What’s the Japanese alphabet?
How do you learn it?
What are all those characters really about?
If you’re asking these questions, then you’ll get your answers here. In this simple guide, you’ll learn all about the Japanese alphabet and writing systems. Afterwards, you’ll know what to learn and where to go next. You’ll also get worksheets and tutorials.
To start you off, there are 3 main Japanese writing systems.
And then, there’s also romaji… which isn’t really a native Japanese writing system but is still used a bit in Japan. So, let’s explain them all.
Want to learn how to read and write in Japanese? Get your free Japanese Hiragana/Katakana workbook + 7-Day Writing Course.
1. Romaji. Is Romaji English?
Romaji (ローマ字) is a writing system that is a romanization of the Japanese language.
It is basically a way to express Japanese writing using the Latin alphabet. Yes, letters that you’re reading now. Many English words that represent Japanese words like sushi, ramen, ninja, or samurai can be considered romaji.
For example, the following Japanese sentence can turn into romaji:
- Regular Japanese writing: 今日は学校に行って、勉強しました
- Romaji version: Kyou wa gakkou ni itte, benkyou shimashita.
- Regular Japanese writing: 日本でお寿司を食べるのが楽しみです。
- Romaji version: Nihon de osushi o taberu no ga tanoshimi desu.
When is Japanese Romaji used?
As you can see, romaji makes it easier to read the writing for those unfamiliar with Japanese characters. Although all Japanese people learn and know this system of writing in school, it is not used as a replacement for the traditional Japanese characters.
Who uses Romaji? It’s commonly used so foreigners can read the train stops and signs. It’s also used as a method for typing Japanese on the computer. In addition, most Japanese language textbooks use romaji to accompany the Japanese characters. This way, the learner doesn’t have to question how the words and sentences sound.
Should you learn Romaji?Technically, you already know romaji, so… no.
- Romaji is Japanese written in the Latin alphabet (these very same letters you’re reading now.
- Romaji is mainly used for foreigners and learners to make reading easier. Japanese people have no need to write Japanese words in Romaji.
Now, let’s move on to the rest of the Japanese writing systems.
What is Kana?
Kana is simply a word for both – Hiragana and Katakana. So, if someone asks, “do you know all of the Kana?” They’re asking you if you know both Hiragana and Katakana.
Now, onto Hiragana.
Hiragana (平仮名) is a type of Japanese writing system.
How many Hiragana are there? There are 46 “letters” or characters in total. But unlike our alphabet where one letter represents one sound, each Hiragana character or “letter” represents a syllable.
Most characters are a combination of a Japanese consonants and Japanese vowels.
For example, these characters are:
- か ka (pronounced: ka)
- き ki (pronounced: kee)
- く ku (pronounced: koo)
- け ke (pronounced: keh)
- こ ko (pronounced: koh)
Remember the Ah, Ee, Ooh, Eh, Oh pattern. You’ll see it for all the other characters.
Basic Hiragana Chart:
|あ a||か ka||さ sa||た ta||な na||は ha||ま ma||や ya||ら ra||わ wa|
|い i||き ki||し shi||ち chi||に ni||ひ hi||み mi||り ri|
|う u||く ku||す su||つ tsu||ぬ nu||ふ fu||む mu||ゆ yu||る ru||を o|
|え e||け ke||せ se||て te||ね ne||へ he||め me||れ re|
|お o||こ ko||そ so||と to||の no||ほ ho||も mo||よ yo||ろ ro||ん n|
Hiragana is one of the most basic forms of Japanese characters. It was imported from cursive-style Chinese writing in the 9th century. Here are some words that are only written in hiragana:
- こんにちは（Konnichiwa) – Hello
- こんばんは (Konbanwa) – Good evening
- どうぞ (Douzo) – Please
- おはよう (Ohayou) – Good morning
When is Hiragana used?
Since you’re a learner…
…You’ll mostly see 100% Hiragana use in beginner level textbooks for Japanese learners.
Hiragana is also used in kids’ books and comics to make it easy for them to read.
Otherwise, Hiragana is typically used to fill in the particles of Japanese grammar. It is used to make sentences smoother to read and add nuances to the speech.
What do I mean by that? Well, here. Take the sentence…
- I eat sushi.
- Hiragana version: わたしはすしをたべます。
- That’s what you’d encounter in a beginner textbook before you learn any Kanji.
