Does the Japanese writing system intimidate you?
For most people, this seems like the hardest part of learning Japanese. How to write in Japanese is a bit more complex than some other languages. But there are ways to make it easier so you can master it!
Here at Fluent in 3 Months, we encourage actually speaking over intensive studying, reading, and listening. But writing is an active form of learning too, and crucial for Japanese. Japanese culture is deeply ingrained in its writing systems. If you can’t read or write it, you’ll struggle as you go along in your studies.
Some of the best Japanese textbooks expect you to master these writing systems… fast. For instance, the popular college textbook Genki, published by the Japan Times, expects you to master the basics in as little as a week. After that, they start to phase out the romanized versions of the word.
It’s also easy to mispronounce words when they’re romanized into English instead of the original writing system. If you have any experience learning how to write in Korean, then you know that romanization can vary and the way it reads isn’t often how it’s spoken.
Despite having three writing systems, there are benefits to it. Kanji, the “most difficult,” actually makes memorizing vocabulary easier!
So, learning to write in Japanese will go a long way in your language studies and help you to speak Japanese fast.
Why Does Japanese Have Three Writing Systems? A Brief Explainer
Japanese has three writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. The first two are collectively called kana and are the basics of writing in Japanese.
If you think about English, we have two writing systems — print and cursive. Both print and cursive write out the same letters, but they look “sharp” and “curvy.” The same is true for kana. Hiragana is “curvy” and katakana is “sharp,” but they both represent the same Japanese alphabet (which is actually called a syllabary). They both represent sounds, or syllables, rather than single letters (except for vowels and “n”, hiragana ん or katakana ン). Hiragana and katakana serve two different purposes.
Hiragana is the most common, and the first taught to Japanese children. If this is all you learn, you would be understood (although you’d come across child-like). Hiragana is used for grammar functions, like changing conjugation or marking the subject of a sentence. Because of this, hiragana helps break up a sentence when combined with kanji. It makes it easier to tell where a word begins and ends, especially since Japanese doesn’t use spaces. It’s also used for furigana, which are small hiragana written next to kanji to help with the reading. You see furigana often in manga, Japanese comics, for younger audiences who haven’t yet learned to read all the kanji. (Or learners like us!)
Katakana serves to mark foreign words. When words from other languages are imported into Japanese, they’re often written in Japanese as close as possible to the original word. (Like how you can romanize Japanese into English, called romaji). For example, パン (pan) comes from Spanish, and means “bread.” Or from English, “smartphone” is スマートフォン (suma-tofon) or shortened, slang form スマホ (sumaho). Katakana can also be used to stylistically write a Japanese name, to write your own foreign name in Japanese, or to add emphasis to a word when writing.
Then there’s kanji. Kanji was imported from Chinese, and each character means a word, instead of a syllable or letter. 犬, read inu, means “dog.” And 食, read ta or shoku, means “food” or “to eat.” They combine with hiragana or other kanji to complete their meaning and define how you pronounce them.
So if you wanted to say “I’m eating,” you would say 食べます (tabemasu), where -bemasu completes the verb and puts it in grammatical tense using hiragana. If you wanted to say “Japanese food,” it would be 日本食 (nipponshoku), where it’s connected to other kanji.
If you didn’t have these three forms, it would make reading Japanese very difficult. The sentences would run together and it would be confusing. Like in this famous Japanese tongue twister: にわにはにわにわとりがいる, or romanized niwa ni wa niwa niwatori ga iru. But in kanji, it looks like 庭には二羽鶏がいる. The meaning? “There are chickens in the garden.” Thanks to the different writing systems, we know that the first niwa means garden, the second ni wa are the grammatical particles, the third niwa is to say there are at least two, and niwatori is “chickens.”
Japanese has fewer sounds than English, and except for “r,” most of them are in the English language. So you should find most of the sounds easy to pick up!
Japanese has the same 5 vowels, but only 16 consonants. For the most part, all syllables consist of only a vowel, or a consonant plus a vowel. But there is the single “n,” and “sh,” “ts,” and “ch” sounds, as well as consonant + -ya/-yu/-yo sounds. I’ll explain this more in a minute.
Although Japanese has the same 5 vowel sounds, they only have one sound. Unlike English, there is no “long A” and “short A” sound. This makes it easy when reading kana because the sound never changes. So, once you learn how to write kana, you will always know how to pronounce it.
