Struggling to grasp how to write in Japanese? It’s not as hard as it seems!
Sure, hiragana and katakana, two of the key systems in Japanese writing, look so foreign and intimidating, but they can actually be quite simple. The characters don’t represent unique meanings the way Chinese characters do. They’re more like a Japanese alphabet. And they have some helpful advantages that make learning Japanese characters easier.
All you need is a quick breakdown of the Japanese writing system, and some useful mnemonics — and I’m about to give you both of these.
Are you ready to rock your Japanese language learning skills? Let’s go!
How to Make Sense of Japanese Writing — It’s the Same as English (Well, Almost)
Believe it or not, Japanese and English writing have something in common. Excluding kanji which comes from China, Japanese has two native writing styles — hiragana and katakana. Together they're known as kana. In other words, hiragana and katakana are two different ways to write the same thing.
English also has two writing systems that read the same way: print and cursive. Whether you write A or A, it’s still the same letter. But how we use them is different. The same is true for writing and reading in Japanese. It doesn’t matter if it’s hiragana or katakana, they both represent the same sound and character.
Hiragana vs Katakana: What’s the Difference?
So, then, what’s the difference between hiragana vs katakana?
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.
Written on its own and without kanji, it's a bit hard to read and child-like, and can only be read with some effort. But, it’s fine to write in only hiragana if you are a beginner learner.
Japanese people can still understand, and they know kanji’s difficult for 外国人 (gaikokujin – “foreigners”). Most children's books, and even some video games like Pokémon, are only written in hiragana.
Hiragana is curly like English cursive, but it functions more like print — it’s used more for easy reading. It’s the standard way to write for clarity and understanding.
Katakana, on the other hand, is more like print in its appearance: more block-ish and sharp. But it’s used to signal to the reader that a word is foreign, adapted to Japanese from another language. It’s also used for emphasis, and onomatopoeia. You may also notice some brands and celebrities write their names in katakana as a stylistic choice.
You may think, then, that it’s most important to learn hiragana and that you can slack off on katakana — but that would be a myth. The number of Japanese loan words from other languages continues to grow every year. You’ll see a lot more words written in katakana on a daily basis. And onomatopoeia is ridiculously common in daily speech and writing — not just in まんが (manga – “comic books”). So make sure you learn them both!
Reading and Understanding Hiragana vs Katakana
The best thing about reading in Japanese is that hiragana and katakana are phonetic, meaning they’re always read the same. Period. Unlike English, where the letters can have many different pronunciations, the Japanese alphabet is always read exactly the same. Even when put together in words, they never change. Kanji readings will change (something to look forward to when you advance!), but not kana.
So if you think Japanese symbols are impossible to learn, bear in mind that they’re a lot easier than learning English, because English has so many inconsistencies in pronunciation.
Something else helpful to know: katakana almost always sounds like a word you know. You already know way more vocabulary in Japanese than you think! So if you see katakana, you can sound it out and figure out the meaning with very little guesswork. Like オレンジジュース (orenjijūsu – “Orange Juice”). Some words are taken from Portuguese, French, and other languages besides English, but they’re still always written in katakana. Such as パン (pan – “bread”), and ズボン (zubon – “pants”).
Hiragana vs Katakana Chart
Here’s a helpful chart to help you learn hiragana and katakana (I’ll explain how to use the chart in a moment):
How to Read in Japanese: Sounding Out Hiragana and Katakana (With a Breakdown of Sounds)
The Japanese alphabet is broken down into rows and columns, as pictured in the chart above. The vertical column marks the vowel, and the horizontal row marks the consonant sound. Besides the singular vowel sounds, all Japanese characters will have a consonant and vowel, except for ん (“n” or “m”).
Take a look at the chart. You have a column for each vowel sound: あ / ア (a), い / イ (i), う / ウ (u), え / エ (e), お / オ (o). Then the first row on the horizontal line is the “K” row. So the characters are か / カ, き / キ, く / ク, け / ケ, こ / コ (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko). It’s a good idea to memorize this chart because when you get to grammar conjugation, it helps simplify how you change the words to conjugate.
Let’s break down the sounds:
- あ: “ah”, like “Ahhhhhh,” with an open mouth.
- い: “ee,” like “bee.”
- う: “oo,” like “tooth.”
- え: “eh,” like “medicine.”
- お: “oh,” like the letter “O”
So then the next row reads like:
- か: “kah,” like “cat.”
- き: “kee,” like “key.”
- く: “koo,” like “coo,” the sound a baby makes.
- け: “keh,” like “kettle.”
- こ: “koh,” like “Coca-cola.”
