Fundamentals of Japanese – Part 2: Reading

Here’s Part 2 of my ongoing Fundamentals of Japanese post series. In Part 1 I went over how to pronounce Japanese and read it using English letters (romaji). Now I’m going to discuss how it’s read using the three Japanese alphabets…

The Japanese language is written and read using three writing systems – hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana, which together are called kana, represent the sounds of the Japanese syllables I went over in Part 1 and don’t have any particular meaning on their own. Therefore, there’s one hiragana character and one katakana character for each Japanese syllable, making it possible to write the entire Japanese language in kana if one doesn’t know any kanji. Kanji are also pronounced with the syllables of the Japanese language, but unlike kana, kanji represent meanings rather than just sounds and most of the roughly 2,000 kanji characters in modern use today have more than one reading.

Let’s take a look at each writing system:


Hiragana – ひらがな

Hiragana is the most basic of the three alphabets and is used to write Japanese words that don’t have kanji characters. Some Japanese names, usually first names, are written with hiragana. It can also be used if one doesn’t know the kanji for a particular word. Typically hiragana is used for anything that’s not a noun and not the stem of a verb or adjective. It’s mainly used for Japanese grammar particles and as the conjugated bases of verbs and adjectives (all of which I’ll cover in later sections).

Here are the hiragana characters for all the Japanese syllables:

(a), (i), (u), (e), (o)

(ka), (ki), (ku), (ke), (ko)

(ga), (gi), (gu), (ge), (go)*

(sa), (shi), (su), (se), (so)

(za), (ji), (zu), (ze), (zo)*

(ta), (chi), (tsu), (te), (to)

(da), (ji), (zu), (de), (do)**

(na), (ni), (nu), (ne), (no)

(ha), (hi), (fu), (he), (ho)

(ba), (bi), (bu), (be), (bo)*

(pa), (pi), (pu), (pe), (po)***

(ma), (mi), (mu), (me), (mo)

(ya), (yu), (yo)

(ra), (ri), (ru), (re), (ro)

(wa), (wo)

(n)

And here are the syllables that use combinations with や(ya), ゆ(yu), and よ(yo). The や, ゆ, and よ are written smaller for these.

きゃ(kya), きゅ(kyu), きょ(kyo)

ぎゃ(gya), ぎゅ(gyu), ぎょ(gyo)*

しゃ(sha), しゅ(shu), しょ(sho)

ちゃ(cha), ちゅ(chu), ちょ(cho)

じゃ(ja), じゅ(ju), じょ(jo)*

りゃ(rya), りゅ(ryu), りょ(ryo)

にゃ(nya), にゅ(nyu), にょ(nyo)

みゃ(mya), みゅ(myu), みょ(myo)

ひゃ(hya), ひゅ(hyu), ひょ(hyo)

びゃ(bya), びゅ(byu), びょ(byo)*

ぴゃ(pya), ぴゅ(pyu), ぴょ(pyo)***

Words with double consonants that I mentioned in Part 1 are simply written with a small つ before the doubled consonant. So “kekkon” would be けっこん and “issho” would be いっしょ.


Katakana – カタカナ

Katakana is most commonly used for foreign words and names, including loan words from another language that have been adapted into Japanese. For example, any Western name such as John (ジョン) would be written in katakana as would anime (アニメ) because it’s a loan word adapted from the English word “animation.” Basically any word that sounds like English or another language that doesn’t adhere to Japanese syllables, such as the word for “hamburger” in Japanese, “hanbaagaa” (ハンバーガー), is written in katakana. A lot of fictional words not assigned kanji by the creator are written with katakana, such as Evangelion (エヴァンゲリオン), Death Note (デスノート), and the names of all the Pokemon. Occasionally katakana is also used to give emphasis to certain names or words to make them stand out even if they’re Japanese in origin. Naruto’s (ナルト) name is always written in katakana as is Shinji’s (シンジ). Katakana is also used for sound effects such as the Japanese equivalent of “meow,” “nyaa” (ニャー).

Here are the katakana characters for all the Japanese syllables:

(a), (i), (u), (e), (o)

(ka), (ki), (ku), (ke), (ko)

(ga), (gi), (gu), (ge), (go)*

(sa), (shi), (su), (se), (so)

(za), (ji), (zu), (ze), (zo)*

(ta), (chi), (tsu), (te), (to)

(da), (ji), (zu), (de), (do)**

(na), (ni), (nu), (ne), (no)

(ha), (hi), (fu), (he), (ho)****

(ba), (bi), (bu), (be), (bo)*

(pa), (pi), (pu), (pe), (po)***

(ma), (mi), (mu), (me), (mo)

(ya), (yu), (yo)

(ra), (ri), (ru), (re), (ro)

(wa), (wo)

(n)

And here are the syllables that use combinations with ヤ(ya), ユ(yu), and ヨ(yo). Like with hiragana, the ヤ, ユ, and ヨ are written smaller for these.

