There are three different writing systems used in modern day Japan.
To be proficient in Japanese, in particular at reading and writing Japanese, you will need to learn these three writing systems. I will guide you through the writing systems in the order shown above, which is the order that is recommended if you are beginning from zero.
But, before we get into the three writing systems, let’s discuss what romaji is since you will encounter and use it often in the early stages of learning Japanese.
What is romaji?
Romaji is a method of writing in which Japanese characters are written using the latin alphabet (which is the alphabet used by English, Spanish, French and many other speakers.)
( The word “romaji” literally means “Roman letters” )
What is the purpose of romaji?
Although romaji is not one of the writing systems used in Japan, it is a writing system that foreigners use to learn the Japanese language. With romaji one can read and speak Japanese without knowing any of the three Japanese writing systems.
Applications of romaji in everyday life
- The romanization of Japanese is done in any context where Japanese text is targeted at those who do not know the language, such as for names on street signs, passports, dictionaries and textbooks for foreign learners of the language.
- Romanization is also the most common way to input Japanese into word processors and computers. Therefore, most Japanese people are able to read and write Japanese using rōmaji since they use a special type of keyboard called “JIS” similar to the one shown below that has the letters of the latin alphabet which we are familiar with as well as hiragana characters.
Romaji is like a bridge that helps you take a shortcut to understanding the Japanese language. It helps you bypass the confusion in reading kanji and hiragana which can be complex and overwhelming for any beginner, but it is very important that you do not grow too dependent on romaji. You want to make sure that you transition from Romaji to learning how to read and write Hiragana immediately. Hiragana is the first of three Japanese writing systems. The good news is that you can master the hiragana in as little as 1 month, so don’t be afraid to dive right into it as a beginner.
Speaking of Hiragana, it’s time to dive right into it!
What are hiragana?
Hiragana is the main syllabary used to represent words of Japanese origin. It’s one of three different Japanese writing systems along with katakana & kanji. The hiragana syllabary is made up of symbols or characters, each of which represents a sound.
Hiragana can be easily distinguished from the other writing systems as the strokes are smooth and curved in appearance. Observe the distinct curved look of the hiragana character below compared to the other two script styles.
The purpose of Hiragana:
Hiragana is important as it serves as a reading aid for kanji. It’s purpose is to aid in the pronunciation of kanji. It’s used for people who may not have the advanced reading skills necessary to recognize the kanji, but can understand the word when written phonetically in hiragana.
Let’s compare what the word “rose” (written as “bara” in romaji) looks like when written using hiragana versus what it looks like when written in kanji.
As you can see, the Hiragana for the word ‘rose’ is much easier to read than the kanji. This is why hiragana is intended mainly for children and learners of the Japanese language. In fact, Hiragana is actually the first writing system taught to children in Japan. So it only makes sense that this is the first writing system recommend to foreigners.
Word of caution:
Once you master the hiragana you will be able to write out any Japanese word without needing to know katakana or kanji, however you should not become 100% dependent on hiragana. I know it’s tempting to stick to hiragana only since it is much easier, but if you plan on living in Japan for a long period of time or plan on communicating to Japanese people through writing, it is imperative that you learn kanji as early on in your studies as possible, preferably after you have mastered the hiragana.
The 3 hiragana syllabaries:
Before starting to learn the hiragana, it is important to note that they are grouped separately into 3 syllabaries or categories, they are:
- Basic Hiragana Characters
- Diacritics Hiragana Characters
- Diagraphs Hiragana Characters
It is recommended that you learn them in the same order as listed above.
Okay, let’s begin with the first hiragana syllabary which consists of 46 basic characters:
Basic Hiragana Characters ( gojūon)
The chart above contains the basic 46 hiragana characters. These characters are the very first group of hiragana you must learn. This syllabary is also referred to as the ” gojūon” which means “the Japanese syllabary”.
Let’s go over the pronunciation of these characters one row at a time:
Forming words with hiragana:
Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with the basic hiragana characters let’s practice forming words with them.
Let’s put the word “love” together.
Consists of: vowel (a) and the vowel (i)
- As you can see in the above illustration, the hiragana ( a あ ) and the hiragana ( i い ) combined make the word ( あい ) which means ( love ).
Let’s practice some more:
Consists of: syllables (ne) and (ko)
- As you can see in the above illustration, the hiragana ( ne ね ) and the hiragana ( ko こ ) combined make the word ( ねこ ) which means ( cat ).
Good job! Click here to practice some more.
Okay, let’s move on to the second hiragana syllabary known as the “Diacritics”.