- For native speakers, it’s a bit impractical to read because Japanese has no spaces and it may be hard to tell when one word starts and the other ends. It’d be like reading “Ieatsushi” which is not easy to read.
- So, that’s where Kanji comes in and for the most part, Hiragana is used to fill in the particles. So, look at the next sentence.
In recent times, it’s also often considered a feminine character. Many female names will only be written in hiragana.
When should you learn it?
On day one.
Hiragana is the first Japanese alphabet that you should learn because it represents all of the Japanese syllables! And it should take you about a week or less to learn all 46 characters. At least, college classes spend up at a week on Hiragana (and Katakana.)
In schools, Japanese children will first learn hiragana so that they can put their words on paper and start reading books. Manga (comics) or books for children are often completely written in hiragana so that it can be read at a young age.
- Hiragana is the first and most basic Japanese alphabet you should learn.
- There are 46 characters.
- This should take you a week or less to learn.
Katakana is another type of Japanese alphabet that represents the Japanese syllables. It’s said that the origin of these characters come from fragmented versions of Chinese characters.
Katakana has the same exact sounds as Hiragana — 46.
Both Hiragana and Katakana are referred to as “kana.”
Basic katakana chart:
|ア a||カ ka||サ sa||タ ta||ナ na||ハ ha||マ ma||ヤ ya||ラ ra||ワ wa|
|イ i||キ ki||シ shi||チ chi||ニ ni||ヒ hi||ミ mi||リ ri|
|ウ u||ク ku||ス su||ツ tsu||ヌ nu||フ fu||ム mu||ユ yu||ル ru||ヲ o|
|エ e||ケ ke||セ se||テ te||ネ ne||ヘ he||メ me||レ re|
|オ o||コ ko||ソ so||ト to||ノ no||ホ ho||モ mo||ヨ yo||ロ ro||ン n|
Now, here are some Katakana examples.
- コーヒー (koohii) – Coffee (English word origin)
- ビジネス (bijinesu) – Business (English word origin)
- アイスクリーム (Aisukuriimu) – Ice cream (English word origin)
- ラーメン (raamen) – Ramen (Chinese word origin)
- マカロン (makaron) – Macaron (French word origin)
- パン (pan) – Bread (Spanish word origin)
When is Katakana used?
So, what’s the deal with Katakana? Why is there Katakana if you have Hiragana with the same exact sounds?
Well, Hiragana is for Japanese words.
And Katakana is mainly used to express words from other languages. Words like “ice cream” and “ramen.” As you can see in the example words above, all of their word origins come from another language. So with katakana, it’s possible to incorporate foreign words into Japanese. New words in katakana are constantly added and created from other languages!
Also, if you were to translate your name into Japanese, you’d have to write it in Katakana.
Katakana is also used to write onomatopeia, scientific terms, and you may also see it in advertising — to catch attention.
When should you learn it?
It’s best to learn katakana, once you know hiragana. Hiragana and katakana both represent the Japanese syllables, so it should be relatively easy to learn.
Once you know katakana you can start to use any kind of borrowed word from a foreign language. Borrowed words make up almost one fifth of common speech in Japanese.
5. Hiragana vs Katakana
Difference Between Hiragana and Katakana
By now, you know that both Hiragana and Katakana have the same sounds. Same number of characters. So, what’s the deal? What’s the difference between Hiragana and Katakana?
Yes, both represent the same exact sounds. They’re different versions of the same thing.
So, you’re wondering why learn 2 different things if they mean the same? Well…
The difference between Hiragana and Katakana is…
- Usage. As you learned above, Katakana is used for words that were borrowed from foreign languages, for foreign names, for scientific terms and advertisements. To keep it simple, just remember that Katakana is ONLY used for words of foreign origin. This is the main difference and why you need to learn both.
Now, to help you tell the difference between Hiragana and Katakana… they differ in terms of looks.
- Looks.Hiragana and Katakana look a bit different from each other. To keep it simple, remember that Katakana has a bit of a “sharper” appearance whereas Hiragana is more curvier.
|あ a||ア a|
|い i||イ i|
|う u||ウ u|
|え e||エ e|
|お o||オ o|
So now, you know the difference between hiragana and katakana.
How Long Does it Take to Learn Hiragana & Katakana?
How long to learn Hiragana and Katakana?
In most college classes, students learn the 2 Japanese writing systems in the first week. So, a week.
