Okay, okay—maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.
You’re coming here to learn Japanese reading, right? So the above might not look like anything comprehensible yet.
But I can assure you that by the time you’re done with this post, you’ll know how to decipher it.
You’ll be able to identify the different types of characters used in Japanese writing and will have a three-step study plan to master all of them. You’ll feel confident navigating the wild world of Japanese writing systems, and may even start to appreciate the unique chaos.
(As for translating the above, we’ll let you off the hook: “Good evening! Can you read this?”)
Why You Shouldn’t Put Off Japanese Reading
If you want to text Japanese-speaking friends, study or work in Japan or relax with a Japanese book, reading the language obviously becomes a requirement. With manga in particular, even English-translated ones often retain Japanese writing for sound effects. So you need reading skills to get all those ドン (どん) — bang, ガガガ (ががが) — dash and スウー・フー (すうー・ふー) — breathe in and out effects.
You’ll also need reading skills to navigate the country. Especially outside of the major cities, train stations, roads, signs, menus and even toilets will all be labeled in Japanese. Without the ability to read the characters you may end up in some hot water because you couldn’t differentiate 女 (おんな) — woman from 男 (おとこ) — man and walked into the wrong side of a public bath.
Reading will also deepen your understanding of the language and culture as a whole. Even if you intend to primarily speak, knowing kanji in particular will grant extra insight into the etymology, history and meaning of Japanese words.
What Are the Japanese Writing Systems?
One of the reasons Japanese reading is so tricky is that there are several distinct systems all being utilized in unison. In English, we have our alphabet containing both upper and lower case letters, as well as numbers. But Japanese essentially has two syllabaries to draw from, two sets of numbers, an alphabet and a mountain of logograms.
To begin, we’ll cover what they are and their functions. Later in this post we’ll provide tips and resources to master these characters.
Kana comes in two forms, hiragana and katakana, and they function as the syllabaries. A syllabary is a written symbol that represents the syllables that make up words. This is different from our alphabet, which is comprised of individual letters that can then be used in combination to create syllables.
For example, if I want to write out the sound for “go” in the English alphabet, I use two letters to create a single syllable. By contrast, in Japanese there’s no individual letter “g,” but rather a single character ご that represents the syllable “go.”
Hiragana and katakana both generate the same syllables for the most part, but have different characters for doing so. Then why have two? The reason is that each syllabary handles different kinds of words.
Hiragana (平仮名/ひらがな) means “simple” or “ordinary” kana. It’s used for native Japanese words and particles. Each character represents either a vowel, a consonant followed by a vowel or the only standalone consonant in the language, ん, which sounds akin to “n.”
その ねこは くろい です。(That cat is black.)
These characters can also show up as bits that get tacked onto kanji to serve a grammatical purpose (like indicating what tense a verb is in). In these cases they’re called okurigana.
Katakana (片仮名/かたかな) means “fragmentary” kana. Its usage is for loan words from other languages, onomatopoeia and scientific or technical terms. Each character, though different from hiragana, covers the same set of syllables.
ソノ ネコハ クロイ デス。(That cat is black.)
Kanji is the arrangement of logograms borrowed from Chinese, which are written characters that represent a word or phrase. So, while you may know how to spell a word such as “bridge” in hiragana (はし), it may often be depicted as the single character 橋, which is still pronounced the same way.
その猫は黒いです。(That cat is black.)
Even though you could technically read and write entirely in hiragana, many words and phrases will be written in kanji (漢字/かんじ) instead. This is because Japanese only has 71 distinct syllables available to create words from, and thus ends up with a lot of homophones. Knowing kanji makes it much faster and easier to read, rather than trying to determine from context or guessing which version of はし is intended: 橋 (bridge) or 箸 (chopsticks).
They also largely remove the need to have spaces between words since they act as mostly clear markers of where one word stops and another begins.
There’s no exact count, but the 大漢和辞典 (だいかんわじてん) — “The Great Chinese-Japanese Dictionary” contains nearly 50,000 kanji. Mercifully, the majority of those are so obscure and archaic as to almost never actually be used, and thus unnecessary to learn. However, there are still many that are used so frequently, that without learning them, you’d remain ultimately illiterate.
