The Long Slog – Learning How to Read Japanese

The most daunting part of learning Japanese can be the writing system. Here is a quick primer on the basics to get you started!

In Japanese there are three writing systems:

  1. Hiragana – This is a phonetic alphabet (meaning each symbol represents one sound) and is what I would call the “default.” This is the first writing system that children learn and many children’s books are written in hiragana only. There are 46 characters to learn.
  2. Katakana – This is the second phonetic alphabet and it is used exclusively for foreign loan words. If you already know hiragana, katakana is much easier to learn because many of the characters look similar (just more straight lines as opposed to curved lines). Thankfully for us English speaking folks, most of these words come from English. Can you guess what konpyuuta means?
  3. Kanji – These are the Chinese characters. There are thousands of them to learn. Kanji characters are not used to just represent a noun – it is not as simple as one kanji representing one thing. In addition, kanji are also frequently used in verb stems and adjectives. And they are frequently put together. And they always have multiple readings.
“Ka” in Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Keep in mind that there are many Kanji with the reading “Ka!”

Katakana and hiragana can be learned in pretty short order. Click the “Games” link above to see hiragana and katakana flashcards that you can use to learn the basics. These can be learned in a few short days.

Kanji, on the other hand, will take years of practice and study. Japanese people learn kanji in school all of the way through high school and still don’t come to close to studying all of them.

The kanji that students are required to learn by the time they graduate high school are called the “Jouyou Kanji.” There are a bit over 2,000 of them and they are considered the baseline for becoming literate in written Japanese. If you know them you will know a majority of the kanji that you will read. The resource that I use to learn kanji is the web-site Wani Kani.

If you are interested in Japanese, studying kanji can be very, very rewarding. Knowing a lot of kanji can give you insight into the meaning of words that is similar to knowing Latin root words in English.

Once while at work I was caught studying Kanji at my desk and I got to explaining the above to my co-worker. He simply shook his head and said, “Andy, there’s a better way. It’s called English.”

I won’t get into which way is better or worse. Just be prepared to put in a lot of effort if you are going to embark on the journey of learning how to read Japanese. The Japanese themselves find that they are learning new Kanji throughout their entire lives for Pete’s sake, so don’t expect to learn it overnight!


Resources

Learn Hiragana and Katakana in the Games section

Learn the Joukyou Kanji with the help of Wani Kani

Pick up a copy of the family friendly Unko Kanji Doriru (Poop Kanji Drill) series

Want to learn some basic Japanese? Check out the first volume of the ‘Let’s Go to Nihon!’ children’s book series on Amazon!

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