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Think learning the Japanese alphabet is impossible? Learning a foreign language is already intimidating, but learning a language that has three systems of writing?
I agree, that’s pretty scary!
Here’s the thing. Japanese is not as hard as you think — in fact, you can learn Japanese, fast.
One of the best ways to start studying is to learn the basics of reading and writing in Japanese. After all, these are part of the four main skills you need to reach fluency!
And despite what you might think, learning the difference between the Japanese writing systems and understanding the basics are quite simple. In fact, you could learn it in a day if you tried!
Here’s everything you need to know about the Japanese alphabet to get started.
What are the Letters of the Japanese Alphabet?
I’ll start by answering questions that language learners often ask about why Japanese is written the way it is.
The Japanese alphabet actually contains fewer letters than the English alphabet!
When Romanizing Japanese (that is, writing Japanese words with English letters, also called romaji), you will only use the vowels a, i, u, e, o. And you’ll use these consonants: k, g, s, z, j, t, d, n, h, f, b, p, m, y, r, w. There is also the combined letters ch — the letter “c” is never used on its own. That’s 21 letters in total.
The sounds in the Japanese alphabet are one thing that makes Japanese easier for English speakers to learn than for Japanese speakers to learn English.
Japanese contains almost no new sounds for English speakers, whereas English has many sounds not found in Japanese. The main sound that English speakers struggle with is the Japanese “r.” It’s pronounced between an “l” and an “r”, almost like the soft “r” sound from Spanish. Say “la, la, la” and notice where your tongue flicks off from behind your teeth. Now say “da, da, da.” This spot where your tongue touches the roof of your mouth is actually where you flick off from to create the “r” sound in Japanese!
How Many Letters are in the Japanese Alphabet?
There are 46 basic characters in the Japanese alphabet and additional characters/sounds that can be made from the basic 46. Each of the alphabet symbols forms one syllable made of the 21 romaji, which is phonetic and always read the same way. Because of that, reading Japanese is a great way to pick up proper pronunciation for spoken Japanese. There’s no guessing like in English, where two words that look the same sound nothing alike, or words that look nothing alike sound the same. How you read the characters in Japanese is exactly how you say it, without exception.
How does the Japanese Alphabet Work?
The Japanese alphabet is called a “syllabary,” or “syllabic script.” That’s because each “letter” in Japanese represents a whole syllable in English. There are two main ways the characters represent syllables: as a sole vowel and as a consonant with a vowel. There is only one character that represents a sole consonant: n. Other than that, consonants must always be paired with a vowel, and the vowel will always follow the consonant.
Japanese has two “alphabets” called hiragana (curvy like English cursive), and katakana (angular like English print). The two together are called kana. The third writing system, kanji, is not really an alphabet or a syllabary. Instead, it represents whole words. The three systems of writing can all be used within the same sentence. Unlike English where you’d write only in cursive or print, you can combine kana and kanji as needed.
Why are there 3 Alphabets in Japan?
Hiragana and katakana are native to Japan, while kanji was imported from Chinese hanzi. Each of the characters has its own function, though. Many words are represented by a kanji character and the sound is completed with hiragana.
An example of this is 好き (suki). The first character, 好, is the kanji and read as su. The second character, き, is a hiragana symbol that’s read as ki. They’re used together to create one word: suki, “like.”
Hiragana is also used for many other reasons. Words can be written entirely in hiragana. It can be used for furigana, small hiragana written above kanji to help with reading. Also, it can be used to write particles that mark the purpose of a noun or verb in a sentence. Writing exclusively in hiragana is okay, but makes it a bit more difficult to read. Words can get “jumbled” together because Japanese doesn’t use spaces. It’s also a bit childish to write only in hiragana — children write exclusively in hiragana until they start learning kanji in grade school.
Kanji are used in reading and writing to make it clear what the word is referring to. For instance, hashi means both “chopsticks” and “bridge.” But when you’re writing, the kanji makes it obvious which you mean: if you write 箸, you mean “chopsticks.” And if you use 橋, you mean “bridge.” Kanji characters can have many different readings though, unlike the standardized, single reading of kana characters.
What about katakana? Well, katakana is only used for two reasons: to write foreign words in Japanese, or to put emphasis on a word. Sometimes you’ll see either slang or people’s names written in katakana to stylize or put emphasis. You’ll also see them used for Japanese onomatopoeia.
Katakana and hiragana both contain the same amount of characters that correspond to each other. What that means is, the hiragana き and katakana キ are both read as “ki.” Just like “A” and “A” in print and cursive English.
Japanese Alphabet Charts
Okay! Now, let’s take a look at the characters for each of the Japanese alphabets.
