Learning to write any new language is a challenging task. Mastering a new writing system on top of that seems astronomical. And learning Japanese, a language with three writing systems? Impossible!
Actually, it isn’t.
Japanese writing may seem complicated at first, and it’s true that it takes a good amount of study to master. However, once you dive in, you’ll find that it’s a beautiful system containing a surprising amount of logic. Japan boasts a literacy rate of 99% as well as a rich written culture of novels and poems spanning thousands of years, so obviously people can learn how to read and write the language.
What if you didn’t grow up in Japan, though? Don’t worry, plenty of Japanese learners have conquered writing the language, too. There’s no reason that you can’t be one of them. Besides, don’t deny that you’ve been a little curious about what all those kanji mean!
Why Learn Japanese Writing?
Like it or not, Japanese has its own separate writing system. Learning Japanese without being literate is like driving a car with two wheels: you may get to where you need to go, but you’re gonna have a rough time getting there. But why, specifically, should you learn Japanese writing?
Knowing Romaji Isn’t Enough
There’s Japanese romaji, after all—Latin letters used to transcribe Japanese. Isn’t that good enough? Romaji is a helpful learning aid for absolute beginners who have yet to learn kana, and it’s used to input Japanese characters on computers. While it does have its uses, it’s ultimately not reliable for literacy in Japanese.
- First off, romaji doesn’t work well for communicating in Japanese. Japanese people are taught romaji in elementary school, so they do know how to use it, but ultimately romaji is used very little in everyday life. Whether you’re writing emails to your Japanese professor or texting in Japanese to your language partner, you’re going to need to write with Japanese characters if you hope to get your message across clearly.
- If you hope to navigate Japan outside of Tokyo, you’re going to have to learn how to read the language. Once you get to smaller cities or rural areas, signs in English or even with romaji will be few and far between. Knowing how to read Japanese will ensure you get to that hot spring and not end up at a run-down pub!
- Despite romaji’s lure as only being one system, there are in fact several romaji styles out there that all work differently. For instance, しょう can be romanized as sho, shou, shō or shô. And let’s not get into all of the ways in which sounds like じゅ, づ or おお are transcribed. Picking which style of romaji to use is more of a hassle than just using hiragana!
Hiragana is the Backbone of Japanese
You can’t get down the fundamentals of the Japanese language without a command of hiragana: it’s basically impossible. This phonetic system creates every sound it contains, which means that by learning hiragana, you’ll have taken the first step to mastering Japanese. You’ll be far better off in your Japanese studies for learning hiragana first. But if that’s not enough to convince you, here are some more reasons to memorize those curvy characters.
- Every word in Japanese can be written with hiragana. This means that even if you don’t know what a kanji says, you can still get your point across by writing in hiragana.
- Mastering Japanese pronunciation. Since hiragana is a native Japanese system, it’s designed to properly convey the sounds of Japanese, leaving no room for misinterpretation. Rejoice in the fact that Japanese is spelled exactly how it sounds!
- Hiragana is the primary system used in Japanese classrooms. Both katakana and kanji are taught under the assumption that the student already knows hiragana.
Katakana: More than Foreign Words
While katakana is mostly used for words of foreign origin, that doesn’t mean you should push learning it off to the side.
Think of English, which is notorious for robbing other languages of their words and adding them to its own lexicon.
Borrowed words, called 外来語(がいらいご), are becoming increasingly common in Japanese—you’ll see words like サービス(service), コンビニ (convenience store) and コーヒー (coffee) constantly. Therefore, katakana is everywhere in Japan, making learning it just as essential as hiragana. But that’s not the only reason for learning katakana:
- Katakana is present in many advertisements and product descriptions to add flair. If you want to know exactly what you’re buying from a Japanese gift shop, katakana know-how is a must.
- Japanese slang is often written in katakana. Katakana is a visual indication that a word has a different nuance, making it distinct from its formal definition. For example, the word 受ける(うける) means “to accept” when written normally. However, when written as ウケる, it becomes a slang term meaning “that’s hilarious!”
- Foods and animal names often use katakana. You can probably guess what that means—supermarkets and restaurants are full of katakana characters. Even native Japanese foods like 鯖(サバ, mackerel) will usually be written in katakana despite having their own kanji.
Kanji is Essential
Okay, maybe you see the point of hiragana and katakana, but why do you have to learn kanji? Well, it’s a major part of Japanese—there’s no avoiding that.
