The Basics of Japanese

I won’t assume you know the basics of Japanese so I’ll just give a basic introduction as to what it involves (if you do, skip this post). Remember, all languages require diligence and hard work. Japanese is a rewarding language to learn. Once you’ve mastered an element, you really feel like you have achieved something.

Japanese has what we may call three alphabets: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. These are character sets/symbols that represent sounds in the case of Hiragana and Katakana and concepts in the case of Kanji.

Kana: Hiragana and Katakana are known collectively as Kana and both represent the same sounds from the Japanese language. For example, House  – Uchi, is made up of the hiragana, U  う, Chi ち. Katakana has the same sounds but different characters, U ウ & Chiチ.


Hiragana: Hiragana means rounded/easy to use and that reflects the shape and simplicity of the script. It is mainly used to write Japanese words which do not have a Kanji, and to write the grammatical parts of words and sentences. For example,


             げんき  ひと

Anata wa genkina hito desu.

You are a healthy/active person.

The underlined parts are the Kanji, the rest is hiragana.

This is the system of writing first taught to Japanese school-children and foreigners learning the language. Typically you will learn how to pronounce and write hiragana using a chart with the sounds next to the symbols:

A    I      U     E    O

あ  い     う    え    お

 Katakana: This writing system is usually taught after Hiragana and is used primarily to write foreign loan words introduced into Japan for which there is no direct Japanese equivalent. It is also used to highlight text (making advertising stick out). For example:  

Re  su  to  ra  n

レ      ス     ト     ラ    ン

Say it slowly then say it fast. Look it over. It means restaurant.

Kanji: Kan means Chinese and ji means letter or character. Originally conceived in China and then introduced into Japan in the 6th Century, it was adapted into the Japanese language and became the basis of Hiragana and Katakana. Each symbol is representative of something. These symbols evolved from images from everyday life such as the sun日and moon 月.

There are two types of pronunciation for Kanji, On-yomi (the original Chinese reading), used for compound words – two or more symbols together, and Kun-yomi (Japanese reading), used for reading a single Kanji symbol.

A group of Kanji allows a person to scan a sign or a newspaper headline and interpret it quickly. For example, the word Japan in Japanese is Nihon. You can use hiragana or Kanji.

 Hiragana – に ほ ん  

Ni =  に  Ho = ほ   N =  ん  

 The Kanji for Japan/Nihon is  –  日本

The Kanji is made up of two elements, the first being sun – 日, the second symbol means origin/root – 本 。

Hence, origin of the sun or land of the rising sun (China is West of Japan and that is where the sun came from). Furthermore, each Kanji is made from a set of strokes (calligraphy brushes were used to create them). Each stroke comes in a specific order. There are around 7,000 Kanji in the Japanese language so grit your teeth and learn them!

Rōmaji: Rōma means Roman and ji means letter or character. In other words the Roman alphabet. Japanese sounds in a non-Japanese script. This is commonly used in language books and gradually phased out as the reader becomes more familiar with Hiragana and Katakana.

This will act as a crutch for you and it is best for you to learn the Kana so you can get used to Japanese.

Phew. Looking back at this it may seem confusing so try each section individually and remember it like this:

Hirigana – First alphabet to learn. All words apart from foreign words can be written in hiragana.

Katakana – Second language learnt. Used for foreign loan-words, probably your name. Here’s a fun link:

Kanji – Third alphabet, formed from symbols. Most complex alphabet with multiple readings and grammatical tics.

Here’s another site which gives what is porbably a better structured over-view:

Here’s a site with a lot of study tips and practice sheets:

Here’s a site which has writing sheets which are blank so you can use them to test yourself and fill them in from memory:

These are vital for learning Japanese as you will need a lot of practice to get to grips with the language – practice makes perfect because it is ingrained in the memory.

If you have any comments or corrections, please feel free to mention them: constructive criticism is welcome since we will all learn. Just to make sure you are certain of what I have just posted, you can learn more about Japanese from people who know the language from the perspective of teachers/native speakers etc. Just follow the links on the side and following posts for more details.

Next Lesson: Hiragana Explained.

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