The Japanese Alphabet Explained

The Japanese Alphabet

Welcome to a beginner’s guide to the Japanese alphabet! You may have landed on this page because your previous experience with learning the Japanese alphabet wasn’t that positive. Maybe one moment you were looking at square characters that reminded you of Chinese, but the other moment they were followed by very simple looking ones with curved strokes. Well … that’s because there are three writing systems in Japanese.  

Japanese Writing System
Example of a typical Japanese sentence with hiragana, katakana, and kanji.

Take a look at the sentence above. 私 watashi (I) and 名前 namae (name) are written in kanji (Chinese characters), リ-ス Rīsu (Lies) is written in katakana and the remaining characters are hiragana.


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Now let’s dive in and take a look at them one by one!

The Common Hiragana

First, let’s start off with one of the alphabets you will use the most, hiragana. Hiragana literally means simple syllabary. (If you don’t get that now, you soon will when we are going to cover the other writing system, kanji. Trust me.) It consists of 46 characters in total. 

Hiragana

But, as you may have noticed, there are no voiced consonants like b, d, and g. That’s why we also use dakuten ば (those two stripes that look like a quotation mark) and handakuten ぱ (the little circle). Dakuten creates voiced sounds. For example, it changes ’k’ to ’g’, ’s’ to ’z’, ’t’ to ’d’ and so on, while handakuten creates half-voiced sounds (we’ll explain later in the katakana part).

So for example, apple in Japanese is written as り-ん-ご ri-n-go. (Mind the dakuten)

Hiragana is the standard and most commonly used Japanese writing system. Children are taught hiragana first in school. Actually, children’s books are mostly written in hiragana (I definitely recommend checking these books out if you have mastered hiragana, it will really help you with getting more fluent and increasing your vocabulary).

The Foreign Katakana

The next one is also a relatively easy alphabet to learn. It’s called Katakana, which literally means“fragmented”. Because they are actually taken from other bigger and more complex characters – kanji. Katakana is mainly used to write foreign words, onomatopoeia, loan words, and so on. Don’t freak out if you see inu (dog) written like イヌ instead of いぬ. there is a tendency to write animals’ or plants’ names in katakana. 

Just like in hiragana, katakana are written in syllables, except for ア aeiou n. There are also 46 katakana, and you will see that some of them have similarities with hiragana. But while hiragana are mostly cursive and graceful, katakana is more angular and looks serious.


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But this still doesn’t explain how I can write shampoo! Well, you’re totally right. In this case, we will need to make use of small vowels like ヤ ya, ユ yu and ヨ yo. In order to write シャ sha, you’re going to combine a big シ shi with a smallya, シャンプー  shanpū (the vertical line is used to make the ’u’-sound longer).

Be careful that you won’t mistake a big vowel for a small vowel or else your word will get a completely different meaning! The examples below and you’ll understand. Click the audio bar to hear how they sound differently!

美容院 いん biyōin  –  hairdresser 

病院 いん byōin  –  hospital.

If you want to express the double sound, you’re also going to make use of sokuon: っ or ッ(the small vowel of つ and ツ)By writing it before a consonant, it doubles the consonant. For example:

otto – husband

おと oto – sound

The Dreaded Kanji

But how do you know where one word ends and another one begins? Or how I can be sure that someone is talking about school or someone’s behind? This is where kanji comes in. Kanji is a writing system derived from Chinese characters, so usually the Japanese get the main idea of what is written in Chinese and vice versa.

The average Japanese person knows about 2000-3000 kanji, but if you ask them how many kanji exist, the chances are high that they won’t be able to give an answer. Some think it’s 40 000, others 50 000, but really there is no set amount. This is one of the reasons why they are dreaded, especially by foreigners. Other reasons that make learning kanji difficult for them, are that it’s something they are not familiar with at all. If you are struggling with learning kanji, you can take a look at our other article about kanji radicals (parts of kanji).  

Yes, you read that right, each kanji has a certain set amount of strokes and you need to draw those strokes in the right order. You always need to draw a stroke from left to right, from top to bottom, and everything is written clockwise. And because all of this isn’t enough, there are usually two or more ways to read one specific kanji, depending on whether it stands on its own, or is written in combination with other kanji. But that’s not something you need to worry about right now. Okay, let’s move on before you totally want to give up on Japanese, there are lots of positive things about learning Japanese too!

Next up is the reading direction. You can read Japanese in two ways, depending on which layout is used. If each character is placed below one another (written vertically), you read it from top to bottom, right to left. This form is usually used in newspapers or certain novels. The other possibility is that it’s written horizontally and then, like in our western writing system, you read it from left to right.

Whew! This is quite a lot to remember all at once, right? But on the positive side, kanji is also something very exciting and fun to learn. Don’t you agree that they actually look very beautiful, like a drawing? They are also quite helpful if you can’t read all of the characters that are written down, but those that you know can still help you with getting the main idea of the text. And admit, how cool would it be to brag to your friends about your Japanese reading and writing skills? 

So in the end, I think that you can agree with me that each alphabet has its positive sides. You can’t manage with hiragana alone, and kanji is quite useful and necessary if you want to have a full understanding of what’s written, don’t you agree? (Think about how awkward it would be to mistake school for someone’s behind.) I think it’s not something you will forget, and makes you very grateful that kanji exists.

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