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Japanese Alphabet

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.

Pronunciation of the Japanese Alphabet

Hiragana ひらがな and Katakana カタカナ

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!

Hiragana Syllables

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 (a), (i), (u), (e), (o), then (ka), (ki), (ku), (ke), (ko), and so on.

Japanese pronunciation is easy! The most important pronunciations are those of the five vowels: (a), (i), (u), (e), and (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:

あ 

い 

う 

え 

a

i

u

e

o

か 

き 

く 

け 

ka

ki

ku

ke

ko

さ 

し 

す 

せ 

sa

shi

su

se

so

た 

ち 

つ 

て 

ta

chi

tsu

te

to

な 

に 

ぬ 

ね 

na

ni

nu

ne

no

は 

ひ 

ふ 

へ 

ha

hi

fu

he

ho

ま 

み 

む 

め 

ma

mi

mu

me

mo

 

ya

yu

yo

ら 

り 

る 

れ 

ra

ri

ru

re

ro

wa

o

n

Katakana Syllables

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 (a), (i), (u), (e), (o), then (ka), (ki), (ku), (ke), (ko), and so on.

You can already pronounce all 46 of these characters, since they have the exact same sounds as hiragana!

a i u e o
k-
s-
t-
n-
h-
m-
y-
r-
w-
n

Kanji Characters

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" ().

Pronunciation Tips

Let's take a look at some of the tricky sounds you need to watch out for in Japanese.

The "n" sound - ん

The character (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.

時間

じかん

jikan

time / hour

気分

きぶん

kibun

mood / feeling

Long vowels

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."

さようなら

さようなら

sayōnara

goodbye

Double consonants

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).

ちょっと

ちょっと

chotto

a little bit

薬局

やっきょく

yakkyoku

pharmacy

Double vowels

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."

京都

きょうと

Kyōto

Kyoto (city)

東京

とうきょう

Tōkyō

Tokyo (city)

Silent or short vowels

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.

です

です

desu

is / am / are

The name よしこ (Yoshiko) "Yoshiko" has a missing "i" sound. Instead, you'll just hear the "sh" sound from (shi). Don't panic - by hearing this sound alone, you will be able to distinguish the "shi" sound from any other "s" sounding syllable.

佳子

よしこ

Yoshiko

Yoshiko (common girl's name)

Let's practice

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!

あれ

あれ

are

that

来て

きて

kite

come / arrive

さけ

sake

sake / alcohol

me

eye

to

and

Here are a few recommended Japanese lessons to try next!

またね! (Mata ne!)

Sayaka Matsuura: Rocket Japanese