キャ(kya), キュ(kyu), キョ(kyo)

ギャ(gya), ギュ(gyu), ギョ(gyo)*

シャ(sha), シュ(shu), ショ(sho)

チャ(cha), チュ(chu), チョ(cho)

ジャ(ja), ジュ(ju), ジョ(jo)*

リャ(rya), リュ(ryu), リョ(ryo)

ニャ(nya), ニュ(nyu), ニョ(nyo)

ミャ(mya), ミュ(myu), ミョ(myo)

ヒャ(hya), ヒュ(hyu), ヒョ(hyo)

ビャ(bya), ビュ(byu), ビョ(byo)*

ピャ(pya), ピュ(pyu), ピョ(pyo)***

Also like hiragana, words with double consonants in katakana are written with a small ツ before the doubled consonant. So “kappu”(cup) would be カップ and “shokku”(shock) would be ショック.

Unlike hiragana however, long vowel sounds are indicated with an additional character, ー, in katakana. So the word for “taxi” in Japanese, “takushii” (obviously adapted from the English word) would be written as タクシー not タクシイ and “kouhii”(coffee) would be written as コーヒー and not コウヒイ.

Because katakana is used to write foreign words that don’t adhere nicely to the very vowel-centric Japanese language, sometimes liberties are taken with katakana to enhance pronunciation. For example, although the “v” sound doesn’t exist in Japanese, sometimes a voiced ウ(u) (written as ヴ) is used for it, as in Evangelion (エヴァンゲリオン). Other examples include combing a フ(fu) with a small オ(o) to make the フォ(fo) sound in “California” (karuforunia/カルフォルニア) and a テ(te) combined with a small イ(i) to make the ティ(ti) sound in “party” (paatii/パーティー). There are more examples like this and they’re something best picked up through experience.

Hiragana and Katakana footnotes

* – these consonants are voiced, so the only difference between them and their unvoiced counterparts are the quotation mark thingies on top, called dakuten
** – like I mentioned in Part 1, there are two different syllables for “ji”(じ or ぢ) and “zu”(ず or づ) in hiragana and “ji”(ジ or ヂ) and “zu”(ズ or ヅ) in katakana. You’re most often only going to see じ, ず, ジ, and ズ used, the others being used only in certain words
*** – these consonants are voiced with a “p” sound, so the only difference between them and their unvoiced counterparts is the small circle (maru) on top
**** – the character for “he”(へ) and its voiced equivalents “be”(べ) and “pe”(ぺ) is the same in hiragana and katakana


Kanji – 漢字

Unlike the kana characters, each of the approximately 2,000 common use kanji characters has its own meaning, sometimes more than one. Each kanji can also have a different pronunciation depending on the word it’s in. Because there are so many kanji, each with different meanings and readings, they’re not something that can be learned in a short time, unlike kana. Kids in Japan learn kana early on but continue to learn new kanji all throughout their schooling years. Since full coverage of 2,000 kanji characters would require nothing short of a dictionary, I can’t list them all here like I did with kana. However, I will go over some kanji basics:

The different readings a kanji could have is its on-reading, which is the reading based on its original Chinese reading, and its kun-reading, which is the Japanese-based reading. Any given kanji could have only one of the two readings, or more than one of each.

Let’s look at a couple of kanji. 火 is a kanji that means “fire” and it has one on-reading, か(ka), and kun-readings ひ(hi) and び(bi). By itself it’s typically pronounced ひ(hi) and means “fire.” Another kanji, 花, means “flower.” It’s on-reading is also か(ka) and its kun-reading is はな(hana). By itself it’s typically pronounced はな(hana) and means “flower.”

When used together, these two kanji make a word, 花火 (hanabi), which means “fireworks.” It’s pronounced using the kun-readings of both. Like I said before, if you didn’t happen to know these kanji, you could write “hanabi” as はなびusing hiragana instead (kanji is always preferred). Sometimes small hiragana is written on top of kanji to show how it’s pronounced, most often in text targeted at young readers who haven’t yet learned a lot of kanji such as in shonen manga. This kind of hiragana aiding for reading kanji is called furigana.