Could you learn them any faster? Yes, but as with all learning, in order to retain, you need to immediately use what you learn. So, if you memorize all the characters in 1 hour but don’t practice them, you’ll forget them just as quickly.
- Learn Hiragana here: How To Learn Japanese Hiragana in Under 1 Hour. Part 1
- Learn Katakana here: How To Learn Japanese Katakana in Under 1 Hour. Part 1
5. Kanji – 漢字
Chinese characters called hanzi were adopted into Japanese writing to represent different words in Japanese. This is one of the most beautiful ways of using characters in the Japanese language. These characters usually represent objects, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs. They can be symbolic and depict the image of what it represents.
Here are some examples of kanji:
- 木 (ki) – Tree
- 山 (yama) – Mountain
- 口 (kuchi) – Mouth
- 愛 (ai) – Love
When to use Kanji?
So, when do you use Kanji?
Kanji is used so that sentences are easier to read. It’s possible to write all sentences in hiragana or katakana. Remember… in Japanese writing, there are no spaces to separate the words in the sentence. This can make it difficult to differentiate the nouns, verbs, or other grammatical parts. Kanji can solve this problem by grouping the words together and adding structure to the sentence.
Remember this example?
- I eat sushi.
- Hiragana version: わたしはすしをたべます。
- Version with Kanji: 私は寿司を食べます。
When should you learn Kanji?
It’s best to start learning kanji as soon as you learn hiragana and katakana.
Once you start to learn kanji you will realize that it is a long process to learn all of them. In order to read Japanese fluently, you will need to know at least 2,000 kanji! Although it’s difficult to learn many characters, each kanji represents a word or part of a word so it is similar to learning vocabulary.
And don’t worry, if that sounds like a lot… even Japanese people struggle with Kanji.
How do the Japanese people learn Kanji?They learn in grade school and pick up hundreds of kanji per year. So because they’re using Kanji all the time, they learn it all through every day practice.
Want to learn Japanese Kanji? Download your free Japanese Kanji workbook here.
Japanese Alphabet Conclusion
Now you know that there are 3 official Japanese writing systems.
- Hiragana: The most basic one. Learn this first.
- Katakana: Same sounds as hiragana. Used for foreign words. Learn this after Hiragana.
- Kanji: Used for Japanese words. Learn this after hiragana and katakana.
And then, there’s romaji — or latin letters (like this) — used to write Japanese words.
So, what’s next?
- Learn Hiragana here: How To Learn Japanese Hiragana in Under 1 Hour. Part 1
- Learn Katakana here: How To Learn Japanese Katakana in Under 1 Hour. Part 1
The Main Lingua Junkie
What Japanese alphabet is the easiest to learn? ›
Hiragana and katakana are easy enough to learn – and will be a big help if you're thinking about travelling to Japan, or learning basic Japanese. Learning kanji is a little trickier, but we'll come to that later.What is the basic alphabet of Japan? ›
The Japanese language has three types of characters: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana are phonetic symbols, each representing one syllable while Kanji is ideogram, each stand for certain meaning. Speaking and listening, right here.How do I memorize the Japanese alphabet? ›
So yes Oda hiragana you have a hiragana chart here hmm and as well as katakana. I think comedyShould I learn katakana or hiragana first? ›
We suggest you start learning Hiragana, then Katakana and then Kanji. If you learn Hiragana first, it will be easier to learn Katakana next. Hiragana will help you learn Japanese pronunciation properly, read Japanese beginners' textbooks and write sentences in Japanese.Do I have to learn all 3 Japanese alphabets? ›
The Japanese language relies on not one but three different alphabets — hiragana, katakana and kanji — which are differentiated both by their distinct appearances and by their use. No wonder Japanese is such a difficult language for English-speakers to learn!Is Japanese alphabet hard to learn? ›
The Japanese language is considered one of the most difficult to learn by many English speakers. With three separate writing systems, an opposite sentence structure to English, and a complicated hierarchy of politeness, it's decidedly complex.Does Japanese have R or L? ›
When using English letters for Japanese, almost everyone uses the “R” character and drops the “L” from romaji, but the truth of the matter is that neither R nor L exist in Japanese. The sounds signified are usually written as “ra, ri, ru, re, ro,” but these aren't the same “r” as the ones we use in English.Is there a pattern to Japanese letters? ›
If you mean whether there's any relationship between the shape of the letters and the sounds of vowels and consonants, then no, there isn't. The shapes are arbitrary. You'll notice, however, that a few hiragana/katakana pairs resemble each other, like に／ニ, か／カ , う／ウ, も／モ etc.Is Japanese easy to learn by yourself? ›
I'm living proof that with all the resources online today, it is easier than ever to learn Japanese on your own. Whether you're looking to teach yourself Japanese at home or just need some extra tips to help you advance, read on. The art of teaching yourself is easily learned.Why are there 3 alphabets in Japanese? ›
Why does the Japanese language have to use three different types of script; Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana? A. This is because each of the three types of script, Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana, has its own specific role. Let's examine a sentence like “I'm Anna,” WATASHI WA ANNA DESU.
