A newbie’s journey through Japanese: Step 1 — Learn the kana

Mina-san, ohayou gozaimasu! Mike desu. Welcome to my second post about learning the Japanese language from the standpoint of an absolute beginner. Today I am going to cover a very, very basic step of learning Japanese. It is so essential that it should be a no-brainer. Yet I often see questions posted to online forums about translating even the most elementary phrases (like ohayou gozaimasu) from these most basic of Japanese writing systems.

I am talking, of course, about the kana, specifically the hiragana and katakana systems. These two writing systems should be your lifeblood when first learning the language. They are not only the keys to help you learn Japanese at a faster rate; they also set the fundamentals that will give you the study habits you need to eventually tackle the kanji. In fact, if you can get yourself in a good rhythm with your studying, you will start finding yourself using at least the most basic kanji (such as the characters for numbers, days and months) at least as often as the kana. It all starts here.

Japanese can often feel unfair to the beginner. A case in point is learning the kana. Before I started using the Internet as my primary source for learning the characters, I bought “Let’s Learn Hiragana” by Yasuko Kosaka Mitamura off of Amazon.com. (It is a great first purchase if you want a formalized way of learning hiragana, with lots of drills and exercises to keep your memory sharp. The downside is you will not understand, just by reading, how to pronounce characters like “tsu” and “fu” correctly.)

After about a month of study, and constant rewriting of the characters into a large notebook whenever I had a free moment, I finally had the hiragana down. Alright, I thought, 46 characters memorized, plus the different voicings and the contracted forms like kyo, gyu, etc.! I can do this! Then I saw there was another whole set to learn with katakana, for the exact same sounds! (Hiragana is usually used in native words, while katakana is mostly used in foreign or loanwords.) Suddenly, my big achievement seemed very small. Especially when I realized the quirks of these writing systems, such as the katakana for “sa” looking very close to the hiragana for “se,” and the katakana that resemble smiley faces (“shi” and “tsu”) looking almost identical.

There is no easy way around this, except by drilling the kana over and over again until you have it down. Yes, there are little tricks you can pick up. For example, the two lines for “shi” that make up what look like eyes in a smiley face are on the “side,” (both “shi” and “side” begin with s) whereas the two eyes in “tsu” begin on the “top” (both “tsu” and “top” begin with t). Other than those mnemonic devices, however, you are pretty much on your own.

You may think this is a very difficult task, but if you keep at it, you will master them. The best way to learn is to start following Japanese blogs, Twitter accounts, etc. To help me become comfortable with the kana and some of the basic kanji, I created a list on Twitter to follow lots of Japanese accounts that seemed interesting to me. Do I understand everything that is said on these accounts? Absolutely not. I think I might comprehend about 2 percent of what is written, especially with the liberal use of much more advanced kanji. But it is a great way to practice (and to learn new words if you have a dictionary handy). Here is the link. I hope you find it useful, too. Feel free to comment with some of the links you find helpful for learning the language.

The most important thing I can say about learning Japanese is to wean yourself off of romaji immediately. It is fine to use in a pinch, such as when I opened this post by writing “Ohayou gozaimasu.” But really, the best way to learn Japanese is to discard romaji from your learning as quickly as you can and replace it with kana and kanji. Plunging yourself into the deep end by following Japanese Twitter accounts is one great way to accomplish this. Do not let romaji be your crutch.

Next time, I will talk more about another extremely important step in learning Japanese — listening to native speakers talk. I will share some information on the Japanese podcasts I listen to and what they have taught me so far. Mata ne!

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The Japanese Writing System

The Japanese written language consists of a combination of three types of characters. To a lesser extend it nowadays also uses some Latin alphabet for abbreviations and numbers.


1. Kanji (漢字)

Kanji originally came from China to Japan. The term “kanji” literally means “Han characters” or “Chinese characters” and it is identical to the characters in China to describe their writing.

Kanji are mainly used to describe names and nouns. When used in verbs and adjectives they mostly are written in combination with hiragana. Most sentences include kanji as well as hiragana.

Japanese dictionaries list around 10,000 kanji. The Japanese government limited the kanji used in official publications to the 1945 touyou kanji with about 4000 readings. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is based on these 1945 touyou kanji.

A Japanese with average education knows around 3000 kanji and it is estimated that around 4000 kanji are used in Japanese literature.