Now let’s look at another kanji, 山. It means “mountain” and its on-reading is さん(san) or ざん(zan) and its kun-reading is やま(yama). By itself it’s pronounced やま(yama) meaning “mountain.” Like 花, it can also make a word when combined with 火. That word would be 火山 (kazan/かざん) which means “volcano.” This time you see that the on-reading for 火 is used as well as the on-reading for 山.

Let’s look at a more complex kanji. 空 means “sky” but it can also mean “emptiness” or “vacancy” depending on the word it’s in. Its on-reading is くう(kuu) and its kun-readings are そら(sora)、あ(a)、and から(kara). When read by itself, it’s usually pronounced そら(sora) and means “sky.” It’s also a stem in the verb “to be empty,” “aku”(空く) where it’s pronounced with its kun-reading あ(a).

—–

Now that you’ve seen all of the Japanese kana characters, and have a basic idea of how kanji works, let’s take a look at a Japanese sentence that utilizes all three writing systems and take each one apart.

来年フランスに行きます。
(rainen furansu ni ikimasu.)
Next year I will go to France.

: A kanji that means “to come.” Its on-reading “rai(らい)” is used.
: A kanji that means “year” Its on-reading “nen(ねん)” is used.
When combined, the two kanji make the word 来年(rainen/らいねん) which means “next year.”
フランス: “France” in Japanese, written “furansu.” Since it’s based on the word “France,” it’s written in katakana.
: に(ni) here is used as a particle to indicate direction (more on particles in a later section). Grammatical aspects like particles are written in hiragana.
: A kanji that means “to go.” In this case, the kanji is used as the stem of the verb. It’s kun-reading い(i) is used.
きます: The conjugated part of the word 行きます(ikimasu) written in hiragana. The kanji holds the meaning while this part shows what tense it is (polite-future tense in this case).
: A Japanese period to end a sentence is a small circle. Commas, question marks, and exclamation marks are also used in Japanese to some extent. 「 and 」 are used for quotation marks.

—–

Properly writing all of the kana and kanji characters involves knowing their correct stroke order – in which order you write the lines that make up the character. Typically it’s top to bottom, left to right, though there are exceptions, especially for the kanji. Writing Japanese with correct stroke orders and learning how kanji are classified by radicals and such is beyond the scope of this post series. With the advent of computers and cell phones, nowadays a foreigner can get by pretty well just speaking and reading Japanese. But learning how to write is still part of learning the language and I highly recommend practicing writing as you go along if you’re serious about learning Japanese.

Well, I hope this section has given you a good understanding of how the Japanese written language works. Next time in Part 3, I’ll cover some fundamental aspects of Japanese grammar, including particles. Until then, I’ll be back with an anime post next time =)

—–On to Part 3: Particles
—–Back to Part 1: Pronunciation

17 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. KRILL says:

    HMMMMM. I am still gett’n down the hiragana. I’m almost done and am preparing for katakana. I just write down the character THEN learn it’s sound. I am avoiding romanji so it doesn’t get abused as a crutch. I like writing it out, it’s been fun and the language is pretty. I am teaching myself, since it’s free and I can encrypt it into my own brain in my own way on my own time. I’ve been doing it AGAIN, about two days consistently now, so by the end of the week I want a pretty considerable grasp on hiragana and katakana. Then I just need to memorize words and their meaning. I’m not going to worry about kanji XD at least not until WAY later and only the MOST common and basic words. Unlike Spanish which I’m passable, I have a passion for this so I hope to be able to go to Japan and be an independent adventurer one day.

    Anyways these posts are REALLY fun. VERY helpful. I look forward to’m. But I’m taking a little break for now, since the draft is starting in an hour or so. I am sick with excitement! Pray Mark Barron goes Dallas in the 14th pick lol.

    • Yumeka says:

      Learning kana straight away without starting with romaji is probably the best way to go. I wouldn’t disregard kanji though – I would recommend trying to learn a few early on, if only the simplest/most common ones.

      Glad you’re enjoying the post series! Good luck with your studies.

  2. chikorita157 says:

    The kana was really easy to memorize and it only took about two weeks each to fully memorize them. I just make an Anki deck filled with them and go over them every day. Although Hiragana takes some practice to get right, Katakana is easier since its angular and requires less effort. Anyone can write them with not much problem if they know what the character looks like. But yes, knowing Kana gives a better edge in effectively learning the language properly instead of resorting to Romanji and get the feeling of not knowing anything.