Which Japanese alphabet is used most? ›
Hiragana is the most commonly used, standard form of Japanese writing. It's used on its own or in conjunction with kanji to form words, and it's the first form of Japanese writing that children learn.How do you spell O in Japanese? ›
The hiragana syllable お (o). Its equivalent in katakana is オ (o). It is the fifth syllable in the gojūon order; its position is あ行お段 (a-gyō o-dan, “row a, section o”).How is R pronounced in Japanese? ›
The Japanese "r" is different from the English "r". The sound is sort of between the English "r" and "l". To make "r" sound, start to say "l", but make your tongue stop short of the roof of your mouth, almost in the English "d" position. It is more like the Spanish "r".Do Japanese use hiragana or kanji more? ›
In a sense, hiragana is the most commonly used, standard form of Japanese writing. Japanese vocabulary usually tends to be written in hiragana as opposed to katakana. Also, hiragana is used to write furigana, a reading aid that shows the pronunciation of kanji characters, which is sure to be helpful.Can you learn katakana in a day? ›
It really depends on how good you are at learning and how quickly you want to go. The average beginner takes around 1 month to learn both Hiragana and Katakana combined. If you study diligently though, you could definitely learn hiragana in just a couple of days.Which is easier hiragana or kanji? ›
Hiragana, though, are much simpler in both form and function. They take fewer strokes to write than all but the simplest kanji, and instead of representing concepts, hiragana are used for writing phonetically.Should I learn kanji or hiragana? ›
So being a beginner in Japanese, we will consider you like a “kid.” That being said, you need to learn Hiragana first before you learn Katakana and Kanji. In the Japanese language, Hiragana is the main phonetic writing system that is used to represent every specific sound.Why is kanji still used? ›
Because it makes written communication easier for Japanese people. Sure, it's difficult for foreigners to learn, and Japanese kids also need to make an effort. But as has been mentioned, Japanese has many homonyms, and kanji helps to distinguish meaning clearly and efficiently.How do you spell my name in Japanese? ›
To write your name in Japanese, the easiest way is to find a Katakana letter that corresponds to the pronunciation of your Japanese name. For example, if your name is “Maria,” look for the Katakana character for Ma, which is マ, then the character for Ri, which is リ, and then character for A, which is ア.What should I learn first in Japanese? ›
Learn to Read Hiragana
The other two are katakana and kanji, but hiragana is where everything starts. The ability to read hiragana is going to be a prerequisite for most beginner Japanese textbooks and resources. It's the first thing you learn in a traditional classroom.
