What Are All Those Japanese Writing Systems – Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji?
As a Japanese beginner, you’ll be learning Hiragana letters first. After that you’ll learn Katakana letters, and then Kanji at the end…. So, why are there so many within a single language?! This is how they work.
1. Hiragana - Essential Phonetic Letters
Hiragana are those characters that consist of any of the below:
They’re the most basic writing system in the Japanese language. The shape looks rounder than other Japanese writing systems.
This writing system contains all the consonants and vowels in Japanese. Therefore, once you learn how to pronounce them all, you’ll be mostly confident to recognise Japanese words by listening – Indeed you still need to learn vocabulary to understand what they say.
This writing system is widely used in grammars such as verbs, auxiliary verbs, adjectives, particles, tenses etc. It’s always the key to read a sentence.
2. Katakana - Special Phonetic Letters
Katakana is those characters that consist of any of the below:
This writing system contains all the consonants and vowels in Japanese, just like Hiragana. Therefore, they correspond to each other and are pronounced exactly the same.
The biggest difference between these two phonetic letters are the occasions to be used. While Hiragana is widely used in grammars, Katakana is basically for foreign words pronounced in a Japanese way (パリ- pari for “Paris” etc). Occasionally animal and plant names are written in Katakana. Also some nouns (that are normally written in Hiragana or kanji) are written in Katakana sometimes to make it stand out, basically as a visual emphasis.
3. Kanji - Symbolistic Letters Imported From China
Kanji are all those characters that are not on the list of Hiragana and Katakana. The total number of kanji is said to be about 50,000 or more, however, those daily-used kanji are about 3,000 (I know it’s still so many…).
This writing system works like an Emoji – since each of them symbolises an object or an idea of an action, they help us read the context faster. Kanji often requires the grammatical markers (certain Hiragana-called particles) to be used in a sentence.
The biggest problem is when you read them because there are 2 or more readings per kanji… One is called On-yomi the imitated reading from Chinese reading (where they originated from), and another one is called Kun-yomi the pure-Japanese words adopted in kanji. You’ll need to learn which readings to be used depending on the context, but first enjoy writing and learn what each kanji symbolises rather than how they are pronounced.
Brief Guidance And Steps To Learn Japanese By Yourself!
Step 1: Be confident in Hiragana the most basic phonetic letters
-Search for “Hiragana charts” and imitate writing them one by one.
-Read each letter aloud when writing to learn the pronunciations.
-Find things with Japanese texts and practice reading Hiragana letters – on a package of Japanese foods, on a menu at a Japanese restaurant, etc. You can find a lot of reading materials on SNS such as Instagram as well. Search for #learnjapanese to find out all those Japanese teaching accounts!
-Learn the vocabulary from those Hiragana texts by looking up the meanings on dictionaries or translators.
* AI translators are not always correct, but it’s still reliable to get some ideas of what it means.
Step 2: Be confident in Katakana the special phonetic letters
-Search for “Katakana charts” and imitate writing them one by one.
-Read each letter aloud when writing to learn the pronunciations.
-Make connections with Hiragana and make sure you pronounce them exactly the same when you see those corresponding letters.
-Write Hiragana texts or words all in Katakana. Actually this is not practical to live in Japan, however, this is a great way to make connections with corresponding Hiragana. Ideally you should be able to convert Hiragana to Katakana straight away.
-Read aloud when you see Katakana words. Japanese teaching accounts on SNS will help you find texts with Katakana letters.
-Try writing all the city names of your country in Katakana since Katakana is basically for foreign words. Translators will help you how those city names are pronounced in Japanese. Basically just copy them by writing and get used to this writing system.
-Learn vocabulary while reading and look up the meanings on dictionaries or translators.
Step 3: Improve your skills
-Numbers – Read the numbers you see aloud, such as prices of things during shopping, street numbers, bills on your receipts, etc. Numbers are everywhere so just find them and read them aloud in JAPANESE!
-Kanji the symbolistic letters – Search for “JLPT Kanji list” and try from N5 the easiest level. Make sure to learn at least one kanji per day! It could be just one reading (either On-yomi or Kun-yomi) of the kanji you learn if it contains multiple readings. Make sure you learn the meaning as well and get each kanji as a symbol, they’re the simple pictures structured with lines and dots!
Also, it’s super common to see those kanji words read in a surprisingly irregular way, so even natives sometimes cannot read them properly. Therefore, do not get depressed every time you find a new way of reading them. Just enjoy learning one by one!
Japanese teaching accounts on SNS often indicate the readings of kanji with Hiragana, so you can practice reading them if you feel confident in Hiragana.
-Grammar – The important parts of Japanese grammar are the conjugations of verbs/ adjectives and particles, the grammatical markers.
In English, verbs change depending on “who” is doing (I talk/ he talks) or “when” one does (I talk/ I talked). In Japanese, the verb conjugation happens “when” one does or if one “does or not”. Particles are what English doesn’t have because English grammatically follows the strict word orders. However, as Japanese don’t have the strict word orders, particles (placed right after each word) are very important to see the functions of the words in a sentence. In Japanese, a word can be the subject, object, or even a place name depending on what particle you put after it.
To learn them, read as many sentences as possible and see when they are used. You can try making your own sentences with different types of conjugations and particles.
My recommendation is to learn Japanese!
To see native conversations…
→ “Twitter” (App)
I always use the search engine on Twitter to see example sentences for my posts on Instagram.
Twitter is very helpful especially when you learn a new word but don’t know how it’s used among natives. Just enter the word on search and you’ll find a lot of sentences with it written by natives!
To learn how to write kanji…
→ “Japanese” (Dictionary App)
You can see the proper ways of writing them through “Tap to see the order”. I always check this before I actually teach my students!! Even natives forget how to write them
I hope these steps motivate you to enjoy learning Japanese!
Being a native is…
To feel weird when you hear a wrong sentence!
If you think about the grammar too much, you’ll never get the natural flow of a conversation. Learn the language by heart!!
Now, enjoy the journey of Japanese language. Let me help you if you struggle during your self studying.