    Kanji on the other hand is a double edge sword. It would have been easier if I learned Chinese when I was a child, but I was dumb by not wanting to do that. But, it would have helped a lot since reading a sentence full of kana is difficult since the words sound the same, but doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing. The only way to effectively learn Kanji is to draw them out on flashcards. This is what I have been doing for the past two months and it actually works. I go over them once in a while, but eventually they get into my mind. It also makes memorizing the vocabulary a bit easier too.

    • Salion says:

      I hadn’t heard of those Anki decks before…thanks for mentioning them; I just looked it up, and it looks like a very useful thing!

    • Anonymous says:

      It’s true that learning Chinese as a child helps with learning kanji. My friend who has been learning Chinese for five years and has no Japanese knowledge whatsoever, can read and understand Japanese to a point where they translate kanji for me. (Actually, I’ve been learning Chinese for three years longer than her but my Chinese still sucks. Ahaha. Hint: watching anime with chinese subtitles REALLY helps.)
      The problem with learning Chinese before Japanese is that the meaning and pronunciation can be different. For example, the Japanese kanji for the word “bicycle” are (I think) the Chinese characters for the words “car” and “car insurance”. It is also quite embarassing when I read out the word incorrectly.

      Hmmm…. flashcards. I might try them out. They sound like they’re really helping you!

      • Yumeka says:

        Yeah, the Chinese characters are usually pronounced differently than they are in Japanese though they have the same meanings…individually at least. When a word in Japanese uses more than one kanji, like you mentioned in “bicycle,” the Chinese meaning becomes different. So Chinese speakers can probably read Japanese sentences and only get a vague idea of what they mean (unless they have too much kana =P) though are still prone to errors due to these compound kanji words.

    • Yumeka says:

      I actually didn’t use any anki flashcards during most of my years of formal Japanese studying. For kana, I taught myself by constantly writing the names of anime characters until I ingrained all of them in my mind XD

      For kanji, I would just write down the ones I needed to know for class on paper and look them over before the test. Once I started teaching myself kanji on my own however, I’ve started using self-made flashcards and they’ve been working well.

      Yeah, learning Chinese would have been helpful since most (but not all) of the Chinese characters have the same meaning in Japanese though their pronunciation is usually different.

  3. Frootytooty says:

    Looks like a very useful guide post. :) I hope you continue these!

    I learned basic Japanese in high school and skipped the year where they taught katakana, so these days it still takes me a lot longer to read it than hiragana. Even kanji is faster since I’m Chinese so I can often get the meaning of the kanji by skimming, though I don’t know how to pronounce it. Another problem is that often kanji is written slightly different to their Chinese counterparts, which can trip me up sometimes.

    Ironically enough pure hiragana is a nightmare to read. I tried playing Pokemon in Japanese once and the dialogue was pretty much entirely in hiragana and it took me aaaages to figure out where each word started and ended or picking out a word from its homophones. Kanji + hiragana is definitely easiest.

    • Yumeka says:

      Yeah, I’ve always had a bit more trouble with katakana because you don’t see it as often in Japanese texts and it can get weird when it’s used to “force” English words into Japanese syllables.

      Oh yeah, once you get more advanced in Japanese, reading in all hiragana is actually more difficult because it’s harder to see where sentences begin and end, and you can’t use kanji context clues to figure out what words mean.

      Actually, I believe Pokemon Black and White were the first Pokemon games to give you the option of reading in all kana or with kanji. I played Pokemon Black in Japanese and it was helpful with the kanji.

  4. Cytrus says:

    Nice and informative as always.

    One thing. While it is certainly convenient, you might want to reconsider using the term alphabet here, as opposed to a syllabary (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syllabary). Kanji doesn’t seem even close to an alphabet to me, either.

    There’s actually no neat collective word for kana + kanji, not even in Japanese. You can sometimes read Japanese linguists grumbling about it ^_^.

    • Yumeka says:

      Yeah, I was a bit hesitant about using the word “alphabet” to describe Japanese but I thought it would make things a bit easier to understand for English speakers. Plus I couldn’t think of the word “syllabary” while writing this post =P But yeah, I’ll definitely keep that in mind.

  5. Kal says:

    Waaaa!! That is pretty complex :S Hiragana and Katakana are pretty straight forward, but when going into Kanji, that just makes my head spin! I guess that’s what takes the longest to learn. Thanks for the post though! It is very interesting.

    • Yumeka says:

      Japanese would be so easy to read if it was just kana XD But then again, kanji is what makes it a beautiful language and brings out the meaning in words that are otherwise pronounced the same.

  6. Doug K. says:

    Ahh, brings back memories–Alia-san and I began our Japanese language study together in Yamaguchi Sensei’s Japanese 1 class at L.A. Pierce College in 2004. Natsukashii…!