What is basic level Japanese? ›
The easiest level is N5 and the most difficult level is N1. N4 and N5 measure the level of understanding of basic Japanese mainly learned in class. N1and N2 measure the level of understanding of Japanese used in a broad range of scenes in actual everyday life. N3 is a bridging level between N1/N2 and N4/N5.What are the basic Japanese words? ›
- Hai. Yes. はい。
- Iie. No. いいえ。
- O-negai shimasu. Please. おねがいします。
- Arigatō. Thank you. ありがとう。
- Dōitashimashite. You're welcome. どういたしまして。
- Sumimasen. Excuse me. すみません。
- Gomennasai. I am sorry. ごめんなさい。
- Ohayō gozaimasu. Good morning. おはようございます。
Because kanji characters are the hardest to master, children's books only use hiragana and katakana characters. That reminds me – hiragana and katakana also have a joint name: kana. An example of a Japanese sentence using all three writing systems could be こんにちは、私の名前はマンドリです。Is Korean easier than Japanese? ›
Unlike other East-Asian languages, Korean isn't a tonal language. This means, that the meaning of the word doesn't change, regardless of what your accent is like. This makes learning Korean much easier than Japanese.Why can't Japanese pronounce V? ›
tl;dr: It varies, but it is usually a weak "b". It varies from person to person, so some may pronounce it like the English "v", but others may use a strong "b" sound. Originally, Japanese had no ヴ character so they used variations of ビ (bi). I think some Japanese might be able to do it, but they find it quite awkward.What letter Japanese Cannot pronounce? ›
There's a simple reason why Japanese people can't pronounce R and L correctly. They don't exist in Japanese. It is not, as was asked of me once, a genetic defect. Japanese people who spent their childhood years in an English speaking country can pronounce both sounds fine.Why can't Asians pronounce the letter R? ›
The english "R" is a pretty unusual sound, linguistically. For instance, you won't find it in most European languages. But of course, the stereotype is mostly because Japanese has a sound that is basically halfway between an "R" and an "L", so native Japanese speakers can confuse those letters.What is the hardest Japanese alphabet to learn? ›
Because kanji characters are the hardest to master, children's books only use hiragana and katakana characters.What is the hardest alphabet in Japanese? ›
Kanji is the most challenging to learn among the 3 alphabets. The learning starts with the simpler and frequently used characters. Most Kanji characters are created by combining different elements. This makes it easier to express some complex concepts which are hard to convey with pictures alone.What Japanese alphabet is most used? ›
Hiragana is the most commonly used, standard form of Japanese writing. It's used on its own or in conjunction with kanji to form words, and it's the first form of Japanese writing that children learn.
What is the hardest letter in Japanese? ›
たいと(taito) is the most difficult Japanese Kanji on the record with a total of 84 strokes. It is formed by combining 3 雲 (くもkumo) with 3 龍 (りゅうRyuu). 雲means cloud and 龍 means dragon in English.How many kanji should I learn a day? ›
1. How many kanji will I learn each day? Some simple math will show that you need to learn at least 23 kanji every day to complete your mission on schedule (2,042 kanji ÷ 90 days = 22.7).Do people use kanji or hiragana? ›
Hiragana is a script, which in normal Japanese texts is used alongside kanji and katakana. Hiragana is usually used for grammatical functions (e.g., particles, verb inflections, etc.) and for words for which there doesn't exist kanji, or for words whose kanji are non-standard. 海山 would usually be written in kanji.What is the longest Japanese word? ›
A funny phrase in japanese is “toragahitowokamoutosurutokinounarinow” 虎が人を噛もうとするときのうなり声。 It is 37 letters long and is comprised of a 17 syllables. It is a very odd phrase, as it is defined as “the growl a tiger makes when it is about to about to bite someone”.Is Japanese harder than Chinese? ›
Japanese is slightly easier to learn. But, Chinese is much more widely spoken. Both languages have their pros and cons.Why are there 3 Japanese alphabets? ›
Why does the Japanese language have to use three different types of script; Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana? A. This is because each of the three types of script, Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana, has its own specific role. Let's examine a sentence like “I'm Anna,” WATASHI WA ANNA DESU.Is Japanese harder than English? ›
In fact, the US Foreign Service Institute considers Japanese to be one of the most difficult languages to learn for an English speaker (along with Arabic, Chinese, and Korean). While it may take an average learner 30 weeks to master French, it will take approximately 88 weeks for Japanese.Why do Japanese read right to left? ›
Traditionally, Japanese was written in vertical columns. These columns were read from top to bottom and from right to left. This way of writing is called tategaki (縦書き) – which literally means 'vertical writing'.Why does Japan still use kanji? ›
In Japanese, there are no spaces between words, so kanji helps break words apart, making it easy to read. As I'm sure you can imagine, long sentences would get even more difficult to read, and when you don't know where one word begins and another one ends, reading errors can occur.Why is Japanese alphabet so complicated? ›
Almost all written Japanese sentences contain a mixture of kanji and kana. Because of this mixture of scripts, in addition to a large inventory of kanji characters, the Japanese writing system is considered to be one of the most complicated currently in use.
Can you learn kanji in a year? ›
You would have to know all the jouyou kanji, 10,000 words, and know hundreds of grammar patterns. So, to reach near-native levels of fluency, you'd need at least a year of full-time, immersive studying.Can you write Japanese with only kanji? ›
No. It is not possible to write standard Modern Japanese in kanji only. You may see newspaper headlines without kana particles but that is an artificial use of orthography to save space on the page. Headlines do not reflect grammatical or syntactic norms within the language itself.