Here’s how the 5 vowels sound in Japanese:
- あ / ア: “ah” as in “latte”
- い / イ: “ee” as in “bee”
- う / ウ: “oo” as in “tooth”
- え / エ: “eh” as in “echo”
- お / オ: “oh” as in “open”
Even when combined with consonants, the sound of the vowel stays the same. Look at these examples:
- か / カ: “kah” as in “copy”
- ち / チ: “chi” as in “cheap”
- む / ム: “mu” as in “move”
- せ / セ: “se” as in “set”
- の / ノ: “no” as in “note”
Take a look at the entire syllabary chart:
|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)|
|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)|
Based on learning how to pronounce the vowels, can you pronounce the rest of the syllables? The hardest ones will be the R-row of sounds, “tsu,” “fu,” and “n.”
For “r” it sounds between an “r” and an “l” sound in English. Almost like the Spanish, actually. First, try saying “la, la, la.” Your tongue should push off of the back of your teeth to make this sound. Now say “rah, rah, rah.” Notice how your tongue pulls back to touch your back teeth. Now, say “dah, dah, dah.” That placement of your tongue to make the “d” sound is actually where you make the Japanese “r” sound. You gently push off of this spot on the roof of your mouth as you pull back your tongue like an English “r.”
“Tsu” blends together “t” and “s” in a way we don’t quite have in English. You push off the “t” sound, and should almost sound like the “s” is drawn out. The sound “fu” is so soft, and like a breath of air coming out. Think like a sigh, “phew.” It doesn’t sound like “who,” but a soft “f.” As for our lone consonant, “n” can sound like “n” or “m,” depending on the word.
Special Japanese Character Readings and How to Write Them
There are a few Japanese characters that combine with others to create more sounds. You’ll often see dakuten, which are double accent marks above the character on the right side ( ﾞ), and handakuten, which is a small circle on the right side ( ﾟ).
Here’s how dakuten affect the characters:
- K → G
- S → Z
- Shi → Ji
- T → D
- Tsu → Zu
- H → B
And handakuten are only used with the H-row characters, changing it from “h” to “p.” So か (ka) becomes が (ga), and ひ (hi) becomes either び (bi) or ぴ (pi).
A sokuon adds a small っ between two characters to double the consonant that follows it and make a “stop” in the word. In the saying いらっしゃいませ (irasshaimase, “Welcome!”), the “rahs-shai” has a slight glottal pause where the “tsu” emphasizes the double “s.”
One of the special readings that tend to be mispronounced are the yoon characters. These characters add a small “y” row character to the other rows to blend the sounds together. These look like ちゃ (cha), きょ (kyo), and しゅ (shu). They’re added to the “i” column of kana characters.
An example of a common mispronunciation is “Tokyo.” It’s often said “Toh-key-yo,” but it’s actually only two syllables: “Toh-kyo.” The k and y are blended; there is no “ee” sound in the middle.
How to Read, Write, and Pronounce Kanji Characters
Here’s where things get tricky. Kanji, since it represents a whole word or idea, and combines with hiragana… It almost always has more than one way to read and pronounce it. And when it comes to writing them, they have a lot more to them.
Let’s start by breaking down the kanji a bit, shall we?
Most kanji consist of radicals, the basic elements or building blocks. For instance, 日 (“sun” or “day”) is a radical. So is 言 (“words” or “to say”) and 心 (“heart”). So when we see the kanji 曜, we see that “day” has been squished in this complex kanji. This kanji means “day of the week.” It’s in every weekday’s name: 月曜日 (getsuyoubi, “Monday”), 火曜日 (kayoubi, “Tuesday”), 水曜日 (suiyoubi, “Wednesday”), etc.
When the kanji for “words” is mixed into another kanji, it usually has something to do with conversation or language. 日本語 (nihongo) is the word for “Japanese” and the final kanji 語 includes 言. And as for 心, it’s often in kanji related to expressing emotions and feelings, like 怒る (okoru, “angry”) and 思う (omou, “to think”).
In this way, some kanji make a lot of sense when we break them down like this. A good example is 妹 (imouto), the kanji for “little sister.” It’s made up of two radicals: 女, “woman,” and 未, “not yet.” She’s “not yet a woman,” because she’s your kid sister.
