Are you interested in learning to read Japanese? Would you like to be able to identify which characters in the below photo are hiragana vs. katakana vs. kanji and how they are pronounced? If so, you’ve come to the right place—let’s go!
Since it’s common for posts which include materials available for sale to have some sort of unstated affiliation or benefit to the poster, let me make this very clear:
This is not a sponsored post and there are zero affiliate links in this post. I will not receive any compensation whether or not you choose to buy any of the products mentioned. I have personally bought and used all of the products mentioned in this post, and I haven’t received any review copies, discounts, or promotions.
That said, while I am happy to share with you what worked for me, the caveat is that it may not work just as well for you, so I encourage you to evaluate these materials, but accept that you may not enjoy them as much as I did.
Japanese is a complex language to learn for those familiar only with alphabets derived from Latin or Greek, not the least of the difficulties is the completely different writing system.
To really learn the language, you have to be able to read & write it, and while Japanese includes three writing systems, in this post, we’ll cover how to learn two of them: hiragana and katakana. We’ll discuss what they are, their usage, and how to learn and memorize them effectively to start your learning of the Japanese language on a strong foundation.
Overview of the Japanese language
Japanese consists of three different writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. The use of “writing systems” here is intentional: none of these are alphabets.
Hiragana and katakana are syllabaries, that is, each of the symbols in these writing systems generally represents a syllable consisting of a consonant + a vowel, rather than a single letter (except for the vowels and [n]):
- hiragana (ひらがな): ひ [hi] ら [ra] が [ga] な [na]
- katakana (カタカナ): カ [ka] タ [ta] カ [ka] ナ [na]
Kanji, on the other hand, is the adaptation of Chinese characters, or logographs, where each character actually represents a word or a phrase.
Within a single Japanese sentence, you may find 2 or even all 3 of the writing systems used in harmony, as they have different functions:
- Hiragana is used for grammatical functions, such as particles and verb inflections, or native Japanese words that have no kanji associated with them
- Katakana is used for transcribing borrowed words from other languages, many of them English
- Kanji is used for the core part of the Japanese language: nouns, stems of verbs and adjectives, personal names, etc.
In the rest of this post, we’ll only cover hiragana and katakana, and leave kanji for a separate future post, as it’s a complex topic on its own.
Rōmaji is a way to represent Japanese words using Latin letters; it is a romanization of the Japanese writing systems we discussed above. There are multiple rōmaji systems in use, though Hepburn romanization is very popular and is frequently used in books aimed at foreign learners of Japanese.
It will be tempting to use rōmaji when learning Japanese, as it might seem that it removes an initial stumbling block of learning the readings of the 3 writing systems, but it will not help you in the long run, and you will not be able to read or write Japanese, as no one uses rōmaji in Japan.
Additionally, once you start learning kanji, or if you’re reading books or newspapers in Japanese, for the rare or complex kanji logograms, there will be furigana—a reading of the kanji written above or to the side of it—but it will be written in hiragana, not rōmaji, so not knowing hiragana will be a detriment.
Thus, my recommendation is to use rōmaji purely for learning hiragana and katakana, and as soon as possible, switch to using those scripts exclusively for learning the rest of the language.
And with that in mind, the rest of the post assumes you would like to learn hiragana and katakana in the most effecive way possible, rather than avoid them on your learning journey.
Assuming you’ve agreed that it’s important to begin by learning the writing system for Japanese as the first step of your journey, let’s get started.
First, let’s consider the vowels:
Then, the basic syllables, which are composed of a consonant (from the left column) and a vowel (from the top row):
Note that this table omits two nearly-obsolete kana; see the hiragana page for details if you’re interested.
So, for example, at the intersection of the row t and the column a, we find た [ta], while at the intersection of row y and column u, we find ゆ [yu].
There are a few notable exceptions in the romanization and pronunciation, e.g.,
- し is pronounced [shi]
- ち is pronounced [chi]
- つ is pronounced [tsu]
- ふ is pronounced [fu]
And, of course, the exception we mentioned earlier of a consonant without a vowel:
Some of the syllables also have a voiced version with the dakuten
marker, converting k→g, s→z, t→d, and h→b:
Note a few exceptions here:
- じ is pronounced [ji]
- ぢ is pronounced [dzi] or [ji]
- づ is pronounced [dzu] or [zu]
And one group of the syllables can be devoiced with the handakuten
marker, converting h→p:
Putting them all together into one table, we have the following set of hiragana syllables:
And last, but not least:
Similarly, here is the set of katakana syllables:
And the solitary [n]:
Aside: monographs and digraphs
The hiragana and katakana syllables listed above are not the whole story: what we covered above are just the monographs (single logographs) but both hiragana and katakana syllables can also be combined into digraphs (which combile two logographs), with or without the diacritics (dakuten and handakuten mentioned above).
