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.
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!
ア (あ) — a
イ (い) — i
ウ (う) — u
エ (え) — e
オ (お) — o
カ (か) — ka
キ (き) — ki
ク (く) — ku
ケ (け) — ke
コ (こ) — ko
ガ (が) — ga
ギ (ぎ) — gi
グ (ぐ) — gu
ゲ (げ) — ge
ゴ (ご) — go
サ (さ) — sa
シ (し) — shi
ス (す) — su
セ (せ) — se
ソ (そ) — so
ザ (ざ) — za
ズ (ず) — zu
ゼ (ぜ) — ze
ゾ (ぞ) — zo
ヅ (づ) — zu
ジ (じ) — ji
ヂ (ぢ) — dji
タ (た) — ta
ツ (つ) — tsu
テ (て) — te
ト (と) — to
ダ (だ) — da
デ (で) — de
ド (ど) — do
チ (ち) — chi
フ (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.
ナ (な) — na
ニ (に) — ni
ヌ (ぬ) — nu
ネ (ね) — ne
ノ (の) — no
ハ (は) — ha
ヒ (ひ) — hi
ヘ (へ) — he
ホ (ほ) — ho
バ (ば) — ba
ビ (び) — bi
ブ (ぶ) — bu
ベ (べ) — be
ボ (ぼ) — bo
パ (ぱ) — pa
ピ (ぴ) — pi
プ (ぷ) — pu
ペ (ぺ) — pe
ポ (ぽ) — po
マ (ま) — ma
ミ (み) — mi
ム (む) — mu
メ (め) — me
モ (も) — mo
ヤ (や) — ya
ユ (ゆ) — yu
ヨ (よ) — yo
ラ (ら) — ra
リ (り) — ri
ル (る) — ru
レ (れ) — re
ロ (ろ) — ro
ワ (わ) — wa
ヲ (を) — wo
ン (ん) — n or m
ャ (ゃ) — ya
ュ (ゅ) — yu
ョ (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.
Want to hear these words in action? Check them out with FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You can keep an eye out for katakana words as you watch, or make a deck of flashcards on FluentU on any words you want to get tested on later.
Let’s get started with some loan-words and how to say them in Japanese!
すーぱー まーけっと (sūpāmāketto)
ふらいど ぽてと (furaidopoteto)
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)
バスケットボール / バスケ
ばすけっとぼーる / ばすけ (basukettobōru / basuke)
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.
mass media or mass communications
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.
item (especially in a videogame)
mission (especially in a videogame)
People and Names
どなるど・とらんぷ (donarudo toranpu)
ばらく・おばま (baraku obama)
ぶりとにー・すぴあーず (buritonī supiāzu)
えるびす・ぷれすりー (erubuisu puresurī)
きむ・かーだしあん (kimu kādashian)
ぶらっど・ぴっと (buraddo pitto)
おーどりー・へっぷばーん (ōdorī heppubān)
まりりん・もんろー (maririn monrō)
うぃる・すみす (wiru sumisu)
あるふれっど・ひっちこっく (arufureddo hitchikokku)
idol or pop star
ひっとそんぐ (hitto songu)
part-timer or freeter
あふたーさーびす (afutā sābisu)
after service a.k.a. customer service or after-the-sale service
ふりーさいず (furī saizu)
free size, a.k.a. “one size fits all”
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.