Many people tell me that Japanese is not 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!
The reason some people find Japanese reading and writing difficult is because we use THREE sets of characters: hiragana, katakana and kanji.
Resources for further reading:
Japanese has two phonetic alphabets known as hiragana and katakana. These 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 (a unit of sound).
The hiragana and katakana alphabets both have 46 basic characters and share the same sounds. Hiragana is used in nearly every Japanese sentence, in conjunction with kanji. Katakana, on the other hand, is mainly reserved for foreign names and loan words.
Since these two alphabets are phonetic, anything you can say in Japanese, you can write down using these characters.
While you're still familiarizing yourself with hiragana and katakana, it might help to take a look at the rōmaji. Rōmaji is the romanization of Japanese words using Latin script - that is, the same letters that we use in English. Rōmaji is read the same way as you would read a text in English; of course, you'll be needing the Japanese pronunciation though!
In Japanese dictionaries, entries are placed in alphabetical order - just like in English. However, the alphabetical order in Japanese is quite different.
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 we read あ (a), い (i), う (u), え (e), お (o), then か (ka), き (ki), く (ku), け (ke), こ (ko), and so on.
Japanese pronunciation is easy! The most important pronunciations are those of the five vowels: あ (a), い (i), う (u), え (e), and お (o). Nearly every other syllable consists of a consonant and one of these vowels, so as long as you can distinguish these five clearly, you’ll be alright! Let's give them a try:
Rocket Record lets you perfect your Japanese pronunciation. Just listen to the native speaker audio and then use the microphone icon to record yourself. Once you’re done, you’ll get a score out of 100 on your pronunciation and can listen to your own audio playback. (Use a headset mic for best results.) Problems? Click here!
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 we read ア (a), イ (i), ウ (u), エ (e), オ (o), then カ (ka), キ (ki), ク (ku), ケ (ke), コ (ko), and so on.
You can already pronounce all 46 of these characters, since they have the exact same sounds as hiragana!
When the Japanese first wrote down their language many centuries ago, they borrowed characters from the Chinese language. These became known as kanji. They might have changed a little from their Chinese counterparts, but kanji are still used in Japanese today.
Every kanji character has a meaning. Unlike the letters in the English alphabet, kanji look more like pictures. Where English letters represent sounds, kanji characters each represent a word - or if not a word, then at least a meaningful unit of language, such as a syllable.
Let's take a look at one of these characters below, the character for "big" (大).
Let's take a look at some of the tricky sounds you need to watch out for in Japanese.
The character ん (n) is the only syllable in Japanese without a vowel. You can use this at the end of a word, or in the middle of a word - but never at the start of a word.
The pronunciation of this character can change a little depending on the syllable it's next to, but don't worry about that too much for now! Just say it as it looks like it should sound and you will be fine.
time / hour
mood / feeling
When you see the symbol: " ˉ " written above a vowel in the rōmaji, make it a long sound. For example, さようなら (sayōnara) "goodbye."
When you see double consonants like "tt" and "kk," insert a little gap before the "t" or "k" sound. For ちょっと (chotto) "a little bit," insert a gap between ちょ (cho) and っと (tto).
a little bit
Aside from the 46 basic hiragana and katakana characters, there are some other combinations, such as きゃ (kya) and きょ (kyo). Pronounce them as one syllable, not two. For example, 京都 (Kyōto) "Kyoto" and 東京 (Tōkyo) "Tokyo."
Sometimes vowel sounds like "i" and "u" sound like they are missing. A good example of this is the "u" sound in です (desu) "is." Don't worry, there's still enough of a sound to be able to distinguish the "u" sound from any other vowel sound.
is / am / are
The name よしこ (Yoshiko) "Yoshiko" has a missing "i" sound. Instead, you'll just hear the "sh" sound from し (shi). Don't panic - by hearing this sound alone, you will be able to distinguish the "shi" sound from any other "s" sounding syllable.
Lastly, try saying the following Japanese words, which look like English when written in rōmaji. Remember to pronounce the vowels - don’t confuse them with the English!
that (thing) over there
come / arrive (te form)
sake / alcohol
また ね！ (Mata ne!)
Sayaka Matsuura: Rocket Japanese
Reinforce your learning from this lesson with the Rocket Reinforcement activities!