Many people tell me that Japanese is not such a difficult language to learn to speak well enough to get by. When it comes to reading and writing, however, it is a totally different story! And they are right!
The reason some people find Japanese reading and writing difficult is because we use THREE sets of characters: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji.
Pronunciation of the Japanese Alphabet
Hiragana ひらがな and Katakana カタカナ
Japanese has two phonetic alphabets, which were invented to better fit the Japanese language, instead of depending on the Chinese characters (Kanji) alone. Each character of the phonetic alphabet represents a syllable or "sound cluster".
There are 46 hiragana and katakana characters each and both are used to represent the same sounds. Hiragana came to be used mainly in the Japanese language in conjunction with kanji and katakana came to be reserved for foreign original words.
Since these two sets are phonetic, anything you can say you can write down using these characters (within the sound system of Japanese).
In Japanese dictionaries, entries are placed in a specific order - just like the English alphabet - a,b,c,d,e,f...
The 46 Hiragana characters are shown in the table below in 'alphabetical' or 'dictionary order'. In this table, the characters are read from left to right, beginning from the top row. So, あ-い-う-え-お (a-i-u-e-o) then か-き-く-け-こ (ka-ki-ku-ke-ko) and so on. A I U E O あ い う え お k か き く け こ s さ し す せ そ t た ち つ て と n な に ぬ ね の h は ひ ふ へ ほ m ま み む め も y や ゆ よ r ら り る れ ろ w わ を n ん
Japanese pronunciation is easy! The most important pronunciations are those of the five vowels. As long as you can distinguish the five vowels clearly, you’ll be alright! All other syllables consist of consonants and these vowels. Let's give them a try:
The 46 Katakana characters are shown in the same 'alphabetical' or 'dictionary' order below. The characters are read from left to right, beginning from the top row. So, ア-イ-ウ-エ-オ (a-i-u-e-o) then カ-キ-ク-ケ-オ (ka-ki-ku-ke-ko) and so on.
You can already read the table below because you already know the Hiragana phonetics. The 46 hiragana and katakana characters are used to represent the SAME sounds. A I U E O a ア イ ウ エ オ k カ キ ク ケ コ s サ シ ス セ ソ t タ チ ツ テ ト n ナ ニ ヌ ネ ノ h ハ ヒ フ ヘ ホ m マ ミ ム メ モ y ヤ ユ ヨ r ラ リ ル レ ロ w ワ ヲ n ン
Kanji (Chinese characters) 漢字
When the Japanese first wrote down their language many centuries ago, they borrowed characters from the Chinese language and we still use them in our modern Japanese language. Every Chinese character has a meaning.
Kanji characters, unlike the letters in the English alphabet, are like pictures. So, letters represent sounds, but characters each represent a word - or if not a word then at least a meaningful unit of language, such as a syllable (a "sound cluster").
Let's take a look at the character for "big" ( 大 ). Can you see a person standing with their arms and legs outstretched?
Some important things to note
The "n" sound - ん
The sound "n" without a vowel can be used at the end of a word or in the middle of a word. Just say it as it looks like it should sound and you will be fine.
When you see the symbol: " ˉ " above a vowel, make it a long sound. For example: sayōnara.
When you see double consonants like "tt" and "kk," insert a little gap before a "t" or "k" sound. For "chotto," insert a gap between "cho" and "to."
There are some other combinations such as "kya" and "kyo." Pronounce them as one syllable, not two. For example: kyōto, tōkyō
Silent or short vowels
Sometimes vowels "i" and "u" sound like they are missing, like Desu. But enough is there to know it is "su" and not "sa" or any other vowel.
The name "Yoshiko" also has a missing "i." It is pronounced with an accent on the first syllable. But enough is there to know it is not "sha" but "shi."
Lastly, try to say the following Japanese words which look like English when written in rōmaji. Remember to pronounce the vowels! Don’t confuse them with the English!