Japanese Alphabet: Hiragana
|a||あ (a)||か (ka)||さ (sa)||た (ta)||な (na)||は (ha)||ま (ma)||や (ya)||ら (ra)||わ (wa)||ん (n)|
|i||い (i)||き (ki)||し (shi)||ち (chi)||に (ni)||ひ (hi)||み (mi)||り (ri)|
|u||う (u)||く (ku)||す (su)||つ (tsu)||ぬ (nu)||ふ (fu)||む (mu)||ゆ (yu)||る (ru)|
|e||え (e)||け (ke)||せ (se)||て (te)||ね (ne)||へ (he)||め (me)||れ (re)|
|o||お (o)||こ (ko)||そ (so)||と (to)||の (no)||ほ (ho)||も (mo)||よ (yo)||ろ (ro)||を (wo)|
This type of chart, called the gojuuon, is a 50-block chart that organizes the kana sounds into something like alphabetical order. It’s always written this way. It doesn’t include the extra sounds made with dakuten (the double accent marks: ﾞ), handakuten (the small circle: ﾟ), sokuon (which is a small っ that doubles the consonant sound and makes a “stop” in the word), or yoon (the small Y-row characters: ゃ,ゅ,ょ). These are special characters added on to these 46 basic sounds to make the additional sounds in Japanese.
For instance, adding the dakuten to き makes it ぎ (“gi”). Handakuten are only used with H-row characters, to change the sound from H to P. So, は (“ha”) becomes ぱ (“pa”).
The most common sokuon is the small っ (tsu), which is added in between characters to double the consonant of the second syllable. A common word using this is かっこいい (kakkoii, “cool”). When pronouncing it, the “k” in “ko” is given a strong accent that adds a “stop” sound to the middle of the word.
And lastly, yoon characters are the small Y-row that can combine with any of the the I-row of consonants + vowels. So, if you added や (“ya”) to き (“ki”), it becomes きゃ (“kya”). If you add よ (“yo”) to ち (“chi”) it becomes ちょ (“cho”). You drop the “i” vowel and add the “ya/yu/yo” to the consonant, except for “chi” and “shi”. These two sounds become “cha/chu/cho” and “sha/shu/sho” when you add yoon characters.
It’s a lot to take in at first, but I promise it makes sense quickly! The more you read the characters, the easier it is to understand and see the patterns. Start with the basic 46. Get comfortable with those symbols and sounds. Then start to memorize the additional sounds and how to properly write them.
Japanese Alphabet: Katakana
|a||ア (a)||カ (ka)||サ (sa)||タ (ta)||ナ (na)||ハ (ha)||マ (ma)||ヤ (ya)||ラ (ra)||ワ (wa)||ン (n)|
|i||イ (i)||キ (ki)||シ (shi)||チ (chi)||ニ (ni)||ヒ (hi)||ミ (mi)||リ (ri)|
|u||ウ (u)||ク (ku)||ス (su)||ツ (tsu)||ヌ (nu)||フ (fu)||ム (mu)||ユ (yu)||ル (ru)|
|e||エ (e)||ケ (ke)||セ (se)||テ (te)||ネ (ne)||ヘ (he)||メ (me)||レ (re)|
|o||オ (o)||コ (ko)||ソ (so)||ト (to)||ノ (no)||ホ (ho)||モ (mo)||ヨ (yo)||ロ (ro)||ヲ (wo)|
The katakana chart is laid out exactly like the hiragana chart, as they coordinate with each other. New learners often have a hard time memorizing katakana, especially because some characters look very similar, like ツ (tsu) and シ (shi). How to tell them apart is all about the direction of the strokes when writing it. Tsu is written top down, while shi is written left-to-right.
If you’ve learned all the extra sounds and accents with hiragana, you’ll have no problem learning them with katakana as well.
Japanese Alphabet: Kanji
Now let’s look at kanji. Kanji is totally different than hiragana and katakana, because it’s not an alphabet system. Each character has a whole-word meaning and combine with other kanji to create compounds and deeper meanings. There are thousands of kanji, and around 2,000 that are considered essential for everyday reading and writing. But these 100 are a great place to start and get a feel for kanji.
