The Japanese writing system is comprised of three main written scripts: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.
Hiragana is the main phonetic writing system used to represent every distinct sound in Japanese. Because of its phonetic nature, we will first learn Hiragana to also learn how to pronounce all the sounds in the Japanese language.
While Katakana represents the same sounds as Hiragana, it is mainly used to represent words imported from other languages.
Kanji, which are Chinese characters adapted for Japanese, are heavily used in writing. There are no spaces in Japanese so Kanji is necessary in order to separate the words within a sentence. Kanji is also useful for distinguishing homophones, which occurs quite often given the limited number of distinct sounds in Japanese.
In the next section, we will learn all the characters in Hiragana and how to pronounce them. As we will see, every character in Hiragana (and the Katakana equivalent) corresponds to a specific sound. This makes pronunciation very easy as each letter has exactly one pronunciation. However, because there are relatively few distinct sounds in the Japanese language, you must pay extra attention to proper intonation.
Unlike English pronunciation which is based on accents, Japanese pronunciation is based on alterations between a high and low pitch. For example, homophones can have different pitches of low and high tones resulting in a slightly different sound despite sharing the same pronunciation. The biggest obstacle for obtaining proper and natural sounding speech is incorrect intonation. Therefore, as you listen to Japanese and begin to imitate the sounds, it is very important that you pay attention to pitch in order to sound like a native speaker.
The table below represents the entire Hiragana syllabary categorized by the consonant and vowel sounds. With the exception of a few sounds (as shown by the pronunciation in parentheses), most sounds in Japanese are easily represented by a vowel or consonant-vowel. There is also one consonant-only sound: 「ん」.
Speaking: Practice repeating the sounds. I recommend recording yourself to get an accurate idea of what you sound like. Pay careful attention to the “r” sounds!
While most of the sounds are pretty straightforward, the “r” sounds deserve careful attention for English speakers because there is no equivalent sound in English. It is more similar to the “r” sound in Spanish.
What works for some English speakers (even if it may not be technically correct) is to shape the lips something like the sound that is made for the English “r,” but to make the sound with a single trill or flap of the tongue against the front of the palate.
Katakana, as already mentioned, is mainly used to represent words imported from other languages. We’ve already learned all the sounds when we learned Hiragana. All you need to learn is a different way of writing them.
Due to the straight lines and relatively few strokes, there are many characters in Katakana that look very similar. In particular, 「シ」、「ツ」 「ソ」、and 「ン」. You should pay careful attention to the stroke order and direction. You may also notice that the Katakana 「ヘ」 is virtually identical to its Hiragana counterpart 「へ」. They are in fact, written pretty much the same way. Below are handy PDFs for writing practice.
Many words from foreign languages, particularly English, have become part of the Japanese language via Katakana throughout the years. However, there are relatively few distinct sounds in Japanese and only five vowel sounds. As a result, these words usually don’t bear much resemblance to their original pronunciations. An important thing to remember is to stay true to the Japanese pronunciation and completely forget how it’s really supposed to be pronounced. To give you an idea, here is a short list of foreign words and their Japanese equivalents.
Though we have covered all the distinct characters in both Hiragana and Katakana, there are additional variations and sounds that still remain to be learned.
Voiced consonants are consonant sounds that require a voice, creating a vibration in your throat. A number of consonant sounds in Hiragana and Katakana can be changed to their voiced counterpart by adding two small dashes to the upper-right corner of the character; namely the “k”, “s”, “t”, and “h” consonant sounds. There is also a semi-voiced consonant sound “p”, which is created by putting a small circle in the upper-right corner of the “h” characters.
While no single letter ends in a consonant sound （except 「ん」）, Japanese does have a way to carry over the next consonant sound back with a small 「つ」. This can be used with the consonants “p, k, t, s” to create a hard stop.
For example, 「ひと」 (meaning “person”) would normally be read as “hi-to”. However, by adding a small 「つ」: 「ひっと」, the “t” consonant sound is carried back and is pronounced “hit-to” (meaning “hit”).
Here are some more examples.
トラック (to-rak-ku) – truck
ざっし (zas-shi) – magazine
カップ (kap-pu) – cup
The Long Vowel Sound
We will now go over the long vowel sound which is simply extending the duration of a vowel sound. You can extend the vowel sound of a character by adding either 「あ」、「い」、or 「う」 depending on the vowel as shown in the following chart.
Extending Vowel Sounds
/ a /
/ i / e /
/ u / o /
For example, if you wanted to create an extended vowel sound from 「か」, you would add 「あ」 to create 「かあ」. Other examples would include: 「き → きい」, 「く → くう」, 「け → けい」, 「こ → こう」, 「さ → さあ」 and so on. The reason for this is quite simple. Try saying 「か」 and 「あ」 separately. Then say them in succession as fast as you can. You’ll notice that it’s easier to drag out the vowel.
It’s important to make sure you hold the vowel sound to the full length of both characters because there are many similar words that are only different by the length of the vowel. For example, 「ここ」 means “here” while 「こうこう」 means “High school”.
Here is a short list of example words with long vowel sounds. The long vowel sound is highlighted.