Kanji has existed in Japan for over a thousand years, leaving it ingrained into the language. One step into the streets of any Japanese city and you’ll be met with dozens of signs plastered with kanji. Despite this, many Japanese learners still cringe at the thought of studying the hundreds of characters, wondering just how the heck they’re going to be useful.
- Japanese people use kanji in all of their writings, from text messages to business reports, as it’s more effective for communication. Kanji serves to make sentences more concise, saving the writer and the reader time and effort. Without it, they’d be wading through deep, jumbled pools of hiragana and katakana.
- Kanji is useful for distinguishing the numerous Japanese words that sound alike. For instance, 高校 (high school), 航行 (navigation) and 孝行 (filial piety) are all pronounced こうこう. Unlike English, Japanese spelling and speech are consistent with one another, which can make it difficult to understand what a text is referring to without the use of kanji.
- Kanji is actually a shortcut to comprehending new words. How is this possible? Try thinking of how root words work in English; we’ll use “phobia” as an example. Phobia means fear, so any word with “phobia,” such as “arachnophobia” or “claustrophobia,” will mean “fear of (something).” Kanji works the same way. Look at the character 学(がく), meaning “study/learn.” Now look at some words that contain it: 学校 (がっこう, school), 学者(がくしゃ, scholar), 学習(がくしゅう, learning). Notice how they all have to do with learning?
As you can see, Japanese writing contains all kinds of information that is unique to the language itself. You might as well take some time to learn what these characters are trying to tell you.
What Are the Japanese Writing Systems?
Now that I’ve made the case for kana, let’s get into the types of Japanese writing.
Japanese has three different writing systems: two syllabic systems (where one character represents one syllable) called hiragana and katakana. These can be thought of as the Japanese alphabet. Lastly, it has a logographic system (where one character represents one word) called kanji.
When writing in Japanese, many sentences contain at least two of these three scripts. This may seem excessive, but they all serve a specific purpose within the Japanese language.
Hiragana is one of Japan’s two indigenous systems of writing, derived from the simplification of kanji during the 8th century. Each of the characters can be modified to represent every sound in the Japanese language. They are used to to write native Japanese words as well as grammatical clauses, and can also come at the end of kanji words. As hiragana is to Japanese what the alphabet is to English, every Japanese word can be written in hiragana.
Example: おいしい (delicious), ちょっと (a little bit), 大人しい (おとなしい, quiet)
Katakana is the second native Japanese system. While also made from simplified kanji, katakana is much more rigid and angular compared to the loose curves of hiragana. Katakana is primarily used to write foreign words, though onomatopoeia and scientific words utilize katakana as well. It’s also used to emphasize certain words, much like italics in English, or to add a bit of flair.
Example: ケーキ (cake), キラキラ (sparkly)
Kanji refers to the characters brought to Japan from China. Japan had no writing system before the arrival of kanji, making it the system first used to write Japanese. In addition to adopting the Chinese readings and concepts for these characters, native Japanese meanings were also ascribed to them. Kanji is used to write nouns and words originating in Chinese, as well as form bases for many adjectives and verbs.
Examples: 恩恵 (おんけい, grace, favor), 届ける (とどける, to deliver / report)
So why are all three used? The main reason has to do with the structure of the Japanese written sentence. Japanese does not use spaces in writing, so using all three systems naturally divides sentences up. To get an idea of how this works, here are two Japanese sentences to compare, both meaning “When I was a kid I often ate curry.” One is written in hiragana, and the other is written using all three systems:
Pretty hard to distinguish individual words in the first sentence, right? Thanks to the combination of all three scripts in the second sentence, each idea becomes much easier to understand!
How to Learn Japanese Writing: Hiragana and Katakana
So you know the importance of learning written Japanese and what each script looks like. You’re ready to dive into learning, but maybe you’re not sure where to begin. Not to worry, we’ll start off with the basics: hiragana and katakana. Both systems have 46 characters and represent the same sets of sounds, so once you know one, learning the other won’t be as big of a hurdle. I’m going to help you conquer with a few tips.
Hiragana is the system Japanese children first learn in school, and the first system you’ll learn in Japanese class. In a sense, newcomers to Japanese have much in common with Japanese children. Thinking of myself as a “cultural child” has made me much more forgiving of my mistakes in Japanese. You wouldn’t yell at a 3-year-old because they didn’t know how to spell “extravagant,” would you? So why would you get mad at yourself for not knowing how to write 望遠鏡 (ぼうえんきょう, telescope) after only a month of Japanese study?
