katakana-words

Borrowed Bliss: 75+ Katakana Words to Jump-start Your “Japanified” Vocabulary

When you first started learning Japanese, you were probably taken aback by all the different writing methods the language boasts.

Who wouldn’t be a little overwhelmed? After all, English has one alphabet. One!

It can be pretty daunting to try and absorb three different ways of writing, especially when they have (collectively) thousands of characters.

Really, though, it’s not that complicated.

You just have to know where to begin.

And Japanese katakana is probably the easiest form of writing you could learn.

In a nutshell, katakana uses characters to represent syllables (instead of single letters like an alphabet) and it’s used primarily for re-imagining foreign words for the Japanese language.

Still lost? Don’t worry. We’ve put together a really useful guide to understanding katakana through and through, along with a ton of common katakana words for you to add to your vocabulary.

Before we start, let’s get a thorough understanding of what katakana really is.
 


 
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What Is Katakana?

片仮名 (かたかな) — Katakana is a Japanese writing system used to transcribe foreign words, sound effects, titles and loan words into readable and writable Japanese words.

Think of it this way: To read Japanese words, you might have used ローマ字 (ろーまじ) — rōmaji, or Latin-based script that shows you how to sound out each syllable with letters familiar to you. (“Rōmaji” is an example of rōmaji!)

Japanese speakers use the same concept to add foreign words to their own vocabulary. Like English speakers use rōmaji, Japanese speakers use katakana.

Katakana is syllable-based, which means that each character in its “alphabet” represents a particular syllable or sound.

Those syllables are put together to sound out a foreign word in a way that Japanese speakers will be able to pronounce and understand.

Katakana is also used for writing loanwords or 外来語 (がいらい ご) — gairaigo, which are words from other languages that become a part of the Japanese language. (This happens in English, too: For example, “karaoke” is a Japanese loanword that has become a part of the English vocabulary.)

Why bother learning katakana if it’s just a bunch of foreign, often English words rearranged for Japanese readers? Well, katakana is just as important as 漢字 (かんじ) — kanji or 平仮名 (ひらがな) — hiragana. It’s used frequently, especially with Western concepts, modern technologies and internet communication.

To really take your fluency to the next level, it’s a good idea to get a grasp on katakana syllables and common words. They may even come in handy someday when you’re traveling abroad!

Meet the Syllabary: List of Katakana Characters

There are 46 katakana characters, some of which can be combined to form even more sounds.

Below is a katakana chart, with accompanying hiragana and rōmaji pronunciations. We’ve also included the dakuten and handakuten versions of each, so you can clearly see the sounds they make.

Learn them and use them!

Vowels

(あ) — a
(い) — i
(う) — u
(え) — e
(お) — o

K

(か) — ka
(き) — ki
(く) — ku
(け) — ke
(こ) — ko

G

(が) — ga
(ぎ) — gi
(ぐ) — gu
(げ) — ge
(ご) — go

S

(さ) — sa
(し) — shi
(す) — su
(せ) — se
(そ) — so

Z

(ざ) — za
(ず) — zu
(ぜ) — ze
(ぞ) — zo
(づ) — zu

J

(じ) — ji
(ぢ) — dji

T

(た) — ta
(つ) — tsu
(て) — te
(と) — to

D

(だ) — da
(で) — de
(ど) — do

C

(ち) — chi

F

(ふ) — fu

Note: Fu is the only f sound in Japanese. Syllables like fa, fi or fo don’t exist, so when you need to make a word like “family” with katakana, you need to use additional vowel characters: ファミリー (Family) becomes, essentially, fu-ah-mi-ri.

N

(な) — na
(に) — ni
(ぬ) — nu
(ね) — ne
(の) — no

H

(は) — ha
(ひ) — hi
(へ) — he
(ほ) — ho

B

(ば) — ba
(び) — bi
(ぶ) — bu
(べ) — be
(ぼ) — bo

P

(ぱ) — pa
(ぴ) — pi
(ぷ) — pu
(ぺ) — pe
(ぽ) — po

M

(ま) — ma
(み) — mi
(む) — mu
(め) — me
(も) — mo

Y

(や) — ya
(ゆ) — yu
(よ) — yo

R

(ら) — ra
(り) — ri
(る) — ru
(れ) — re
(ろ) — ro

W

(わ) — wa
(を) — wo

Etc.

(ん) — n or m

Combination Syllables

(ゃ) — ya
(ゅ) — yu
(ょ) — yo

Adding a small yu, ya or yo to a katakana syllable can significantly change the way it sounds. For example:

ケチャップ (けちゃっぷ) — ketchup is pronounced ke-chya-ppu.

