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)
が (ga)
ぎ (gi)
ぐ (gu)
げ (ke)
ご (go)
ざ (za)
じ (ji)
ず (zu)
ぜ (ze)
ぞ (zo)
だ (da)
ぢ (ji)
づ (zu)
で (de)
ど (do)
(na) (ni) (nu) (ne) (no)
ば (ba)
ぱ (pa)
び (bi)
ぴ (pi)
ぶ (bu)
ぷ (pu)
べ (be)
ぺ (pe)
ぼ (bo)
ぽ (po)
(ma) (mi) (mu) (me) (mo)
(ya) (yu) (yo)
(ra) (ri) (ru) (re) (ro)
(wa) (wo/o)

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

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)
ガ (ga)
ギ (gi)
グ (gu)
ゲ (ke)
ゴ (go)
ザ (za)
ジ (ji)
ズ (zu)
ゼ (ze)
ゾ (zo)
ダ (da)
ヂ (ji)
ヅ (zu)
デ (de)
ド (do)
(na) (ni) (nu) (ne) (no)
バ (ba)
パ (pa)
ビ (bi)
ピ (pi)
ブ (bu)
プ (pu)
ベ (be)
ペ (pe)
ボ (bo)
ポ (po)
(ma) (mi) (mu) (me) (mo)
(ya) (yu) (yo)
(ra) (ri) (ru) (re) (ro)
(wa) (wo/o)

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.

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)
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

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.


Complete list of kanji for the JLPT N4

This is the list of the 181 additional kanji you need to know to pass the JLPT N4 test. These are the kanji you need to learn on top of the 104 kanji required for the JLPT N5. Click on the kanji and watch the video with the stroke order how to write it and learn from example vocabulary. In case you use a print out of this list you wil easily find the kanji on this website by searching the Code.