2. Hiragana (平仮名)

Hiragana is a phonetic alphabet that was developed in the ninth century to simplify writing. It nowadays is mainly used for native Japanese words. Hiragana are derived from more complex kanji and each hiragana represents a syllable. A total of 46 hiragana are used in contemporary Japanese writing.

List of the 46 hiragana and their 25 diagritics (with ゛or ゜)

A I U E O
(a) (i) (u) (e) (o)
(ka)
が (ga)
(ki)
ぎ (gi)
(ku)
ぐ (gu)
(ke)
げ (ke)
(ko)
ご (go)
(sa)
ざ (za)
(shi)
じ (ji)
(su)
ず (zu)
(se)
ぜ (ze)
(so)
ぞ (zo)
(ta)
だ (da)
(chi)
ぢ (ji)
(tsu)
づ (zu)
(te)
で (de)
(to)
ど (do)
(na) (ni) (nu) (ne) (no)
(ha)
ば (ba)
ぱ (pa)
(hi)
び (bi)
ぴ (pi)
(fu)
ぶ (bu)
ぷ (pu)
(he)
べ (be)
ぺ (pe)
 (ho)
ぼ (bo)
ぽ (po)
(ma) (mi) (mu) (me) (mo)
(ya) (yu) (yo)
(ra) (ri) (ru) (re) (ro)
(wa) (wo/o)
(n)

The combination of some of these hiragana is used to express a few additional sounds used in Japanese. The first character is written in normal size whereas the second character is written a little bit smaller. These combinations are called digraphs.

List of 21 hiragana digraphs and their 15 diagritics

YA YU YO
きゃ (kya)
ぎゃ (gya)
きゅ (kyu)
ぎゅ (gyu)
きょ (kyo)
ぎょ (gyo)
しゃ (sha)
じゃ (ja)
しゅ (shu)
じゅ (ju)
しょ (sho)
じょ (jo)
ちゃ (cha)
ぢゃ (ja)
ちゅ (chu)
ぢゅ (ju)
ちょ (cho)
ぢょ (jo)
にゃ (nya) にゅ (nyu) にょ (nyo)
ひゃ (hya)
びゃ (bya)
ぴょ (pyo)
ひゅ (hyu)
びゅ (byu)
ぴゅ (pyu)
ひょ (hyo)
びょ (byo)
ぴょ (pyo)
みゃ (mya) みゅ (myu) みょ (myo)
りゃ (rya) りゅ (ryu) りょ (ryo)

3. Katakana (片仮名)

Katakana also is a phonetic alphabet covering the same syllable as hiragana and therefore also has 46 different characters. It is mainly used for foreign loanwords and sometimes to replace kanji or hiragana for emphasis. Katakana were developed in the ninth century and are also derived from more complex kanji.

List of the 46 basic katakana and their 25 diagritics (with ゛or ゜)

A I U E O
(a) (i) (u) (e) (o)
(ka)
ガ (ga)
(ki)
ギ (gi)
(ku)
グ (gu)
(ke)
ゲ (ke)
(ko)
ゴ (go)
(sa)
ザ (za)
(shi)
ジ (ji)
(su)
ズ (zu)
(se)
ゼ (ze)
(so)
ゾ (zo)
(ta)
ダ (da)
(chi)
ヂ (ji)
(tsu)
ヅ (zu)
(te)
デ (de)
(to)
ド (do)
(na) (ni) (nu) (ne) (no)
(ha)
バ (ba)
パ (pa)
(hi)
ビ (bi)
ピ (pi)
(fu)
ブ (bu)
プ (pu)
(he)
ベ (be)
ペ (pe)
(ho)
ボ (bo)
ポ (po)
(ma) (mi) (mu) (me) (mo)
(ya) (yu) (yo)
(ra) (ri) (ru) (re) (ro)
(wa) (wo/o)
(n)


List of 21 katakana digraphs and their 15 diagritics
As with hiragana there also are combinations to express the other sounds required for the Japanese language.