ブルジョワ (ぶるじょわ) — bourgeois is pronounced bu-ru-jyo-wa.

ヒューマン (ひゅーまん) — human is pronounced hyū-man.

You can also add other vowels, as well as ッ(っ) — tsu to make even more variations on sounds.

Forming Katakana Words

It’s as easy as pie to make these syllables into tangible words. Sound out a word, match each syllable to a katakana character and voila! You’ve got yourself a katakana word. For instance:

タクシ ー (たくしー) — taxi, read takushī

Since there’s no real way to write a hard x or “eks” sound in Japanese, the word is adjusted a bit to sound like “taxi” but still be pronounceable by Japanese speakers.

Although you can create your own katakana words if you can’t think of the Japanese word for something—and often be understood—there are many established words that you can learn.

Memorizing actual katakana words will prevent confusion and ensure that you don’t accidentally use the wrong Japanese pronunciation for a word and say something completely different from what you intended!

Important Things to Note About Katakana

Before we dive into the list of words, there are some things to remember about katakana.

Katakana words are often used as stand-ins for words that don’t exist in Japanese. For example, since there’s no word for “supermarket” in Japanese, katakana must be used.

But you might notice that some of the words below do have a Japanese word, along with a hiragana and/or kanji counterpart. For instance, there’s a word for “house” in Japanese, so either 家 (いえ) — ie or ハウス (はうす) — hausu can be used.

So, when do you use the katakana version of a word? 

Some English words (via katakana) are popular to use in Japanese.

Other times, it’s all about the context. Perhaps you’re speaking to a beginner Japanese learner and katakana is a little easier for them to understand. Maybe other speakers in a group conversation are using a lot of katakana. There’s no right or wrong: Just go with the flow!

It’s also worth noting that some katakana words are shortened, like スーパーマーケット (すーぱー まーけっと) — sūpāmāketto (supermarket), which is often shortened to スーパー (すーぱー) — sūpā. Japanese has its own slang just like English does.

Finally, keep in mind that some loan words come from languages other than English, while other words have odd origins. This all means that sometimes, a katakana word doesn’t mean what it looks like it means.

For instance, the word バイキング (ばいきんぐ) — Baikingu might sound like “Viking” or “biking,” but it actually means “buffet-style” in Japanese.

In that same vein, ドイツ (どいつ) — Germany is pronounced Doitsu to reflect the German word for the country, Deutschland.

There are actually quite a lot of weird katakana words like this with very interesting and somewhat comical origins. So, just remember: Things aren’t always what they look like!

Learning katakana is a great way to get a feel for how Japanese is spoken and how it differs from English. Check out our list below for some key katakana words to get you started.

75+ Katakana Words to Jump-start Your “Japanified” Vocabulary

We’ve grouped the words below thematically to make them easier to learn—but also to give you a better sense of the kinds of words that often use katakana.

katakana-wordsWant to hear these words in action? Check them out with FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. The immersive, entertaining content makes grammar and vocabulary much more memorable.

To make these accessible, the katakana word is listed on top, followed by the hiragana and rōmaji beneath it and finally, the English translation below that.

Make your own flashcards for these on paper, in FluentU or in your favorite flashcard app!