With this mindset, it can be helpful to use tools and resources for learning Japanese similar to the ones you used to learn your first language in school. From one child to another, here are a few tips to help you along.
Speak While You Read
Young children learn the “Alphabet Song” for a reason: to help them learn how letters are pronounced. Since hiragana and katakana are different “alphabets,” you’ll need to learn how they sound. If you see the character お, say “o” aloud. This will help cement the ties between the character’s pronunciation and its reading.
Here’s a little note that’s sure to encourage you. The Japanese language uses a large amount of vowels, with every syllable (except for ん) containing one. And get this: Japanese vowels are always pronounced the same, regardless of what comes before or after it. That means that once you know your あいうえお, you’re already well on your way to knowing how to say every sound in Japanese! Why can’t English be that simple?
Utilize Practice Sheets
Remember those alphabet practice sheets from kindergarten, with guidelines for each letter? Similar sheets exist for Japanese characters. When practicing hiragana, using guides will help you get the balance of each character. Don’t be afraid to trace the examples, either. Tracing will help you build muscle memory, and give you a sense of how each character is put together. Just make sure to wean yourself off of it before you become dependent!
Katakana is a cinch once you learn hiragana. Many of the same tips for learning hiragana can be applied to katakana words, but here’s a few pointers specific to katakana:
Learn Japanese Spellings
While you may interpret the Japanese pronounciation of an English loan word one way, the Japanese may hear (and spell!) it differently. Think of the word “poster.” You may write it as ポースター or ポスタ when you try to convert it into Japanese, but it’s actually spelled ポスター! In fact, one of the biggest complaints I heard from American students studying in Japan was about katakana pronunciations—more people had trouble with getting their katakana spellings right than their kanji strokes!
There are more variations of combined characters (called digraphs) in katakana than hiragana, due to katakana being used to write foreign words. Combinations like ヴォ andジェ better approximate foreign sounds in Japanese, and you’ll find them in more modern words like ジェットコースター(roller coaster) and ヴォーカリスト (vocalist).
How to Learn Japanese Kanji
Alright, it’s that time of the post: how to learn kanji. But before you start having a panic attack, I’ll let you in on a little secret: kanji isn’t as hard as it’s made out to be! Kanji is actually my personal favorite out of Japan’s three writing systems, with an order and logic that I find beautiful.
Yes, it’s more difficult compared to hiragana and katakana, but it is far from the impregnable wall that many have claimed it to be. Breaking down any new challenge is important to conquering it, and learning kanji is no exception. Before you take on those characters, why not take a closer look at what you’re getting into? All it takes is a little study, and you’ll be reading menus and magazines in no time.
So what’s the best way to learn kanji? Ultimately, it comes down to how you learn as an individual. However, there are a few things that will aid any learner.
- Get your stroke orders down. While it may seem arbitrary, there’s actually a flow to Japanese characters that makes them easier to write when the strokes are applied in a certain order. By following them, your characters will become much more legible and writing will go much faster than trying to piece them together in random order.
- Radicals are your friend. When learning kanji, you’ll find that certain parts of characters look similar to one another. Take a look at 話、調 and 語. What do they all have in common? The radical 言! These are called radicals, and they ascribe meanings to characters—almost like an “alphabet” for kanji. With this “alphabet” in mind, you’ll know that any character with 言 will have something to do with words.
- Use mnemonics. Mnemonic devices are tools that allow the human brain to easily recall information. Making use of pictures, stories, or rhymes will be a huge asset to your kanji studies . My favorite mnemonic method is to use the radicals to tell a story. That way, I can put together the kanji based on the story’s elements. I’ll illustrate this with the kanji 接 (せつ, touch/contact). It’s comprised of the radicals扌(hand), 立 (stand) , and 女 (woman). The resulting story is: “a woman stands and uses her hand to touch something.”
- Getting familiar with kanji will ease some of your anxieties, so reviewing the most common kanji is a great place to start. And if you’re the type who learned to swim by jumping in the deep end of the pool, looking at the most complicated kanji may help calm your nerves—since you’ll already know exactly how tough it can get!
Methods of Learning
Now that you’re ready to go, here are a few methods that can really push you along in your kanji learning.
- Writing exercises. Yes, actually taking out a pencil and paper and writing with Japanese characters. Doing this allows you to engage with the kanji, enabling more efficient and effective memorization. Plus, you can get creative and customize your own little kanji notebook!