    Funny that chikorita157 thinks Katakana is easier–I felt just the opposite (and so have a lot of people I’ve met). Especially when it comes to the dreaded “shi/tsu シツ and n/so” ンソ distinction. I still scratch my head sometimes when reading Katakana, but that might be due to my own inadequacies…

    For what it’s worth, here are a couple of my personal observations about learning to read (and write) Japanese:

    1. GET AWAY from using Romaji as fast as you can–or avoid using it at all in the first place if possible. It’s surprising what a crutch it can be, and one that is not easily un-learned as you progress. When you associate a word, its sound and its meaning, your brain loads it as a mental picture–if you picture it in Romaji, you’ll remember it that way and need to un-learn then re-learn it pictured in kana and potentially again in Kanji.

    2. Of the two syllabaries, I would suggest Hiragana is far more important to learn quickly and thoroughly since you’ll use it much more often than Katakana. You should be able to recite Hiragana backwards, forwards, sideways and write it in any direction and order–you should see the characters on the inside of your eyelids when you sleep at night! :-)

    3. DO NOT DELAY in learning Kanji! This is a HUGE mistake for anyone who is serious about Japanese. As I mentioned above, you will just need to un-learn/re-learn something you’ve got down in kana anyway. If you ever expect to read or function in Japanese you can’t avoid Kanji, so…what are you waiting for? When I was studying, I set a goal for myself of learning the 80 Kanji characters that Japanese first graders learn in my first semester–and I did it too. Get yourself a good Kanji book and challenge yourself (I initially used A Guide to Reading & Writing Japanese by Kenneth Henshall, but there are others). I used a yellow highlighter to highlight the character once I knew it–and boy was it fun to color in a new one!

    4. Kanji is NOT as difficult or scary as you think. The key things to learning are: get the stroke order down correctly, and learn how radicals work. Once I had those two concepts going for me, Kanji study became perhaps my favorite part of the language (and Alia-san can probably back me up on that one). It truly becomes a thing of beauty and sheer enjoyment to write out a kanji character.

    5. Finally, when studying Kanji, it is crucial to learn them as compounds and not merely a bunch of random characters in isolation. This was another mistake I made early on; I would see characters I knew in a text, but not know what they “really” meant because they were together with another Kanji in a compound. Any good kanji dictionary, book or flashcards (I HIGHLY recommend the excellent Kanji Flashcard sets from White Rabbit Press) will list compounds you are likely to see together in real life. Another great place to find them is in reading your favorite manga–make note of character compounds you see frequently, then learn them.

    Sorry I went on a bit–but I LOVE the Japanese language, especially in its written form. Now if I could only get the rest of it down better…

    皆、日本語の勉強頑張って下さい!

    • Yumeka says:

      Yeah, like I said to Frootytooty above, I also find katakana more difficult. When it comes to writing it, I still have trouble with “shi/tsu シツ” and “n/so ンソ” too.

      Thanks for listing all those helpful tips =) We learned a lot of kanji strictly in compound words in my Advanced Japanese class at UCI, but when I started teaching myself at home since graduation, I made the mistake of trying to learn them only individually – thankfully I soon switched to learning them using compound words and that helped a lot (plus I’m now learning a new kanji AND new vocabulary words, so two birds with one stone =D)

  7. Reading through this post, I realise I’d forgotten how intimdating the syllabaries look. Well, a word of encouragement to new learners: it gets easy once you start using them regularly.

    Have you heard of James Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji? I’d highly recommend it for anyone learning this stuff. He focuses on teaching the writing and general meaning of the characters, and saves the readings for another volume. The result is that you start learning to write and recognise a lot of characters fairly quickly, which also helps a lot in remembering new words.

    Anki, which chikorita157 mentioned above, is also really helpful. I got the iPhone app for it, and in the mornings or anytime I have a spare moment at work I can take it out and study for a few minutes.

    On a side note, ‘Evangelion’ isn’t a fictional word. It’s derived from ancient Greek for “good news,” i.e., the Gospel. ;)

    • Yumeka says:

      I think I have heard of James Heisig’s book but I don’t tend to do well with those kinds of kanji learning methods. I’m sure many people do, but for me personally the anki-type method works best. I have an anki DS game that I’ve started using too, though it’s a game from Japan so it’s tailored towards Japanese players hence no English definitions of kanji.

      Oh, I didn’t know Evangelion wasn’t a totally fictional world. It’s still pretty unknown as a word though ^^a

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