がくせい (ga-ku-se) – student
せんせい (sen-se) – teacher
きょう (kyo) – today
おはよう (o-ha-yo) – good morning
おかあさん (o-ka-san) – mother
There are also a small number of exceptions where an “e” vowel sound is extended by adding 「え」 or an “o” vowel sound is extended with 「お」. We’ll see example of these words in later sections.
Long vowel sounds in Katakana are much easier. You simply need to use a dash: 「ー」.
ツアー (tsu-a) – tour
メール (me-ru) – email
ケーキ (ke-ki) – cake
Additional Katakana Sounds
「ふ」 is the only sound that is pronounced with a “f” sound, for example 「ふとん」 (futon) or 「ふじ」 (Fuji). That’s fine in Japanese because there are no words with other “f” sounds such as “fa”, “fi”, or “fo”. However, it’s a problem when converting foreign words such as “fork” into Katakana.
This problem was solved by using small vowel sounds. For example, the small 「ォ」 can be attached to 「フ」 to create 「フォ」 (fo). “Fork” then becomes ［フォーク」. There are other gaps that are filled with this technique. The “v” sounds are also expressed by putting two dashes to the vowel sounds. However, “v” sounds are rarely used due to the difficulty native Japanese speakers have in pronouncing them.
The following table shows the gaps that were filled using these techniques for Katakana.
The last and most notorious aspect of the Japanese written language is Kanji, which are Chinese characters adapted for Japanese. Most words in Japanese are written in Kanji even though they are still pronounced with the Japanese phonetic sounds represented by Hiragana and Katakana.
When learning Kanji, it is very important to learn it with the proper stroke order and direction from the beginning in order to avoid developing any bad habits. Japanese learners often think that stroke order doesn’t matter as long as the end product looks the same. However, what they don’t realize is that there are thousands of characters and they are not always meticulously written the way they appear in print. Proper stroke order helps ensure the characters look recognizable even when you write them quickly or use more cursive styles.
The simpler characters called radicals are often reused as components in larger characters. Once you learn the radical stroke order and get used to the patterns, you’ll find that it’s not difficult to figure out the correct stroke order for most Kanji.
One good general rule of thumb is that strokes usually start from the top-left corner toward the bottom-right. This means that horizontal strokes are generally written from left to right and vertical strokes are written from top to bottom. In any case, if you’re not sure about the stroke order, you should always verify by looking the character up in a Kanji dictionary.
Kanji in Vocabulary
There are roughly over 2,000 characters used in modern Japanese so you can imagine that memorizing them one-by-one as you might for syllabaries such as Hiragana does not work very well.
An effective strategy for mastering Kanji is learning them with new vocabulary within a larger context. This way, we can associate contextual information with the character in order to reinforce memory. Remember that Kanji, ultimately, is used to represent actual words. So it is important to focus not so much on the characters themselves but the words and vocabulary that include those characters.
In this section, we will learn how Kanji works by learning a few common characters and vocabulary.
The first Kanji we will learn is 「人」, the character for ‘person.’ It is a simple two-stroke character where each stroke starts at the top. You may have noticed that the character as rendered by the font is not always the same as the hand-written style below. This is another important reason to check the stroke order.
Kanji in Japanese can have one or several readings. The reading for Kanji is split into two major categories called kun-yomi and on-yomi. Kun-yomi is the Japanese reading of the character while on-yomi is based on the original Chinese pronunciation.
Generally, Kun-yomi is used for words that only use one character. The actual word for “person” is one example.
Example: 人 【ひと】 – person
Kun-yomi is also used for native Japanese words including most adjectives and verbs.
On-yomi, on the other hand, is mostly used for words that originate from Chinese, which often use 2 or more Kanji. For that reason, on-yomi is often written in Katakana. We’ll see more examples as we learn more characters. With 「人」, one very useful example of an on-yomi is to attach it to names of countries to describe nationality.
アメリカ人 【アメリカ・じん】 – American (person)
フランス人 【フランス・じん】 – French (person)
While most characters will not have multiple kun-yomi or on-yomi, the more common characters such as 「人」 will generally have a lot more readings. Here, I only list the ones that are applicable to the vocabulary we learned. Learning a reading without a context within vocabulary will only create unnecessary confusion so I do not recommend learning all the readings at once.
Now that you have the general idea, let’s learn some more vocabulary and the Kanji used within them. The stroke order diagrams with red highlights show you where each stroke starts.
With only 14 characters, we’ve managed to learn over 25 words ranging from China to elementary school student! Kanji is usually regarded as a major obstacle but as you can see, you can easily turn it into a valuable tool if you learn it in the context of vocabulary.
Okurigana and changing readings
You may have noticed some words that end with Hiragana such as 「高い」 or 「大きい」. Because those words are adjectives, the trailing Hiragana, called Okurigana are needed to perform various conjugations without affecting the Kanji. The thing to watch out for is remembering exactly where the Kanji ends and Hiragana begins. For example, you never want to write 「大きい」 as 「大い」.
You may have also noticed that the Kanji readings don’t always match the reading in a particular word. For example, 「学校」 is read as 「がっこう」 and not 「がくこう」. Readings often go through these small transformations to make pronunciation easier.