Let’s try it again with the next row:
- さ: “sah.”
- し: “shi.”
- す: “soo”
- せ: “seh”
- そ: “soh”
You can see in the S-row, that there is one irregular – し (“shi”). There are only a few other irregulars, such as ち (“chi”), つ (“tsu”), ふ (“fu”), and ん (“n” or “m”). But most are straight-forward. So if you learn the vowel sound and memorize the rows, you can read the whole sound.
After you learn this standard form, you’ll notice some have extra sounds. By adding characters from the Y-row, や, ゆ, よ, you make new sounds. Like: しゃ (“sha”) ちゃ (“cha”), なゃ (“nya”), ちゅ (“chu”) and ちょ (“cho”). When the Y-characters are added to others, they are written smaller and create a conjunctive sound. Kind of like how “I have” becomes “I’ve.” So, instead of saying とうきょ う as “Toe-key-yoh,” it’s “Toh-kyo.”
Characters also change with dakuten (ﾞ), two small lines, and handakuten (ﾟ), a small circle. This sounds complicated, but it’s really not. By adding the dakuten and handakuten, it changes the consonant slightly. Let’s take a look:
- か (kah) becomes が (gah)
- し (shi) becomes じ (ji)
- そ (soh) becomes ぞ (zoh)
- つ (tsu) becomes づ (zu)
- て (te) becomes で (de)
- へ (he) becomes べ (be)
- へ (he) becomes ぺ (pe)
Only K, S, T, and H rows use these characters. When they use dakuten, they become G, Z, D, and B, respectively. H is the only row that uses handakuten, and it becomes P when the small circle is added.
- K → G
- S → Z
- T → D
- H → B
- H → P
There are a couple irregulars here too: じ: “ji,” ぢ: “ji,” and づ: “zu.” Although ず (“zu”) and づ (“zu”), and じ (“ji”) and ぢ (“ji”) have the same meanings, it’s most common to see ず and じ.
Noodles and Keys! How to Become a Memory Master of Kana
To help memorize the kana, it’s best to use mnemonics — which means seeing each symbol as a picture. A friend once shared the mnemonics she learned in high school with me, and they immediately helped me memorize the kana. I’ve never forgotten them since!
ぬ: “Nu” for “noodle.” It looks like a squiggly pile of noodles!
め: “Me” for “medal.” It looks like a medal with the ribbon around it to hang around your neck
れ: “Re” for “Ret’s get out of here!” Picture Scooby Doo and the Gang running off, because it looks like a person dashing off.
む: “Mu” for “Moooooo,” like a cow. It looks like a cow’s face, with the swirl being its nose! (Especially if you’ve ever seen the cow designs in Animal Crossing.)
あ: “A” for “Ahhhhhhh.” Someone’s mouth is wide open! (Maybe at the dentist.)
き: “Ki” for “Key.” It looks like an old-fashioned key.
け: “Ke” for “Cane.” It looks like a stick-figure old man using his walking cane!
そ: “So” for “Sewing.” It looks like a zig-zag stitch in a sewing pattern.
と: “To” for “Toe.” It looks like a big toe and toenail.
へ: “He” for “Hill.” It looks like a small hill.
に: “Ni” for “Knee.” It looks like your leg and knee!
Yeah, it may be silly. But it helps! And that’s all that matters. Create your own, or try some of these. You’d be surprised how they stick with you. I learned this list nearly 12 years ago!
The crazier and more vibrantly you can associate them in your mind, the easier it will be to memorize them. The same is true when you move on to kanji memorization.
Tips for Hiragana and Katakana Practice
Honestly, the best tip is to write it out as much as you can. Whenever I was bored (usually in college classes…), I would make a box and mark it vertically with the consonants, and horizontally with the vowels. And then I would fill in all the spots with the right hiragana and katakana. I’d double check them after, but any blank spots let me know which ones I was having trouble with.
You could also practice Japanese writing, and write right to left, and vertically. It’s a challenge to get used to, but it looks so elegant!
There are also tons of easy reading resources to learn Japanese and get practice reading hiragana and katakana. You can practice in kana-only mode on games like Pokémon, read NHK News Easy or Kodomo Asahi. Any reading and writing practice you can do will help improve your hiragana vs katakana understanding!
Now Go Out and Kana On!
Don’t let a foreign writing system hold you back! Learn how to practice the four pillars of language learning, and it will get easier. Learning hiragana vs katakana isn’t as bad as it first appears, and I know you can do it!
How are your Japanese studies going? Do you have some great tips or mnemonics to learn hiragana and katakana? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!