Onyomi and Kunyomi:
Part of what makes kanji so intractable is not just the enormous number of new complex characters to learn, but that the same kanji characters can be read in more than one way. Part of this has to do with onyomi (音読み/おんよみ) and kunyomi (訓読み/くんよみ), the former being the original Chinese reading of the character while the latter is the Japanese reading.
Not only are there those two different readings of the same symbol, but that same symbol may even have more than one onyomi or kunyomi reading of it. This is particularly true of the most common kanji.
For example, 力 by itself can be read as ちから, but in this compound 能力 (のうりょく) — ability, it’s read as りょく. And yet here in 怪力 (かいりき) — brute strength, it’s read as りき. Usually the onyomi reading is used in compounds while the kunyomi is more common when the kanji is by itself.
On the flip side, there are also kanji that are read the same, but have different symbols representing them and mean slightly different things. 書く (かく) means “to write” while 描く (かく) means “to draw,” but when talking about an abstract, imagined image rather than purely visual one, 描く is then read as えがく.
Those last two paragraphs may’ve completely undermined your desire to learn this language, or perhaps caused you to question whether human nature is essentially evil. But don’t despair so. Though kanji is difficult, some of the above examples are rare instances near the border of madness.
Just as in English, Japanese utilizes different characters to represent numbers. Both arabic numerals (what we use) and kanji are employed for this purpose.
一、ニ、三 (1, 2, 3)
Japanese does also make use of an alphabet known as romaji (ローマ字/ろーまじ), which literally means “Roman letters.” The Roman letters referred to are the very same you’re reading at this moment. Since the end of World War II, it’s been part of a standard Japanese school curriculum to learn to read and write romaji.
Sono neko ha kuroi desu. (That cat is black.)
However, its prime functions are reserved for transliterating Japanese words and names into a medium that can be read by those who don’t know kana or kanji, and for entry into digital instruments like computers and phones (since it would be impractical to have entirely different keyboards and dial-pads in Japan just for kana entry).
The Two Formats for Reading Japanese
In English we always read horizontally left-to-right. However, in Japanese, the text medium plays a large role in determining how Japanese is written and read.
Tategaki (縦書き/たてがき) is the traditional style of writing Japanese. It’s oriented vertically into columns and both the pages and sentences are read from right-to-left, top-to-bottom. It’s still used for novels, newspapers and manga in Japan.
If you’re a peruser of manga, even English-translated ones, you may’ve seen some that physically conform to this format—that is, the books seem backwards to what we’re accustomed to. If you imagine holding a closed book in your hands, we normally think of the front cover as being the side facing us when the book’s spine is to the left. But with this traditional format, that’s in fact the back cover, and you see the front is when the spine is to the right.
Yokogaki (横書き/よこがき) is the more modern of the two styles and is expressed in the same way as English: horizontal rows read from left-to-right, top-to-bottom. This style was developed to streamline foreign-language dictionaries and communication of scientific and mathematical formulae. Trying to write fractions and symbols for things like square roots vertically would cause intense confusion.
Additionally, digital tools such as computers and phones aren’t designed to easily accommodate tategaki style, so most electronic communications are in yokogaki style.
Formatting Differences Between Tategaki and Yokogaki
Besides the aforementioned dissimilarities in orientation and order, there are few other minor quirks between the two.
In yokogaki, punctuation is placed horizontally adjacent to the characters, just as in English. But in tategaki it’s placed below, even something as small as a comma. Additionally, the chouon mark (ー), which represents a long vowel sound, changes from a horizontal line in yokogaki to a vertical one in tategaki.
Furigana (振り仮名/ふりがな) are small hiragana characters written along with kanji to indicate that logogram’s pronunciation. These are often used in children’s and young adult’s books to help them learn kanji, as well as other texts like newspapers for uncommon kanji. In tategaki format, the furigana are written to the right of the kanji, whereas in yokogaki they’re placed above.
In yokogaki, it’s more common for numbers to be expressed using arabic numerals, while the kanji versions are more often found in tategaki.