Code kanji Onyomi Kunyomi Meaning
 60AA AKU, O waru(i) bad, mean
 6697 AN kura(i) dark
533B I medicine
610F I will, heart, meaning
4EE5 I prefix
5F15 IN hi(ku), hi(keru) to pull, make cheaper
9662 IN institute, establishment
54E1 IN member
904B UN hako(bu) destiny, transport, carry
82F1 EI brilliant, talented
6620 EI utsu(su), he(eru) to project, to glint
9060 EN too(i) far away
 5C4B OKU ya room, house
97F3 ON, IN oto, ne sound
6B4C KA uta, uta(u) song, poem, to sing
590F KA natsu summer
5BB6 KA, KE ie, ya house, home
753B GA, KAKU picture, line of a character
6D77 KAI umi sea, ocean
56DE KAI mawa(su) times, occurrences
958B KAI a(keru), Hira(ku) to open, vent, develop
754C KAI world
697D GAKU, RAKU tano(shii), tano(shimu) music, comfort, ease, joyful
 9928 KAN big hall, building
6F22 KAN China, man
5BD2 KAN samu(i) cold temperature
9854 GAN kao face
5E30 KI kae(ru), kae(su) return home, return
8D77 KI o(kiru), o(kuro) stand up, start, cause
7A76 KYUU kiwa(meru) to explore, investigate
6025 KYUU iso(gu) urgent, quick, sudden, to hurry
725B GYUU ushi cow
53BB KYO, KO sa(ru) to pass by
5F37 KYOU, GOU tsuyo(i), tsuyo(maru), shi(iru) strong, make stronger, to force
6559 KYOU oshi(eru), oso(waru) to teach, to learn
4EAC KYOU, KEI capital
696D GYOU, GOU waza company, business, profession, art
8FD1 KIN chika(i) near
9280 GIN silver
533A KU city district
8A08 KEI haka(ru), haka(rau) to measure, to proceed
5144 KEI, KYOU ani older brother
8EFD KEI karu(i), karo(yaka) light (weight)
75AC KEN inu dog
7814 KEN to(gu) to polish, sharpen, wash rice
770C KEN prefecture
5EFA KEN ta(teru), ta(su) to construct, build
9A13 KEN test, effect
5143 GEN, GAN moto reason, original
5DE5 KOU, KU to construct
5A83 KOU hiro(i), hiro(geru) broad, wide, to widen, to expand
8003 KOU kanga(eru) to think, thought
5149 KOU hikari, hika(ru) light, to shine
597D KOU kono(mu), su(ku) to like
5408 GOU, GA a(waseru), a(u) to fit, to connect
9ED2 KOKU kuro(i), kuro black
83DC SAI na vegetable, rape
4F5C SAKU, SA tsuku(ru) to make, to build
7523 SAN u(mu), u(mareru) birth, production
7D19 SHI kami paper
601D SHI omo(u) to think, to believe
59C9 SHI ane older sister
6B62 SHI to(maru), to(meru) to stop
5E02 SHI ichi city, market
4ED5 SHI, JI tsuka(eru) to serve
6B7B SHI shi(nu) death, to die
4F7F 使 SHI tsuka(u) use, messenger
59CB SHI haji(meru/maru) start, to begin
8A66 SHI kokoro(miru), tame(su) to try
79C1 SHI watashi I, me, private
5B57 JI aza character, sector of a village
81EA JI, SHI mizuka(ra) self
4E8B JI koto thing, matter
6301 JI mo(tsu) to own, to carry
5BA4 SHITSU muro room, cellar
8CEA SHITSU, SHICHI quality, nature
5199 SHA utsu(su), utsu(ru) copy, photograph
8005 SHA mono person
501F SHAKU ka(riru) to rent, to borrow
5F31 JAKU yowa(i), yowa(ru), yowa(meru) weak, to weaken
9996 SHU kubi neck, head
4E3B SHU nushi owner, main-
79CB SHUU aki autumn, fall
96C6 SHUU atsu(maru/meru) to meet, to gather
7FD2 SHUU nara(u) to learn
7D42 SHUU o(waru), o(eru) end
4F4F JUU su(mu), su(mau) to live in, to reside
91CD JUU, CHOU omo(i), kasa(naru), -e heavy, serious, -fold
6625 SHUN haru spring