- Using learning apps. Writing by hand is important, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of technology! A good Japanese learning app will take your studies to the next level. They come in handy for memorization and reading, with the added bonus of demonstrating how to write.
- Flashcards. Whether you use premade sets or make your own, kanji flashcards are a great tool to help you memorize kanji. If you’re going digital, making use of an app with an SRS system, like FluentU, will help you study the kanji you’re most shaky on. FluentU keeps track of everything you learn and personalizes your learning, ensuring you retain more for the long haul.
After learning what kanji look like, take the time to learn what they sound like. Most kanji have two types of readings: onyumi and kunyomi.
Onyomi refers to readings adapted from the original Chinese pronunciation, while kunyomi are the Japanese readings ascribed to each character. There’s one other reading style for kanji: nanori, which are kanji readings that are exclusively used for Japanese names.
Hold on, how are you supposed to remember all these different ways to read kanji? Especially for characters like 生 (the poster child for “why kanji is impossible”), which have twelve! Well, there are ways to make it easier.
- Start with the common readings of a particular kanji first. Not every kanji reading is used 100% of the time; some are hardly used at all. For instance, 結 can be read as むす, ゆ (kunyomi), ケツ, and ケチ (onyomi). However, most of the time it’s read as むす or ケツ. That’s two less readings you have to worry about!
- Kunyomi is used for reading native Japanese words, while onyomi is used for Chinese loan words. Luckily, telling which is which isn’t too tricky. Compound words with hiragana, such as 恥ずかしい (はずかしい, embarrassing) and 大きい (おおきい, big), are native Japanese words and therefore use kunyomi. Words with two or more kanji, like 証明(しょうめい, proof) and 警察官(けいさつかん, police officer) are borrowed from Chinese, so they’re read with onyomi.
- Remember radicals? Not only do they help with meanings, but with readings! Some radicals are always read a certain way, carrying that reading over to any kanji that includes them. Any kanji you see with 交 can be read as こう, and any with 長 can be read as ちょう. So investing a little time in studying radicals will pay off big time in the long run!
- Read, and read often. The more time you spend reading Japanese, the more familiar you’ll become with kanji. While this does take time and effort, with enough practice, common kanji readings will soon become second nature.
Resources for Learning and Practicing Japanese Writing
Of course, all of your studies won’t do any good without practice! In any language, the best way to practice writing is by reading. And when you’re studying all of those kanji, you’ll be itching for some real-world application. Regardless of your current level, you’ll find something in this list which sparks that desire to learn!
Writing in Japanese
When learning Japanese characters, it’s important to write a little bit every day. There are many ways to practice Japanese writing, but what do you write about?
When studying, taking handwritten notes and working with practice notebooks are an easy way to get that writing practice in. You can also join a learning community like renshuu, which allows you to submit writing samples and gain feedback on your sentences.
Journaling is one way of getting this practice in, and there are countless writing exercises and prompts out there to help you get inspired. One of the best parts about handwritten journals is that you get to look back and see how you’ve progressed over time—a huge motivator when learning a language!
If you’re into the arts, Japanese has a plethora of writing techniques to play with. Why not try writing a haiku in Japanese, or its longer relative, a tanka? For the truly ambitious who want to write their own stories in Japanese, try getting familiar with Japanese story structure for inspiration.
In this digital era, typing is an essential skill, so practicing typing in Japanese is a must. In order to do that, you’ll need to find a Japanese keyboard. Experiment with different apps and layout styles to find one that works for you. With a little effort, you’ll be flying over the keys like you do in your native language!
Introduction to Reading
It can be hard to know where to begin when you’re learning Japanese through reading, even if you have a few semesters of high school or college Japanese under your belt. Japanese as it’s used in the real world is extremely different from Japanese in classrooms.
How different is it? Let’s take the phrase どこからきましたか(where are you from?), which is taught in the first lesson of many Japanese textbooks. After learning this phrase, it’s easy to think that you’re all set to answer any questions about your home country. However, when I was talking to a fruit vendor in Nagoya, I was asked “どの国の人?”(どのくにのひと, which country are you from?) That’s quite a far cry from what my high school Japanese teacher taught me!
When first getting started, it’s important not to bite off more than you can chew, so assess what your level is and begin reading from that point. Make sure you have a good reading strategy, and don’t be afraid to start with texts for beginners. Building your confidence is vital to fueling interest and enthusiasm for language learning, so it’s better to read something too easy than too difficult.