Lastly, certain styles of writing can only be utilized in one format or the other. Sousho (草書/そうしょ) is like Japanese cursive and only works in tategaki format.
Cut the Character Chaos! 3 Practical Steps to Learn Japanese Reading
You may be feeling a bit overwhelmed at the depth, breadth and complexity of learning to read Japanese. However, we’ll give you some clear goals and steps you can take to reach them. It’ll take time, but with a little work on a consistent basis you’ll be able to reach many of these milestones faster than you think.
1. Memorize the Kana Syllabaries
The first step is to learn your kana syllabaries. This is as essential as learning your ABCs in English. Though kanji will be prevalent in more advanced texts, early reading will be comprised almost solely of kana. And even when you get further along in your studies, kana will never disappear.
Start with hiragana. Learn those symbols. There are 46 unique characters, with more than 20 others that have the same base characters but with either a little dot or two small strokes tacked on. KanaQuest has a handy Hiragana chart as well as a free Hiragana character quiz.
Due to these systems being so fundamental to reading, they can’t exactly get picked up along the way while you’re studying something else. These must be memorized. As with many other cases of memorization, flashcards and matching are good methods to get these characters into your memory. However, the best thing to do to really cement them is to write them. Getting that muscle memory along with the visual is key to retaining the information.
2. Memorize Kanji Radicals
Kanji radicals are base or root symbols that are used in many more complex kanji. Being able to recognize the radical will help in understanding new kanji you may not’ve seen yet.
To get started, check out the University of Texas’ free online kanji radical lessons. They’ll walk you through common radicals, placement and combinations of radicals, plus links to additional learning resources.
As with kana, using flashcards, matching and writing them out will all be effective tools to master these. White Rabbit is an especially useful resource for this type of practice. It’s a goldmine of Japanese language materials, including ready-to-use kanji flashcards (plus audio downloads to accompany the flashcards), kanji workbooks and “cheat sheet” charts for easy reference.
For kanji specifically, stroke order, or the order and direction you draw each line in the character, becomes important in creating legible symbols. Be mindful of that if you choose to practice writing them. You can check your work with this guide to Japanese stroke order.
Additionally, you’ll come across radicals all the time while reading, so you’ll constantly be seeing their usage, which will also aid in absorbing it.
3. Immerse Yourself in Japanese Texts to Pick Up Kanji
There’s an official list of about 2,000 of the most common kanji, which you’ll need to learn before you can be considered literate. It’s roughly the number of kanji you’d need to read a newspaper. Any unusual kanji outside those 2,000 are typically accompanied by furigana, so you’ll still know how to read them.
There are fun ways to learn to read and amass this kanji knowledge—here are seven creative ideas to get you going.
FluentU is another unique, immersive Japanese resource, and you’ll love it even if you’re not a bookworm. FluentU teaches tons of common kanji through authentic Japanese videos, like movie trailers, music videos, inspiring talks and more. Each video comes with interactive captions providing kanji and kana for every word, as well as in-context definitions, visual learning aids and native pronunciations at a click.
Best of all, FluentU collects the words from each video into flashcards and exercises so you can keep reviewing vocabulary when you’re done watching. It’s an entertaining way to build your kanji knowledge, all while absorbing Japanese the way native speakers really use it! Start exploring the video library for free with a FluentU trial.
For immersing yourself in traditional Japanese texts, Japanese manga, children’s books and authentic magazines all utilize the important kanji you need to know. Just imagine, learning Japanese by reading your favorite comic book—what could be better?
In particular, literature aimed at a younger audience will contain more of those furigana to help you remember how to read those characters. So, not only will you get simple sentences with furigana-aided kanji, but the stories and articles are also fun!
All in all it’s a steep climb, but don’t get discouraged. Japanese children have their entire compulsory education careers to learn kana and meet that 2,000 kanji goal, so don’t feel like you need to memorize it all immediately. Following the above steps and setting moderate, achievable goals for each will ultimately get you to where you want to be. Remember that you weren’t reading “War and Peace” in kindergarten, so keep your expectations realistic as you progress and you won’t be disappointed!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.