6240 SHO tokoro a place
6691 SHO atsu(i) hot (temperature)
5834 JOU ba a place
4E57 JOU no(ru), no(seru) to drive, to ride, to fool
8272 SHOKU iro color, sensuality
68EE SHIN mori forest
5FC3 SHIN kokoro heart, mind
89AA SHIN oya, shita(shii), shita(shimu) parents, to be close, to be friends
771F SHIN ma- truth, reality, purity
9032 SHIN susu(mu), susu(meru) continue, proceed, promote
56F3 ZU, TO haka(ru) drawing, plan
9752 SEI ao(i), ao blue, green, unripe
6B63 SEI, SHOU tada(shii), tada(su), masa correct, right
58F0 SEI koe voice
4E16 SEI, SE yo world, age
8D64 SEKI, SHAKU aka(i), aka(maru), aka(rameru) red, to flush
5915 SEKI yuu evening
5207 SETSU, SAI ki(ru), ki(reru) to cut, come to an end
8AAC SETSU to(ku) opinion, theory, explain
6D17 SEN ara(u) to wash
65E9 SOU, SA haya(i), haya(meru/maru) fast, early, to speed up
8D70 SOU hashi(ru) to run
9001 SOU oku(ru) to send
65CF ZOKU family, tribe
6751 SON mura village
4F53 TAI, TEI karada body
592A TAI, TA futo(i), futo(ru) bold, thick
5F85 TAI ma(tsu) to wait
8CB8 TAI ka(su) to lend
53F0 DAI, TAI frame, basis, pedestal
4EE3 DAI, TAI ka(waru), ka(eru), yo, shiro generation, age, replace
984C DAI title, theme, subject
77ED TAN mijika(i) short
77E5 CHI shi(ru) to know
5730 CHI, JI earth, land
6C60 CHI ike pond
8336 CHA, SA tea
7740 CHAKU ki(ru), tsu(keru), ki(seru), tsu(ku) arrival, clothes
663C CHUU hiru noon
6CE8 CHUU soso(gu) notice, attention, flow
753A CHOU machi city, quarter, district
9CE5 CHOU tori bird
671D CHOU asa morning
901A TSUU tou(ru), tou(su), kayo(u) to pass
5F1F TEI otouto younger brother
4F4E TEI hiku(i), hiku(meru/maru) low, to lower
8EE2 TEN koro(bu), koro(garu/geru), koro(gasu) to roll, to turn
7530 DEN ta rice field
90FD TO, TSU miyako capital
5EA8 DO tabi measure, degree
7B54 TOU kota(e), kota(eru) answer
51AC TOU fuyu winter
982D TOU, ZU atama, kashira head, master540C
540C DOU ona(ji) same
52D5 DOU ugo(ku), ugo(kasu) to move
5802 DOU room, hall, temple
50CD DOU hatara(ku) to work
7279 TOKU special
8089 NIKU meat
58F2 BAI u(ru), u(reru) to sell
767A HATSU, HOTSU start, to leave, issue
98EF HAN meshi meal, cooked rice
75C5 BYOU ya(mu), yamai  sickness, illness
54C1 HIN shina product, quality
4E0D FU, BU not
98A8 FUU kaze wind, style
670D FUKU clothing
7269 BUTSU, MOTSU mono thing
6587 BUN, MON fumi literature, sentence, letter
5225 BETSU waka(reru) difference, to part
52C9 BEN hard work, effort
4FBF 便 BEN, BIN tayo(ri) comfort, excrement, message
6B69 HO, BU aru(ku), ayu(mu) to walk
65B9 HOU kata direction, person
59B9 MAI imouto younger sister
5473 MI aji, aji(waru) taste, to savor, to enjoy
6C11 MIN tami nation, people
660E MEI a(kari), aka(rui) light, brightness, to be open
9580 MON kado gate
554F MON to(i), to(u) question, take care of
591C YA yoro, yo~ night
91CE YA no field
85AC YAKU kusuri drug, medicine, chemical
6709 YUU, U a(ru) to exist, to be, to have
66DC YOU weekday
7528 YOU mochi(iru) issue, to use
6D0B YOU ocean, western, foreign
7406 RI reason, principle
65C5 RYO tabi trip, travel
6599 RYOU material, charge
529B RYOKU, RIKI chikara power, force
6797 RIN hayashi woods