|Kanji||English Meaning||Onyomi||Kunyomi||JLPT N5 Vocab with Kanji|
|一||One||ichi, itsu||hito(tsu), hito||一人 (one person, alone)|
|二||Two||ni||futa(tsu), futa||二人 (two people, pair)|
|三||Three||san||mit(tsu), mi||三日 (3rd day of the month)|
|四||Four||shi||yo(tsu), yo, yon||四日 (4th day of the month)|
|五||Five||go||itsu(tsu), itsu||五日 (5th day of the month)|
|六||Six||roku||mut(tsu), mu||六日 (6th day of the month)|
|七||Seven||shichi||nana(tsu), nana||七日 (7th day of the month)|
|八||Eight||hachi||yat(tsu), ya||八日 (8th day of the month)|
|九||Nine||kyuu, ku||kokono(tsu), kokono||九日 (9th day of the month)|
|十||Ten||juu, ji||tou, to||十日 (10th day of the month)|
|百||Hundred||hyaku||—||百万円 (1 million Yen)|
|千||Thousand||sen||chi||千万円 (10 million Yen)|
|万||Ten thousand||man, ban||—||万年筆 (fountain pen)|
|円||Yen, circle, and round||en||maru(i)||円い (round)|
|日||Day, sun||nichi, jitsu||hi, ka||明日 (tomorrow)|
|週||Week||shuu||—||毎週 (every week)|
|月||Month, moon||getsu, gatsu||tsuki||月曜日 (Monday)|
|年||Year||nen||toshi||今年 (this year), 去年 (last year)|
|時||Time, hour||ji||toki||時計 (clock, watch)|
|間||Time frame, span of time||kan, ken||aida||時間 (time, hours)|
|分||Minute, part, to understand, to divide||bun, bu, fun||wa(karu)||三十分 (thirty minutes), 自分 (oneself)|
|午||Noon||go||—||午前 (morning, A.M.)|
|後||After, later, behind||go, kou||ato||午後 (afternoon, P.M.)|
|今||Now||kon, kin||ima||今晩 (this evening), 今朝 (this morning)|
|先||Before, ahead, future||sen||saki||先週 (last week), 先生 (teacher, master)|
|来||To come||rai||ku(ru)||来月 (next month), 来る (to come)|
|半||Half, middle||han||naka(ba)||半分 (half)|
|毎||Every, each||mai||—||毎日(every day)|
|何||What, which, how many||ka||nan, nani||何曜日 (what day of the week)|
|人||Person||jin, nin||hito||人々 (people)|
|男||Man, boy, male||dan, nan||otoko||男の子 (boy)|
|女||Woman, girl, female||jo, nyo||onna, me||女の子 (girl)|
|子||Child||shi, su||ko||子供 (child)|
|木||Tree, wood||moku, boku||ki, ko||木曜日 (Thursday)|
|土||Earth, ground||do, to||tsuchi||土曜日 (Saturday)|
|金||Money, gold||kin, kon||kane||金曜日 (Friday)|
|本||Book, source||hon||moto||日本語 (Japanese)|
|気||Spirit||ki, ke||—||元気 (healthy, spirit, fine)|
|生||Life, to live, to be born, to grow||sei, shou||i(kiru), u(mareru), ha(yasu)||生徒 (pupil)|
|天||Heaven||ten||ame, ama||天気 (weather)|
|空||Sky, empty||kuu||sora, a(keru)||空 (sky)|
|車||Car, vehicle||sha||kuruma||電車 (electric train)|
|語||Language, word, to chat||go||kata(ru)||英語 (English)|
|足||Foot, to add||soku||ashi, ta(su)||足 (foot)|
|口||Mouth||kou, ku||kuchi||出口 (exit)|
|名||Name||mei, myou||na||名前 (name)|
|店||Shop||ten||mise||喫茶店 (coffee shop)|
|駅||Station||eki||—||駅前 (in front of the station)|
|道||Street, path, way||dou||michi||道具 (tool)|
|社||Shrine, society||sha||yashiro||社長 (president of a company)|
|外||Outside||gai, ge||soto, hazu(reru), hoka||外国 (foreign country)|
|学||School, learning||gaku||mana(bu)||大学 (university)|
|上||Up, above||shou, jou||ue, u, a(geru)||上着 (jacket)|
|下||Down, below||ka, ge||ku(daru), shita||靴下 (socks)|
|中||Middle, center, inner, between||chuu||naka||日中 (during the day, midday)|
|西||West||sai, sei||nishi||西 (west)|
|見||To see, to be visible, to show||ken||mi(ru)||見せる (to show)|
|聞||To hear, to listen, to ask||mon, bun||ki(ku)||聞く (to listen, to hear)|
|書||To write||sho||ka(ku)||辞書 (dictionary)|
|読||To read||doku||yo(mu)||読む (to read)|
|話||To talk, conversation||wa||hanashi, hana(su)||電話 (telephone)|
|買||To buy||bai||ka(u)||買い物 (shopping)|
|行||To go, to carry out||kou||i(ku), okona(u)||銀行 (bank)|
|出||To go out, to leave||shutsu||de(ru), da(su)||出かける (to go out)|
|入||To enter, to put in||nyuu||hai(ru), i(reru)||入口 (entrance)|
|休||To rest, break, holiday, vacation||kyuu||yasu(mu), yasu(mi)||休む (to take a day off)|
|食||To eat, food||shoku||ta(beru)||食堂 (dining room)|
|飲||To drink, a drink||in||no(mu)||飲み物 (beverage)|
|言||To talk, word||gen, gon||i(u)||言う (to say)|
|立||To stand||ritsu||ta(tsu)||立つ (to stand)|
|会||To meet, society||kai, e||a(u)||会社 (company)|
|多||A lot, many||ta||oo(i)||多い (many), 多分 (probably)|
|少||A little, few||shou||suko(shi), suku(nai)||少ない (few)|
|新||New||shin||atara(shii)||新しい (new), 新聞 (newspaper)|
|大||Big, a lot||dai, tai||oo(kii)||大きい (big), 大変 (dreadful, immense)|
|小||Little, small||shou||chii(sai), ko||小さい (little)|
|安||Cheap, safety, peace||an||yasu(i)||安い (cheap)|
|高||Expensive, high||kou||taka(i)||高い (expensive)|
|長||Long, leader||chou||naga(i)||長い (long), 部長 (manager)|
|白||White||haku, byaku||shiro, shiro(i)||白い (white), 面白い (interesting)|
As you can see, each kanji has multiple readings. This is what makes it hard to learn how to read. The readings change based on the word or how it combines with other kanji. The easiest way to learn how to read them? When you’re learning your kanji, also memorize a common word for each reading. It helps lock in the sounds and meaning at the same time.