Ultimately, you’ll want to check the reading for any new words you encounter. Fortunately, it has become much easier to look up new Kanji thanks to online tools and electronic dictionaries. You can find a tutorial on how to use these tools at the following link:
Different Kanji for similar words
Kanji is often used to make subtle distinctions or give a different shade of meaning for a word. In some cases, it is very important to remember to use the correct Kanji for the correct situation. For example, while the adjective for hot is 「あつい」, when used to describe the climate, you must write it as 「暑い」. When you are describing a hot object or person, you must write it as 「熱い」 instead.
In other cases, while there is generic Kanji that can be used for all situations for a given word, the writer may use a more specialized version for stylistic reasons. The examples in this book will generally use the generic and usually simpler Kanji. If you want to find out more about using different Kanji for the same word, see the following link: http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/resources/learning_words
Learning the first ten numbers is a one good way to get started in learning any language. For Japanese, it also allows us to get familiar with some basic and important Kanji. One thing to pay attention to is the fact that 4 and 7 have two possible pronunciations. The more common ones are bolded.
As an added bonus, we don’t need to learn any more numbers to count up to 99. The tens digit is simply the number and ten. For example, two-ten is twenty, three-ten is thirty, etc. We will learn higher numbers past 99 in a later chapter.
十一 【じゅう・いち】 – 11
二十 【に・じゅう】 – 20
二十一 【に・じゅう・いち】 – 21
三十九 【さん・じゅう・きゅう】 – 39
四十 【よん・じゅう】 – 40
七十四 【なな・じゅう・よん】 – 74
九十九 【きゅう・じゅう・きゅう】 – 99
Counters and Age
Let’s use the numbers we just learned to talk about our age. In Japanese, we must use counters to count different types of things. The counter for counting age is 「～歳」（さい）. Because the Kanji is rather difficult, it is also written as 「才」 (though it’s actually a completely different character)
Counters are simply attached to the end of the number. However, as we saw in the last section, Kanji readings can often go through small changes to aid pronunciation. The following digits are read slightly differently when used with the age counter. The age 20 is also a completely irregular reading.
一歳 【いっ・さい】 – 1 year old
八歳 【はっ・さい】 – 8 years old
十歳 【じゅっ・さい】 – 10 years old
二十歳 【はたち】 – 20 years old
二十歳 【はたち】 – 20 years old
二十一歳 【に・じゅう・いっ・さい】 – 21 years old
四十八歳 【よん・じゅう・はっ・さい】 – 48 years old
七十歳 【なな・じゅっ・さい】 – 70 years old
We will learn many more counters in a later chapter.
We covered all the sounds in Japanese, how they are written in Hiragana and Katakana, and how Kanji works. In addition, we also learned numbers up to 99 and how to count a person’s age. Let’s apply what we learned to come up with a simple self-introduction. The best way to learn a language is to regularly interact in that language and the only way to do that is to meet Japanese speakers so a self-introduction is an ideal way to practice.
Learning the expressions
You only need a couple of fixed expressions for your simple self-introduction.
Shortened form of an expression originally meaning “I meet you for the first time”. It’s a standard greeting similar in intent to “Nice to meet” or “How do you do?”
There is no easy direct translation but it means something along the lines of “please treat me well” when used at the end of an introduction.
Telling people your name
If you haven’t done so already, you’ll need to decide on what to call yourself in Japanese. As we’ve learned, Japanese has a relatively limited set of sounds so it’s very likely that your name will need to sound very different from its native pronunciation.
I would recommend asking your teacher or a Japanese speaker for help in converting your name to the Katakana equivalent. You may even want to ask the first person you introduce yourself to.
If you want to give it a try on your own (like right now), you can try this tutorial on finding your name in Japanese: http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/resources/nameinjapanese
To say you are that name, you need only attach 「です」 to the name. The pronunciation is usually shortened to just “dess”. We will learn more about 「です」 in the next chapter.
In Japan, the last name is given more weight so it is common to just go by your last name especially in a more formal environment such as the classroom or workplace. When using the full name, the last name always comes first for Japanese names. However, it can go either way for names from countries where the order is reversed.
Putting it all together
Using the fixed expressions and the vocabulary we learned in the last section, we now have everything we need for our simple self-introduction.
Below is a short list of potentially useful nouns to describe yourself for your self-introduction. Don’t forget that you need to add 「人」（じん） to the country for nationality.
Nice to meet you. (I am) Alice Smith.
(I’m) American. (I’m a) college student.
(I’m) 18 years old.
Please treat me well.
In addition to practicing your self-introduction, a good way to practice pronunciation is to use various expressions for different scenarios. It’s ok if nobody around you speaks Japanese. They’ll understand you’re hard at work practicing.
ありがとうございます – thank you (polite)
すみません – sorry (polite)
さようなら – good-bye (notice the long vowel sound!
いただきます – used before eating a meal (lit: I humbly receive)
ごちそうさまでした – used after finishing a meal (lit: It was a feast)
いってきます – used when leaving home (lit: I’m going and coming back)
いってらっしゃい – used as farewell for someone leaving the house (lit: Go and come back)