’s the thing – knowing the characters alone isn’t enough. There are too many, and they’re all very similar to one another.

If you want to get really good at the language, and really know how to read and how to write in Japanese, you need a higher-order strategy.

The number one strategy that I used to reach a near-native ability in reading and writing in Japanese was to learn the kanji within the context of dialogues or other texts.

I never studied them as individual characters or words.

Now, I could give you a few dozen ninja tricks for how to learn Japanese kanji, but the one secret that blows everything else out of the water and guarantees real success in the long-term, is extensive reading and massive exposure.

Now, clearly this takes time and it’s not a quick-fix. For a detailed explanation of how to do this in practice, see this post.

In the meantime, there are a lot of resources both online and offline to learn kanji, each of which is based on a particular method or approach (from flashcards to mnemonic and so on).

The decision of which approach to use can be made easier by understanding the way you learn best.

Do you have a photographic memory or prefer working with images? Do you prefer to listen to audio? Or perhaps you prefer to write things by hands?

You can and should try more than one method, in order to figure out which works best for you.

(Note: You should get a copy of this excellent guide by John Fotheringham, which has all the resources you’ll ever need to learn kanji)

Summary of how to write in Japanese

So you’ve made it to the end!

See – I told you it wasn’t that bad! J Let’s recap what we’ve covered.

Ordinary written Japanese employs a mixture of three scripts:

  • Kanji, or Chinese characters, of which there are officially 2,136 in daily use (more in practice)
  • 2 syllabic alphabets called hiragana and katakana, containing 42 symbols each

In special cases, such as children’s books or simplified materials for language learners, you might find everything written using only hiragana or katakana.

But apart from those materials, everything in Japanese is written by employing the three scripts together, and it’s the kanji which represent the cultural and linguistic challenge in the Japanese language.

If you want to become proficient in Japanese you have to learn all three!

Although it seems like a daunting task, remember that there are many people before you who have found themselves right at the beginning of their journey in learning Japanese.

And every journey begins with a single step.

So what are you waiting for?

– – –

It’s been a pleasure for me to work on this article with Luca Toma, and I’ve learnt a lot in the process.

Now he didn’t ask me to write this, but if you’re serious about learning Japanese, you should consider hiring Luca as a coach. The reasons are many, and you can find out more on his website: JapaneseCoaching.net

– – –

Do you know anyone learning Japanese? Why not send them this article, or click here to send a tweet.

Leave your comments and questions below and myself and Luca will get back to you!

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  • Israel Lai

    Excellent explanation of the two types of yomi. I had to figure that out myself!

    • I’m glad you found it useful, Israel Lai 🙂

  • ToGusDS

    i’m just starting to learn some kanjis I already know the radicals but the readings are kind of complicated, any advice?

    • You will pick them up as you learn vocabulary. So, I recommend to not study them individually, but in context (as parts of kanji words in the texts you read). Moreover, as we say in the post, most of the kanji are ‘radical-phonetic compounds’, meaning that apart from the radical (which is related to meaning), the rest gives the pronunciation (ON-reading) which is usually the same for all of the kanji with that particular component regardless of the radical. Example: 青 SEI (blue); 申請 shin-SEI (request); 精神 SEI-shin (spirit); 晴天 SEI-ten (blue sky)… So 青 請 精 晴 are all pronounced SEI, although they have different radicals (and thus meanings). You will start recognizing these components with practice and they are also limited in number. Hope that helps!

      • ToGusDS

        So, “extensive reading and massive exposure” how can do that? So far I can recognize some kanjis like man, and woman, forest, fire, rain some verbs like eat, rest, and so on, is there any web site to get this exposure? I just have found some sites, but they’re using kanjis that I have’nt seen before :p and it’s really frustrating to just look and them and knowing nothing about those pics :p

        Thanks in advance

  • Very useful article 😀 thanks for sharing!

  • Cyrus Argo

    Hey I’m literally just starting and I want to learn how to read and write in Japanese any tips of how to do this

    • Hi Cyrus. I’d recommend you start with Hiragana and Katakana. Don’t worry about kanji just yet. If you work hard, you should be able to learn the characters in a few days – start writing them out over and over, and try to create some mnemonics to remember what each character sounds like. They’re not that complex, and there’s lots of similarity between the two alphabets.

      • Cyrus Argo

        I really appreciate it do you know of any good sites I might be able to learn hiragana and katakana from.

        • I don’t know myself, I’m afraid, because I didn’t use websites to learn to read and write. Maybe someone else could recommend something?

          • There are a TON of worksheets out there for Japanese kids (because after all, they had to learn the kana and kanji too) if you know where to look. 🙂

        • Nicolas Marcora

          I know your post is 8 months old as I write this, but in case you still haven’t found a good site, or for anyone else reading this, I’ve just started my journey towards learning Hiragana and Katakana and I found Chihiro’s lessons on youtube to be really clear and easy to follow. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zfBMDNkJuI

  • woodiesvk

    please fix:
    ハンバーグ is a type of steak
    ハンバーガー is hamburger

  • fadz ak47

    so hard to write in chinese or japanese 🙁

  • Joseph M Cutcher III

    threee scripts? that’s like writing a paragraph in print, cursive, and something else just because you like confusing people!

    why don’t they just make or pick one?

    • Haha, I’ll pass that on to the Japanese nation…

  • Sera

    RIP Kanji. Will I be ok with just by learning Hiragana and Katakana only? I think Kanji is beyond my powers anymore.

  • dendee pudge

    Whenever you write japanese is kanji always present ??

    • Yes, almost always. The majority of nouns, adjectives, verbs etc in words in Japanese are symbolised with a Chinese character (kanji).

  • Corn Ji

    very useful article
    thank you:)

  • CrowSenji

    Very sexy choice of color coding, as what I do with most articles, I just skim through it, but the colors captivated me and inspired in me to use the same colors on my flashcards. Thanks!

  • Mika-chan

    very inspiring article. but when you learn japanese do you need to know only the kanji not the other two, or just start with kanji and then the other two. i dont know anything in japanese but i want to learn how to write and read and speak. but dont know where to start…

    • Omega Dark Mage

      Start with the other the other two since you can at least write words with the other 2 scripts plus they are way easier to learn, think of those as your training wheels for writing until you learn some Kanji. After you learn some Kanji you can mix those in to your writing which shortens the amount of characters that you will use. Many words would require multiple hiragana and katakana characters to make while a single Kanji can get the same meaning across.

  • sara sara

    Very good article thank you.