If you’re brand new to learning Japanese, you might be feeling a little daunted by the Japanese alphabet. You’ve probably heard from others that Asian languages are some of the hardest to learn for English speakers. Why is that such a common idea?
The reason is because unlike English, which uses a Latin alphabet of 26 characters, Japanese uses pictographic characters called kanji. That means that English speakers not only have to learn new words, grammar, and pronunciation but also an entirely new writing system.
Don’t let that daunt you, though! Japanese is actually very methodical and logical in how it uses its written language—in fact, you might quickly begin to appreciate how consistent writing in Japanese is.
You’ll never have to worry about whether a “c” makes hard or soft sounds (think of “curd” versus “censor”), because all letters in Japanese always sound the same.
In this post, you'll discover how the Japanese alphabet functions so that you can start reading and writing by the end of it. That's right, you won't need to learn thousands of kanji right out of the gate to get off the starting blocks.
By the way, if you're getting started in Japanese and want to get to conversational level fast, without getting bogged down with how “hard” Japanese is, check out my story-based beginner course, Japanese Uncovered.
In Japanese, the “alphabet” is broken into three separate trees: hiragana, katakana, and kanji.
Together, these three writing methods make up the entirety of the Japanese language. But how can you tell the difference between them?
Hiragana is the “primary” form of written Japanese; you can’t put a sentence together without it. These characters each represent a sound, and in that sense, they are the letters that spell out Japanese words.
(You may notice that Japanese doesn’t follow the AEIOU order of vowels—fun fact!)
After this, the entire language is broken into phonetic pieces. Each “piece” of Japanese (besides vowels and the sound n) is a consonant + vowel combo. It helps to see it like this, in families:
That’s all! That’s the entire hiragana alphabet. With it, you can spell any Japanese word that there is, because Japanese is phonetic: its letters represent sounds, not ideas.
You might worry that Japanese seems like a big mess of complicated kanji; think about 頑張る (ganbaru, to try hard). That’s a common word, but boy, look at those kanji!
Thankfully, you don’t need to use those kanji when you’re starting out. Use hiragana to spell out がんばる, and people will understand you just the same.
What a relief!
One problem that Japanese speakers ran into as the language developed was that they wanted to use words that came from other cultures. But they didn’t know how to make them into kanji.
So instead, they created a separate writing system that they specifically use for two things: words borrowed from other languages and special kinds of sounds.
Katakana is the “borrowed word” alphabet. And you won’t need to use it unless you’re using a foreign word. The other good news is that katakana is just like hiragana: it makes the same sounds.
That means that it’s the same 46 sounds, just with a different symbol.
You might encounter katakana in words like “coffee,” which is ko-hi- in Japanese and looks like this in writing コーヒー.
Aside from specific foreign words, you won’t find much use for katakana unless you’re making a couple unique sounds, like pika pika ピカピカ, which is the sound effect for something sparkling.
Here it is, the “beast” of Asian languages: the big, multi-stroke characters Japanese is infamous for.
Complex kanji like 親 might put you off. But here's some good news – many kanji are made up of smaller pieces called radicals. These are small, simpler kanji that have individual meanings and that you can put together to make a bigger word.
For example, let’s take 親 above.
親 oya means “parents.” But looking closer, we can see that this one kanji is actually made up of many kanji. And they can all give us a hint about the meaning of the whole.
立 ta(tsu), on the top left, means “to stand.” Underneath tatsu is 木 ki, which means “tree.” Sounds like maybe someone is standing in a tree so far!
The right side of the kanji contains 目me, which is “eye,” but with the little legs underneath, it becomes 見mi(ru), “to watch.”
Who might you find carefully standing in the top of a tall tree watching what’s going on?Careful parents looking out for their kids, that’s who!
So by breaking down a kanji into its smaller parts, kanji can become less threatening and a lot more accessible.
Kanji have sounds of their own. But the same kanji can be read in different ways. So they’re not quite the same as the phonetic hiragana and katakana. Instead, kanji convey meaning instead of sound.
Unlike Chinese, which is made entirely of kanji, a Japanese sentence will consist of kanji and hiragana put together.
The reason for this, as already touched on, is because the purpose of kanji is meaning, not sound. Some other tools need to be used in order to make the rest of the sounds in a Japanese sentence that aren’t carrying the meaning.
We can see this happening with the same verbs we discussed above: tatsu and miru.
Tatsu means “to stand,” and that meaning is conveyed in 立. However, that kanji is simply pronounced ta. In order to convey the entire word, including the tsu, we’ll need to add some hiragana so that it becomes 立つ.
“Why wouldn’t they make the kanji sound like the entire word so that you don’t have to use hiragana?” That’s a great question. The reason is because unlike Chinese—a language that does include all of its pronunciation in its kanji and so has no phonetic alphabet—Japanese conjugates verbs.
You need that tsu at the end of tatsu so that it can be changed as necessary.
The tsu isn’t always tsu, and so it can’t be included in the kanji.
All three writing subsystems in Japanese are important as you grow your skills in the language. And eventually, you should be able to use all of them. That being said, starting straight off by learning kanji might not be the way to go. In general, the priority should be making yourself understood; then you can focus on refining how you write and read.
With that in mind, most beginners start with hiragana, because with it, you can say anything in Japanese. If you don’t know a kanji, you can write out its pronunciation in hiragana. And if you’re reading something, many kanji will have pronunciations spelled out in small hiragana above them (these tiny characters used to assist with reading unfamiliar kanji are called furigana).
After you’ve had some practice with hiragana, katakana is a great next step. It will fill the small hole you still have in your ability to write foreign words—some of which are very common, like “coffee”, “part-time job”, and “America”. Together, these phonetic pieces will carry you a long way in Japanese and enable you to start immersing yourself in the language.
It’s a great idea to sprinkle in some basic kanji as you go, as learning piece by piece is often less daunting than all at once. If you spot a kanji with just a couple strokes and think it might be easy to remember, keep it in mind!
You may also want to start your explorations into kanji by learning what the radicals mean; remember, these are the pieces that make up bigger kanji. Think of it as learning a cheat sheet that will come in handy as you start to figure out the meanings of bigger kanji based on their parts!
It can be tough to tackle a new writing system in a foreign language. Immersion and consistency are going to be key. But after a little while, you’ll be cracking out whole sentences in hiragana without even giving it a second thought!
I'm a big believer in learning the script from the start. If you're even a little bit serious about learning Japanese, then learning the writing system is well worth the time and effort.
In fact, I made the mistake of not taking the Japanese alphabet seriously when I first learnt the language. And so now I'm struggling to improve as a semi-literate Japanese speaker.
So don't make the same mistake as me. Use this guide to help you get started with the Japanese alphabet with hiragana and katakana. And then start exploring the kanji bit by bit as you go.
This way, you'll be able to use reading in Japanese as a strategy to get fluent, without pouring over grammar books and vocabulary lists.
Over to you – is the Japanese writing system clearer for you after reading this post? Do you have any tips and tricks for learning to read and write in Japanese. Let me know below in the comments.