In digraphs, there’s a primary (first logograph) which is regular size, and the secondary logograph of smaller size, which modifies the preceeding syllable. For example, if we combine logographs し [shi] with や [ya], we get the syllable しゃ [sha] — note that the secondary logograph is smaller. Here they are side-by-side so you can clearly see the difference:
Note that if you just used the larger version of the second logograph, you would have しや [shiya], which is two distinct syllables.
For a complete list of monographs and the combined digraphs, see the hiragana table and katakana table for details. There are a few more details about pronunciation, such as doubling a consonant, or elongating a vowel, each of which is represented by a particular logograph, which you’ll cover in due course while studying the hiragana and katakana, but we don’t need to get into here.
How to memorize the kana
How should one go about memorizing the mapping from kana to the pronunciation and vice versa? Certainly, you can just use rote memorization, e.g., using spaced repetition with flash cards, whether paper or digital.
Everyone’s learning methods and preferences are different, and while I’ve tried this, it didn’t work for me. Maybe this could work for other folks, and maybe this is easier if this is your first language being learned as a child, but I kept getting confused with a number of similar-looking but quite different syllables, e.g., in hiragana, there are a few of them:
- さ、 き
- た、 に
- は、 け
- ま、 ほ
- め、 ぬ
- わ、 ね、 れ
and similarly in katakana:
- ワ、 ウ
- ン、 ソ
- シ、 ツ
- ハ、 ヘ
- マ、 ム
- ク、 ケ
- フ、 ス
- ラ、 ヲ
These very similar, confusing groups of kana made it very difficult for me to separate them visually, and as a result, my ratio of correctly-recalled kana was quite low.
Turns out, rote memorization of kana is just not for me. What finally worked for me was using mnemonics, and the book that helped me was Remembering the kana by James W. Heisig:
Mr. Heisig is better known for his book series Remembering the Kanji (also known as “RTK”, for Japanese) and Remembering the Hanzi (for Chinese). Having read a lot about RTK, I was very amused to come across the introduction to Remembering the Kana book (emphasis is mine; small caps formatting is in the original):
The course that follows is intended for self study. It did not grow out of classroom experience and is not intended for classroom use. For one thing, I am not a language instructor. Most of my students are Japanese, who knew the hiragana by the first grade or before. I did not absorb myself in research on the Japanese syllabaries, survey existing methods, draft a set of mnemonic techniques, test them out systematically on a group of students, carefully record the results, and only then deliver a completed manuscript to the publishers. But neither did the idea occur to me on my own. The facts of the matter are a lot humbler: I wrote the book on a dare.
A visiting professor who had studied my earlier volumes on Remembering the Kanji was having trouble remembering the hiragana and casually tossed the challenge at my feet one evening over a mug of beer: “Why hasn’t anybody figured out an easy way to learn the syllabary?” I didn’t know if anyone had or not, but the next morning I took a sheet of white paper and wrote in large bold letters: learn the hiragana in 3 hours. I set the paper on the corner of my desk and resolved not to publish anything until I was satisfied I had grounds to justify its boast. From the very beginning I was aware that I was up to something outlandish.
It turned out, he did come up with a working system, at least for me! Take a look at the book sample to see how it works. If you live near a store that sells Japanese books, such as Kinokuniya, you can check it out in person.
Now, it probably doesn’t work for everyone, but I am happy to report that it did work for me, and I’ve used it successfully to learn and distinguish the Hiragana and the Katakana syllables from each other quite well.
If you’d like to acquire a copy of this book, I highly recommend you get a physical paper book—rather than an ebook—because you have to flip back-and-forth between the pages often, in a non-linear order, which will be impractical with an ebook, unless they’re specially cross-linked, which I’m not sure if they are. You can use the ISBN search on Wikipedia to find it wherever you shop for books, with no affiliate links or benefit to me.
To test myself, I’ve even written and open-sourced a small web app which you can use from your desktop browser to type in kana in response to seeing a syllable.
I’ve also come across a very nice app Kanji Study Android app, which despite the name, lets you learn and practice both kana and kanji! I often use it on a phone or tablet to make sure I don’t forget the kana.
Note that while it’s a freemium app, the kana are included for free—as are a few lessons of kanji—so you only have to pay if you want to study the complete set of kanji.
I enjoy using it to practice my hiragana and katakana and when I study regularly, I maintain a ~99% correctness rate on both hiragana and katakana—sometimes, I get a perfect score, while other times, I might get one of the kana wrong, or don’t answer quickly enough—it’s a timed test, and it’s not easy!
With that, I wish you the best in your study of Japanese, starting with the hiragana and katakana! Let me know how it goes.