A good book can capture your imagination in a way that no other medium can. The world of Japanese literature is vast, with classics that have been translated into dozens of languages. Getting to know these books in their original language can give you a whole new appreciation for Japanese stories. Luckily, readers of all stages can enjoy Japanese books, including Japanese e-books, combining learning with entertainment.
If you’re a beginner, there’s a wealth of resources to practice reading real Japanese, including graded readers specifically designed with Japanese learners in mind. Short stories and children’s books are also a wonderful way to dip your toes into Japanese reading.
For those who have a solid foundation of Japanese, your options for reading material are even greater. Intermediate students can cross over the threshold into authentic Japanese with bilingual starter books. These books are written with English and Japanese side by side, allowing you to dive into more complicated Japanese with a sort of safety rope.
Already an experienced reader? Then the Japanese bookstore shelves are yours to claim! Diving into classic Japanese books will take you on a cultural journey that enables you to gain insight into Japanese history in addition to the nation’s classical literature. Reading modern Japanese novels can be a great way to start conversations with Japanese friends. Who knows, you could start a book club together! Japanese magazines can also keep you up to date on the hottest trends in Japan, which is bound to impress your Japanese friends and colleagues.
Prefer reading blogs to books? There are a wide variety of Japanese learning blogs out there to supplement your learning and provide great study tips. Another great thing about these blogs is that there’s proof you’re not alone in your learning journey and others have gone through the same struggles that you have. Goodness knows I’ve made every mistake in the book!
And when it comes to learning, it’s hard to find a website with more free lessons than Youtube. There are a wide variety of tutorials about how to write hiragana, katakana, kanji, as well as tips for memorizing them. Once you find the videos that work best for you, learning won’t be a chore—you’ll have fun as well!
Many use the internet to explore their hobbies, and Japanese people are no exception. Japan has a huge internet presence, so you’ll never be without a new blog or video by a native Japanese speaker to give you some next level tips on cooking, drawing, travel, and more. Not only do these blogs give you excellent language practice, you’ll learn the vocabulary necessary to talk about your interests in Japanese. Imagine getting about the latest hits in music with other fans from Japan!
If you don’t want to stray too far out of your browsing comfort zone, not to worry—there’s always Japanese Twitter! Fun fact: Did you know Japan has the second highest amount of Twitter users in the world? That means there are millions of people to follow and countless Tweets to read, all while you scroll through your home feed. Though if you’re going to dive into Japanese Twitter, you’d better brush up on your Japanese memes!
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that a good amount of you reading this post got interested in Japanese through manga. No need to be embarrassed—manga was one of the reasons I decided to master Japanese, myself. Let me tell you that there’s nothing quite like getting to read the latest releases as they come out in Japan. Not to mention that buying manga in its original Japanese is MUCH cheaper!
Despite what others may say, learning Japanese with manga can be extremely effective! There are even YouTube channels that use manga as a method for teaching Japanese. Each genre comes with its own unique set of technical vocabulary and terminology, which is just as applicable to the real world as it is to comics. A cooking manga will have culinary terms, while one that takes place in school will have academic vocabulary.
To provide a personal example of how studying with manga can work, I read a political manga in depth while studying for the second-highest level of the JLPT. Since I was seeing many terms in the manga that my study guides were teaching me, I got to practice new grammar points and vocabulary as they appeared. This method of learning is, in my opinion, a huge reason why I ended up passing! Remember, any material can be educational: it’s all in how you use it.
So what manga should you read to learn Japanese? The answer is… well, any of them. With literally tens of thousands of unique series out there, you’ll never run out of new manga stories to enjoy—and learn from! Pick your niche and get started!
The three writing systems of Japanese is just one aspect of Japanese that makes the language unique. Unfortunately, this has also contributed to the myth that learning Japanese is impossible. But as you can see here, there are countless ways to teach yourself hiragana, katakana and kanji. Ultimately, it’s no different than learning any other language: you need to put in time and effort, develop smart study habits with materials that work for you, and never stop practicing.
So forget about the whispers of fear that surround learning Japanese writing. Ignore anyone who says learning to read in Japanese is impossible. Mastering reading and writing in Japanese is a worthwhile endeavor. By doing so, you’ll gain a whole new level of understanding of the language, not to mention expand your world to include Japanese literature, culture, internet, society, and more. Once you take the plunge, I guarantee you’ll be hooked on this fascinating writing system.
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