Basics of Japanese: The Writing Systems
Japanese is a very unique language because it uses not one, not two, but THREE writing systems! In order to read Japanese, you must learn all three. You’ve likely heard of kanji, the complicated characters that are also used in Chinese, but Japanese uses two others as well: hiragana and katakana.
When reading, it’s common to see hiragana, katakana and kanji together in the same sentence. Sometimes you will see hiragana above the kanji to help those who might not know the reading of the kanji character.
What’s the Difference?
So if there are three writing systems then they must be used for different things, right? Fortunately, yes!
Hiragana is the first thing Japanese kids learn. Material aimed at really, really young kids are all written in hiragana. Hiragana conveys parts of grammar, shows the pronunciation of difficult kanji or is used to write words that have no kanji. Hiragana characters look smooth and curvy.
Katakana is really useful as the first thing a Japanese learner should master. Why? Because it’s used to write all the foreign words/food! You’ll use katakana to write your name and read from the menu of any non-Japanese restaurants. Japanese may not be related to English, but it DOES have a ton of loan words borrowed from English (and a few other languages too)! Katakana characters are the opposite of hiragana: they look very stiff and blocky.
Kanji are a double-edged sword: they’re extremely useful, but you need to know almost 2,000 to be considered fluent. Unlike hiragana and katakana, which represent sounds, kanji represent ideas. They’re used to write everything from Japanese names and nouns to adjectives and verbs, making them a very necessary system.
How to Study
The best way to be successful at learning all the characters is to start small. Rome wasn’t built in a day, hiragana wasn’t mastered in an hour. Expect to take at least a month or two to fully learn hiragana and katakana. Some people may learn quicker, others slower. Remember: it’s not a race!
Both systems come in nice and neat sets of 5 sounds starting with A, I, U, E, O (that’s right–not AEIOU); continuing to KA, KI, KU, KE, KO; and so on. Follow the steps below and you’ll be reading and writing both in no time.
1. Create an environment of success. Dedicate the same one-hour every day to studying. Pick a time and a place where you know you won’t get distracted. Have snacks nearby. Turn off your phone and TV.
2. Study a set of 5 each day, beginning with AIUEO. Don’t try to learn more characters than your brain can handle. If you can’t remember 80% when you return the next day, you’re trying to learn too much at once.
3. Always re-test and review. Don’t ignore the ones you’ve already studied because your brain will forget them. You don’t want to reach the end only to realize you’ve forgotten AIUEO!
4. Study AND review in multiple ways. Write the characters over and over again on addition to flashcards. Mix up the order. Test and grade yourself. Try to write words you already know. Practice saying the sounds as you write.
Reading and writing in a new writing system isn’t easy. You likely don’t remember what a struggle it was for your five-year-old self to first learn the alphabet, but it took a lot of time and practice. Japanese will take time to master too. But once you do, you’ll have a brand new world open to you.