But don’t stress about kanji too much. Just look over the chart and get a feel for what these characters look like and represent. Learn your kana first, the true Japanese alphabet system. Then, move on to kanji.
What is the Most Common Japanese Alphabet?
The honest truth is that all three alphabets are common. You need to learn all your kana and some kanji to get by. That said, you could get by writing only in hiragana. Hiragana is the most “basic” and the first writing system that children learn, so it can be used to convey the same ideas as you would using all three systems. Although you’ll be understood, be aware that it would appear very childish.
My advice? Master both hiragana and katakana completely, and learn at least 100 essential kanji.
Is Japanese read Right-to-Left or Left-to-Right?
So… how do you read Japanese? The honest truth is… it’s both. Traditionally, and especially in literature, you’ll see Japanese written in vertical lines. These lines are read top to bottom, right-to-left. The characters are stacked single file in these vertical lines and there are no spaces. So it takes a bit of practice to get used to this style. However, I find this way of writing incredibly elegant. It’s worth the practice!
In modern situations, you’ll find Japanese written horizontally and read from left-to-right. Things like brand names on packages, signs, and more.
Where and when you see which way of writing varies greatly. You’ll see neon signs on buildings written vertically, while some ads may be horizontally written. The usual rule of thumb is if it’s vertically written, you read right-to-left. And if it’s horizontally written, you read left-to-right.
There are a few exceptions, but you’ll learn to spot them once you get used to reading Japanese and how it normally looks.
Tips for Learning the Japanese Alphabet, Fast
There are some easy ways to learn the Japanese writing systems — fast!
The best tip is to come up with mnemonic devices to remember them. Here are some examples of ways I remember the hiragana:
- ぬ (nu) looks like chopsticks grabbing a ramen noodle
- む (mu) kind of looks like a cartoon cow face — moo
- し (shi) looks like a hook for catching fish in the sea/shi
- に (ni) looks like a knee!
- れ (re) looks like a person running. Think like Scooby Doo: “Ret’s get out of here!”
- み (mi) looks like a fancy script for “21.” So I remember the phrase, “As for me, I’m 21.” (Not really, but it still helps!)
- き (ki) looks like an old fashioned key
- め (me) looks like an Olympic gold medal
- つ (tsu) looks like a wave from a tsunami
- ひ (hi) looks like a smile, hee hee hee
Those are just some examples of my own mnemonics I’ve used to learn and remember the hiragana. You can do the same thing for katakana and kanji, too!
Another way to practice and memorize is to write out the gojuuon chart and fill it in yourself. I used to do this over and over for both hiragana and katakana. I write the vertical row with the vowels, and the horizontal row with the first letter of the consonants. Then I work on filling in each row’s symbols. Any I can’t remember, I leave blank. Then I look over the chart, check for mistakes, and write in any I forgot. I did this until I memorized them all! And it’s great writing practice. Pro tip: the gojuuon chart is actually really helpful for learning basic verb conjugation. So memorizing the way the chart flows can help you with grammar, too!
As for kanji, I highly recommend using Heisig’s method and Anki. This method is very similar to the one I described for kana, but it focuses on learning the character and English description first, and then going back to learn the readings later with related vocab. It’s a very effective method, and one of the most popular among Japanese learners.
The Japanese Alphabet is Easy!
Seriously — it is! Even if you’re still a little confused or overwhelmed right now, it clicks together fast with just a bit of practice. Using mnemonic devices can help you memorize the kana in only one day’s study time!
What other tips do you have for learning the Japanese alphabet/syllabary? Are there certain characters you struggle with? Leave a comment and let me know!