Places

スーパーマーケット
すーぱー まーけっと (sūpāmāketto)
supermarket

コンビニ
こんびに (konbini)
convenience store

レストラン
れすとらん (resutoran)
restaurant

ホテル
ほてる (hoteru)
hotel

マンション
まんしょん (manshon)
condominium

ハウス
はうす (hausu)
house

アパート
あぱーと (apāto)
apartment

Geographical Locations

ヨーロッパ
よーろっぱ (yōroppa)
Europe

アメリカ
あめりか (amerika)
America

イタリア
いたりあ (itaria)
Italy

オランダ
おらんだ (oranda)
Holland

カナダ
かなだ (kanada)
Canada

スペイン
すぺいん (supein)
Spain

ドイツ
どいつ (doitsu)
Germany

フランス
ふらんす (furansu)
France

ロシア
ろしあ (roshia)
Russia

Holidays

クリスマス
くりすます (kurisumasu)
Christmas

ハロウィン
はろうぃん (harowin)
Halloween

バースデー
ばーすでー (bāsudē)
birthday

イースター
いーすたー (īsutā)
Easter

サンクスギビングデー
さんくすぎびんぐでー (sankusugibingudē)
Thanksgiving Day

アースデー
あーすでー (āsudē)
Earth Day

Food

ハンバーガー
はんばーがー (hanbāgā)
hamburger

チョコレート
ちょこれーと (chokorēto)
chocolate

ピザ
ぴざ (piza)
pizza

カレー
かれー (karē)
curry

アイスクリーム
あいすくりーむ (aisukurīmu)
ice cream

フライドポテト
ふらいど ぽてと (furaidopoteto)
French fries

ケーキ
けーき (kēki)
cake

サンドイッチ
さんどいっち (sandoitchi)
sandwich

スパゲッティ
すぱげってぃ (supagetti)
spaghetti

チーズ
ちーず (chīzu)
cheese

Sports

アメリカンフットボール / アメフト
あめりかんふっとぼーる / あめふと (amerikan futtobōru / amefuto)
American football

バスケットボール / バスケ
ばすけっとぼーる / ばすけ (basukettobōru / basuke)
basketball

チアリーダー
ちありーだー (chiarīdā)
cheerleader

サッカー
さっかー (sakkā)
soccer

ゴルフ
ごるふ (gorufu)
golf

ラグビー
らぐびー (ragubī)
rugby

テニス
てにす (tenisu)
tennis

バドミントン
ばどみんとん (badominton)
badminton

ソフトボール
そふとぼーる (sofutobōru)
softball

ボクシング
ぼくしんぐ (bokushingu)
boxing

カヌー
かぬー (kanū)
canoe

アーチェリー
あーちぇりー (ācherī)
archery

Technology

タクシー
たくしー (takushī)
taxi

カラオケ
からおけ (karaoke)
Karaoke
Note: “Karaoke” is written in katakana because it actually isn’t an entirely Japanese word, but rather a combination of 空 (から) — empty and the loanword オーケストラ (おーけすとら) — orchestra.

マスコミ
ますこみ (masukomi)
mass media or mass communications

カメラ
かめら (kamera)
camera

テレビ
てれび (terebi)
television

アニメ
あにめ (anime)
animation
Note: Outside of Japan the word “anime” is used for a particular form of Japanese animation, but in Japan the word is used describe all forms of animation.

エスカレーター
えすかれーたー (esukarētā)
escalator

バイク
ばいく (baiku)
motorbike

アイテム
あいてむ (aitemu)
item (especially in a videogame)

ミッション
みっしょん (misshon)
mission (especially in a videogame)

People and Names

モーツァルト
もーつぁると (mōtsuaruto)
Mozart

ドナルド・トランプ
どなるど・とらんぷ (donarudo toranpu)
Donald Trump

バラク・オバマ
ばらく・おばま (baraku obama)
Barack Obama

ブリトニー・スピアーズ
ぶりとにー・すぴあーず (buritonī supiāzu)
Britney Spears

オプラ
おぷら (opura)
Oprah

エルビス・プレスリ
えるびす・ぷれすりー (erubuisu puresurī)
Elvis Presley

キム・カーダシアン
きむ・かーだしあん (kimu kādashian)
Kim Kardashian

ビヨンセ
びよんせ (biyonse)
Beyoncé

ブラッド・ピット
ぶらっど・ぴっと (buraddo pitto)
Brad Pitt

オードリー・ヘップバーン
おーどりー・へっぷばーん (ōdorī heppubān)
Audrey Hepburn

マリリン・モンロー
まりりん・もんろー (maririn monrō)
Marilyn Monroe

ウィル・スミス
うぃる・すみす (wiru sumisu)
Will Smith

アルフレッド・ヒッチコック
あるふれっど・ひっちこっく (arufureddo hitchikokku)
Alfred Hitchcock

Other Words

アイドル
あいどる (aidoru)
idol or pop star

ヒットソング
ひっとそんぐ (hitto songu)
hit song

フリーター
ふりーたー (furītā)
part-timer or freeter

メーク
めーく (mēku)
makeup/cosmetics

ツアー
つあー (tsuā)
tour

サラリーマン
さらりーまん (sararīman)
salary man

ソファ
そふぁ (sofa)
sofa

アフターサービス
あふたーさーびす (afutā sābisu)
after service a.k.a. customer service or after-the-sale service

アンサー
あんさー (ansā)
answer

アルコール
あるこーる (arukōru)
alcohol

フリーサイズ
ふりーさいず (furī saizu)
free size, a.k.a. “one size fits all”

グラス
ぐらす (gurasu)
glass
Note: グラス is also the katakana for “grass.” Sometimes in Japanese, context is everything!

 

Isn’t katakana such an interesting syllabary?

We bet that with a few of these words added to your vocabulary, you’ll impress native Japanese speakers with your knowledge of colloquialisms!


Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist who writes about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.

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