So why learn radicals? Because radicals make it easier to memorize, read, and write the kanji. By learning radicals, you can break the kanji down using mnemonics (like “not yet a woman” to remember imouto). If you know each “part,” you’ll remember how to write it. 妹 has 7 strokes to it, but only 2 radicals. So instead of memorizing tons of tiny lines, memorize the parts.
As for pronouncing them, this is largely a memorization game. But here’s a pro-tip. Each kanji has “common” readings — often only one or two. Memorize how to read the kanji with common words that use them, and you’ll know how to read that kanji more often than not.
Japanese Writing: Stroke Order
So, I mentioned stroke order with kanji. But what is that? Stroke order is the proper sequence you use to write Japanese characters.
The rule of stroke order is you go from top to bottom, left to right.
This can still be confusing with some complex kanji, but again, radicals play a part here. You would break down each radical top left-most stroke to bottom right stroke, then move on to the next radical. A helpful resource is Jisho.org, which shows you how to properly write all the characters. Check out how to write the kanji for “kanji” as a perfect example of breaking down radicals.
When it comes to kana, stroke order still matters. Even though they’re simpler, proper stroke order makes your characters easier to read. And some characters rely on stroke order to tell them apart. Take シ and ツ:
[Shi and Tsu example]
If you didn’t use proper stroke order, these two katakana characters would look the same!
How to Memorize Japanese Kanji and Kana
When it comes to Japanese writing, practice makes perfect. Practice writing your sentences down in Japanese, every day. Practice filling in the kana syllabary chart for hiragana and katakana, until there are no blank boxes and you’ve got them all right.
Create mnemonics for both kanji and kana. Heisig’s method is one of the best ways to memorize how to write kanji with mnemonics. Using spaced repetition helps too, like Anki. Then you’re regularly seeing each character, and you can input your mnemonics into the note of the card so you have it as a reminder.
Another great way to practice is to write out words you already know. If you know mizu means “water,” then learn the kanji 水 and write it with the kanji every time from here on out. If you know the phrase おはようございます means “good morning,” practice writing in in kana every morning. That phrase alone gives you practice with 9 characters and two with dakuten! And try looking up loan words to practice katakana.
Tools to Help You with Japanese Writing
There are some fantastic resources out there to help you practice writing in Japanese. Here are a few to help you learn it fast:
- JapanesePod101: Yes, JapanesePod101 is a podcast. But they often feature YouTube videos and have helpful PDFs that teach you kanji and kana! Plus, you’ll pick up all kinds of helpful cultural insights and grammar tips.
- LingQ: LingQ is chock full of reading material in Japanese, giving you plenty of exposure to kana, new kanji, and words. It uses spaced repetition to help you review.
- Skritter: Skritter is one of the best apps for Japanese writing. You can practice writing kanji on the app, and review them periodically so you don’t forget. It’s an incredible resource to keep up with your Japanese writing practice on the go.
- Scripts: From the creator of Drops, this app was designed specifically for learning languages with a different script from your own.
How to Type in Japanese
It’s actually quite simple to type in Japanese! On a PC, you can go to “Language Settings” and click “Add a preferred language.” Download Japanese — 日本語 — and make sure to move it below English. (Otherwise, it will change your laptop’s language to Japanese… Which can be an effective study tool, though!)
To start typing in Japanese, you would press the Windows key + space. Your keyboard will now be set to Japanese! You can type the romanized script, and it will show you the suggestions for kanji and kana. To easily change back and forth between Japanese and English, use the alt key + “~” key.
For Mac, you can go to “System Preferences”, then “Keyboard” and then click the “+” button to add and set Japanese. To toggle between languages, use the command key and space bar.
For mobile devices, it’s very similar. You’ll go to your settings, then language and input settings. Add the Japanese keyboard, and then you’ll be able to toggle back and forth when your typing from the keyboard!
Japanese Writing Isn’t Scary!
Japanese writing isn’t that bad. It does take practice, but it’s fun to write! It’s a beautiful script. So, don’t believe the old ideology that “three different writing systems will take thousands of hours to learn!” A different writing system shouldn’t scare you off. Each writing system has a purpose and makes sense once you start learning. They build on each other, so learning it gets easier as you go. Realistically, you could read a Japanese newspaper after only about two months of consistent studying and practice with kanji!