YA YU YO
キャ (kya)
ギャ (gya)
キュ (kyu)
ギュ (gyu)
キョ (kyo)
ギョ (gyo)
シャ (sha)
ジャ (ja)
シュ (shu)
ジュ (ju)
ショ (sho)
ジョ (jo)
チャ (cha)
ヂャ (ja)
チュ (chu)
ヂュ (ju)
チョ (cho)
ヂョ(jo)
ニャ (nya) ニュ (nyu) ニョ (nyo)
ヒャ (hya)
ビャ (bya)
ピャ (pyo)
ヒュ (hyu)
ビュ (byu)
ピュ (pyu)
ヒョ (hyo)
ビョ (byo)
ピョ (pyo)
ミャ (mya) ミュ (myu) ミョ (myo)
リャ (rya) リュ (ryu) リョ (ryo)

These 46 katakana and their variations are sufficient to express all sounds used for Japanese words. In order to get closer to the pronunciation of foreign words, a list of not so common extended katakana is used.

List of extended katakana

A I U E O
イィ (yi) イェ (ye)
ウァ (wa) ウィ (wi) ウゥ (wu) ウェ (we) ウォ (wo)
ヴァ (va) ヴィ (vi) ヴ (vu) ヴェ (ve) ヴォ (vo)
ヴィェ (vye)
キェ (kye)
ギェ (gye)
クァ (kwa) クィ(kwi) クェ (kwe) クォ (kwo)
グァ (gwa)  グィ (gwi)  グェ (gwe) グォ (gwo)
シェ (she)
 ジェ (je)
 スィ (si)
 ズィ (zi)
 チェ (che)
 ツァ (tsa)  ツィ (tsi)  ツェ (tse)  ツォ (tso)
 ティ (ti)  テゥ (tu)
 ディ (di)  デゥ (du)
 ニェ (nye)
 ヒェ (hye)
 ビェ (bye)
 ピェ (pye)
 ファ (fa)  フィ (fi)  フェ (fe)  フォ (fo)
 フィェ (fye)
 ホゥ (hu)
 ミェ (mye)
 リェ (rye)
 ラ゜(la)  リ゜(li)  ル゜(lu)  レ゜(le)  ロ゜(lo)

4. Writing a Japanese text
It is possible to write everything in hiragana or katakana since both scripts cover the entity of sounds of the Japanese language, although this is not very practical due to the high number of words having the same pronunciation but different meanings.

All characters are written one by one and in the same size. There are no spaces between different words, which feels a little bit unusual for most foreigners. It takes time to get used to this and easily distinguish different words.

It is important to write the strokes in the correct order and directions to give the characters the right shape. The reason why becomes obvious when practicing with a brush pen, which is very much recommended for beginners.

Japanese writing is made in two directions. Horizontal writing (yokogaki) is from the left to the right as in western style. Traditional writing (tategaki) is vertical starting from the right top and ending at the left bottom. A book printed in tategaki opens from what Westerners would call the back, while a book printed in yokogaki opens from what traditionally in Japan would have been considered the back.

Katakana Card – ン

Katakana N

ン

ン - N - 30F3

Reading: N

Strokes: 2

Variations:

none

HIRAGANA & KATAKANA TEST

Just follow this Twitter account and start receiving 10 tweets per day with randomly selected hiragana and katakana including links to the solution.


PRACTICE WRITING THE KATAKANA ン – N

Download the NIHONGO ICHIBAN PRINT YOURSELF Hiragana & Katakana Workbook and practice writing hiragana on worksheets that you can print at home as often as you like.

Katakana Card – ヲ

Katakana WO/O

ヲ

ヲ- WO - 30F2

Reading: O / WO

Strokes: 3

Variations:

none

HIRAGANA & KATAKANA TEST

Just follow this Twitter account and start receiving 10 tweets per day with randomly selected hiragana and katakana including links to the solution.


PRACTICE WRITING THE KATAKANA ヲ – O/WO

Download the NIHONGO ICHIBAN PRINT YOURSELF Hiragana & Katakana Workbook and practice writing hiragana on worksheets that you can print at home as often as you like.

Katakana Card – ワ

Katakana WA

ワ

ワ - WA - 30EF

Reading: WA

Strokes: 2

Variations:

none

HIRAGANA & KATAKANA TEST

Just follow this Twitter account and start receiving 10 tweets per day with randomly selected hiragana and katakana including links to the solution.


PRACTICE WRITING THE KATAKANA ワ – WA

Download the NIHONGO ICHIBAN PRINT YOURSELF Hiragana & Katakana Workbook and practice writing hiragana on worksheets that you can print at home as often as you like.