Kanji Flashcards for the JLPT N5 & JLPT N4

List of kanji for JLPT N5

This is the list of the 103 kanji you need to know to pass the JLPT N5 test. Click on the kanji and watch the video with the stroke order on how to write it and learn from example vocabulary. When you click the “Share” button on top of the page you can also select to print in a printer friendly view (in total 31 A4 pages).

Test how well you know the JLPT N5 kanji on Twitter

 Follow this Twitter account to practice the 103 kanji required to pass the JLPT N5. We randomly tweet all 103 kanji once a day with their meaning.

Download our FREE ebook with worksheets to practice writing for the 103 kanji of theJLPT N5. After downloading the free pdf file to your PC you can print the sheets as often as you like on your own printer. The is no copyright, so that you can share copies of the book with your friends.

Code kanji Onyomi Kunyomi Meaning
5B89 AN yasu(i) peace, cheap, safety
4E00 ICHI, ITSU hito(tsu), hito- one
98F2 IN no(mu) to drink
53F3 U, YUU migi right
96E8 U ame rain
99C5 EKI station
5186 EN maru(i) circle, Yen, round
706B KA hi fire
82B1 KA hana flower, blossom
4E0B KA, GE shimo, sa(geru), o(rosu), ku(daru) below, down
4F55 KA nani what, how many, which
4FLA KAI, E a(u) to meet, to come together, society
5916 GAI, GE soto, hoka, hazu(reru), hazu(su) outside, other, disconnect
5B66 GAKU mana(bu) school, science, learning
9593 KAN, KEN aida time, time span
6C17 KI, KE soul, spirit
4E5D KYUU, KU kokono(tsu), kokono- nine
4F11 KYUU yasu(mu) to rest
9B5A GYO sakana, uo fish
91D1 KIN, KON kane gold, metal, money
7A7A KUU sora, a(keru), kara sky, to become free, empty
6708 GETSU, GATSU tsuki month, moon
898B KEN mi(ru), mi(eru), mi(seru) to see, to be visible, to show
8A00 GEN, GON i(u) word, to talk
53E4 KO furu(i) old, used
4E94 GO itsu(tsu), itsu- five
5F8C GO, KOU ato, oku(reru), nochi after, later, back, to stay behind
5348 GO noon
8A9E GO kata(ru), kata(rau) word, to talk
6821 KOU school
53E3 KOU, KU kuchi mouth
884C KOU i(ku), yu(ku), okona(u) to walk. to go, to do, to carry out
9AD8 KOU taka(i), taka(maru), taka(meru) high, expensive, increase, quantity
56FD KOKU kuni country
4ECA KON, KIN ima now
5DE6 SA hidari left
4E09 SAN mit(tsu), mi- three
5C71 SAN yama mountain
56DB SHI yo(ttsu), yu(tsu), yo-, yon- four
5B50 SHI, SU ko child
8033 JI mimi ear
6642 JI toki time, hour
4E03 SHICHI nana(tsu), nana-, nano- seven
8ECA SHA kuruma car, wheel
793E SHA yashiro shinto shrine, society
624B SHU te hand
9031 SHUU week
5341 JUU, JI too, to- ten, cross
51FA SHUTSU da(su), de(ru) to leave, to get out. to take out
66F8 SHO ka(ku) to write
5073 JO, NYO onna, me woman, female
5C0F SHOU chii(sai), ko-, o- small
5C11 SHOU suko(shi), suku(nai) a little
4E0A SHOU, JOU ue, kami, a(geru), a(garu) above, upper
98DF SHOKU ta(beru), ku(ru), ku(rau) to eat
65B0 SHIN atara(shii), ara(ta), nii- new
4EBA JIN, NIN hito person
6C34 SUI mizu water
751F SEI, SHOU i(kiru), u(mu), ha(yasu), nama, ki to live, to grow, to be born, raw
897F 西 SEI, SAI nishi west
5DDD SEN kawa river
5343 SEN chi thousand
5148 SEN saki before, in future
524D ZEN mae before
8DB3 SOKU ashi, ta(riru), ta(su) foot, to be sufficient, to add
491A TA oo(i) many
5927 DAI, TAI ou(kii), oo(i) big, a lot
7537 DAN, NAN otoko man, male
4E2D CHUU naka inner, center, between
9577 CHOU naga(i) long, leader
5929 TEN ame, ama sky
5E97 TEN mise shop
96FB DEN electricity
571F DO, TO tsuchi earth, ground
6771 TOU higashi east
9053 DOU michi street, path
8AAD DOKU yo(mu) to read
5357 NAN minami south
4E8C NI futa(tsu), futa- two
65E5 NICHI, JITSU hi, -ka day, sun
5165 NYUU hai(ru), i(ru), i(reru) to enter, to insert
5E74 NEN toshi year
8CB7 BAI ka(u) to buy
767D HAKU, BYAKU shiro(i), shiro white
516B HACHI yat(tsu), ya(tsu), ya-, you- eight
534A HAN naka(ba) half, middle, semi-
767E HYAKU hundred
7236 FU chichi father
5206 BUN, BU, FUN wa(keru), wa(kareru), wa(karu) part, minute, to divide, to understand
805E BUN, MON ki(ku), ki(koeru) to hear, to listen, to ask
6BCD BO haha mother
5317 HOKU kita north
6728 BOKU, MOKU ki, ko tree, wood
672C HON moto book, source, main-
6BCE MAI each, every
4E07 MAN, BAN ten thousand, all, many
540D MEI, MYOU na name, reputation
76EE MOKU me eye
53CB YUU tomo friend
6765 RAI ku(ru), kita(ru), kita(su) to come
7ABC RITSU ta(tsu), ta(teru) to stand, to establish
516D ROKU mutt(su), mu(tsu), mu, mui six
8A71 WA hanashi, hana(su) speech, to talk, story, conversation

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