Three Japanese Alphabets
First things first, Japanese uses three main scripts (or alphabets): hiragana, katakana and kanji.
Kanji (漢字) are adopted Chinese characters used in modern Japanese writing. Most Japanese words (nouns, adjectives and verbs) are written in kanji. There are no spaces in Japanese, so kanji helps distinguish when a new word begins. Kanji characters are symbols that represent words. The more kanji you learn, the easier reading Japanese becomes. However, today we’ll learn about reading Japanese without kanji.
We’ll be focusing on hiragana and katakana (often referred to as kana) in this article — and for a very good reason! Hiragana and katakana consist of a little less than 50 characters each. Don’t let this number overwhelm you! If you think about it, between capital and lowercase letters, cursive and print, English has 104 different letter appearances in its alphabet!
All hiragana and katakana characters make phonetic sounds, just like the English alphabet. This means that こ makes the “ko” sound, ん makes the “n” sound, に makes the “ni” sound, ち is “chi”, and “は” in this situation is pronounced as “wa”. Together, こんにちは reads as “konnichiwa”! Easy, right? You can use hiragana to read the sound of a kanji character.
Hiragana and katakana use the same sounds, but different characters. This helpful chart compares hiragana characters to their katakana counterparts.
Hiragana (ひらがな) is used mainly for grammatical purposes. In Japanese the suffix “-ing” would be written in hiragana. Participles, expressions, and words with extremely difficult or rare kanji are mostly written in hiragana. Hiragana characters are easy to identify because they’re usually a bit curvy and look simpler than kanji characters.
There are some cases where Japanese words use hiragana more often than kanji, such as かわいい (kawaii) or さようなら (sayounara).
While katakana (カタカナ) represents the same sounds as hiragana, it’s mainly used to represent foreign words. Foreign names are represented in katakana, as are many foreign foods. Japan’s fun and quirky onomatopoeia appears in both katakana and hiragana. Katakana characters take a boxier form than hiragana characters do, and appear simpler than kanji. Every katakana character has a hiragana counterpart that makes the same sound.
レディー・ガガ (Lady Gaga)
ボン・ジョヴィ (Bon Jovi)
ジョン・スミス (John Smith)
The small circle in between the previous names separates a first name from a last name (or separates two names) so Japanese readers can tell where a foreign name begins and ends.
ビールを飲んでみましょう！(Let’s drink beer!)
私はアメリカンフットボールが好きです！(I like American football)
マクドナルドで食べる。(Eat at McDonald’s.)
Because these words aren’t native to Japan, they’re written in katakana. Many sound words (like sound effects in manga or animal noises) are also written in katakana.
How to Learn Hiragana and Katakana
If you’re like me, you’d much rather be on Facebook, watching anime, or doing anything but studying hiragana and katakana. Luckily there are a few easy ways to learn these scripts.
The next thing you might want to do is have a hiragana and katakana chart at hand for reference. You can find a number of great charts with a simple internet search. Then, ensure that you can read and write in Japanese on your computer:
Type in Japanese
One way that I learned hiragana and katakana so easily was by typing in Japanese whenever I had the opportunity. Whether you’re taking notes or writing to a pen pal, type it in Japanese!
To type in Japanese, select Japanese input on your computer. Type as you usually would on your normal (English) keyboard. So if you write“a”on your keyboard the character“あ”(which makes the same phonetic sound) will appear. If you type“ko”the character“こ”will be created.
If you’re satisfied with what you’ve written, hit “enter” on your keyboard. If you’d like to change the text from hiragana to katakana, press the “space key” on your keyboard. A drop-down menu should appear with a list of possible katakana or kanji to choose from. This will have you recognizing characters with hardly any effort.
Write in Japanese
After frequently typing in Japanese, I was able to recognize more and more characters, but actually writing in Japanese with pen and paper is what really engraved each character into my memory. By keeping a small journal, a study notebook, or flashcards, you can regularly practice writing.
I keep a small calendar of daily activities and special events, all written in Japanese. When I first started writing in Japanese, my handwriting was atrocious and I disliked writing in kanji. Nowadays, it feels like second nature to record my daily events in Japanese script. Practice makes perfect, so even if it’s just a few words a day, try jotting them down somewhere.
Read in Japanese
Now the big challenge: Reading in Japanese! When I first began to read in Japanese, I disliked it. I read slowly, I had a hard time pronouncing words and I would often give up shortly after scanning some text. Luckily, there are some great resources available for beginner readers!
Chokochoko Library offers free downloads of short Japanese stories with furigana (hiragana that appears over unfamiliar kanji characters), spaces and translations. This is extremely helpful if you’re just introducing yourself to Japanese script.
The next text that is highly recommended is Japanese Graded Readers. The hard copy of Japanese Graded Readers consists of an assortment of books that are separated into levels. The beginner books have furigana so readers who don’t know kanji quite yet can still read with hiragana. The books also come with audio so that you can listen to a native speaker as you read. Following along with the native speaker or mimicking them is great for improving the speed at which you read and speak.
To recap, furigana is hiragana that’s displayed over kanji characters. This is especially useful for anyone who wants to learn hiragana or kanji. A furigana plug-in on your web browser will allow you to browse Japanese websites and hover over words that you don’t know. When you hover over an unfamiliar word, a hiragana and an English translation will appear. Furigana Inserter is one such plug-in for Firefox.
If you use an internet browser that doesn’t support a furigana plug-in, then you can use a “furigana generator”. Furigana generators are websites that will take a webpage and insert furigana over any kanji. Hiragana Megane is a furigana generator.
Furiganizer is also very useful, as it lets you type or paste documents and add furigana to the inputted text. After, you have the option to export your new text to word programs.
Do you have a favourite study method? For me, writing and typing in Japanese are my favourites! Simple and easy, right? I hope that these methods can help you read and write like a pro! Try some (or all) of these methods and see which one works for you. You’ll be surprised by how quickly and easily learning katakana and