Diacritics Hiragana Characters
These hiragana characters are known as the “Diacritics”. You can easily tell these characters apart from the basic characters since each character in the diacritics syllabary has a unique marking on it’s top right which distinguishes them.
As shown below, there are two markings to look out for, the first looks like two quotation marks. These quotation marks are called “dakuten”. About 90% of the characters in the diacritics syllabary have these quotation marks. The second marking to look out for resembles a circle. The name given to this circle-like marking is “handakuten”.
So, what is the function of these markings?
These distinct markings let the speaker know that the sound of the character is voiced, not unvoiced.
A character that is “voiced” is a character that causes your vocal cords to vibrate when spoken. Think of it as a gutteral sound.
A character that is un-voiced causes no vibration in your vocal cords.
Think of it as a ‘flat’ sound.
Try pronouncing the two characters below and feel the difference in vibration in your tongue and throat:
(Causes no vibration in your vocal cords. )
(Causes a vibration in your vocal cords. )
Did you notice how your vocal cords did not vibrate when you said “ki”, but vibrated when you said “gi”? (ki) sounds flat compared to (gi) which more of a gutteral sound. That is the difference between a voiced and an unvoiced character.
(Note that the 46 hiragana characters found in the Basic Hiragana syllabary are all unvoiced characters, while the 25 characters found in the Diacritic syllabary are all voiced. This is why they are grouped into separate syllabaries.)
Differentiating Basic Hiragana characters from the Diacritical hiragana characters
Notice how the characters ki(き) and gi(ぎ) look similar. Luckily you can distinguish “gi” from “ki” by looking at the diacritical marking found on the top right of “gi” which looks like a quotation mark. That marking let’s us know to pronounce it as “gi”. Without the marking, it is pronounced “ki”.
There are five voiced consonants in the diacritics syllabary : g | z | d | b | p
Each voiced consonant will be paired with each of the five vowels: ( a | i | u | e | o )
- (g row) ga gi gu ge go
- (z row) za ji zu ze zo
- (d row) da ji zu de do
- (b row) ba bi bu be bo
- (p row) pa pi pu pe po
There are 25 diacritic characters in total!
Now let’s compare the diacritics syllabary to the Basic Hiragana syllabary.
Did you notice how the characters in the diacritics syllabary resemble some of the characters in the basic hiragana syllabary? Let’s compare the characters in both syllabaries that are shown in green above:
- が (ga) ぎ (gi) ぐ (gu) げ (ge) ご (go) [diacritics syllabary]
- か (ka) き (ki) く (ku) け (ke) こ (ko) [basic syllabary]
Here you can see why it’s easy to mistake the characters in the Diacritics syllabary for the characters in the Basic syllabary. It helps to differentiate them by identifying whether the character has a diacritical mark or not.
Let’s learn how to say these characters one row at a time.
That wraps up the Diacrtics Syllabary! Let’s move on to the third and final Hiragana Syllabary known as the Diagraphs.
The Diagraph syllabary is the third and final Hiragana syllabary. This syllabary is made up of characters that are contracted. Meaning they are made up of two individual hiragana characters in order to make a new sound.
The diagraph character “kya” is made up of the hiragana characters “ki” and “ya”:
Characters used: (ki)き + (ya)や
Result: kya (きゃ)
In this example a new character was formed by combining the basic characters (ki) & (ya) and then dropping the vowel (i) in the character “ki” and attaching (ya) to it.
Words that use diagraph characters:
|gyoushi||ぎょうし||stare; gaze; fixation|
|shashin||しゃしん||photograph; photo; picture|
Okay, time to recap! Below you will see the complete Hiragana syllabary consisting of a total of 107 characters (46 basic characters, 25 Diacritical Characters & 36 Diagraphical Characters).
Once you have mastered all 3 hiragana syllabaries, you are ready to move on to learning the second writing system known as the Katakana.
Now it’s time to learn the second writing system called “Katakana”!
What are katakana?
Katakana is the second writing system used in Japan and is the writing system you should learn after you’ve mastered the hiragana.
What is the purpose of katakana?
Katakana is used for indicating borrowed words from languages like English. Katakana is often used for animal names as well as some Japanese company names like Toyota.
English names are written using katakana
- John = ジョン
- Mary = メアリー
- Tom = トム
Let’s move on from “katakana” to the final writing system known as “kanji”.
What are kanji?
Kanji are borrowed Chinese characters used in Japanese writing. Kanji are a set of ideographic symbols, in other words, symbols that represent ideas. The word “kanji” literally means “Han characters” or “Chinese characters”.
Each character has it’s own meaning and represents a word. Such as the kanji character (日) which means (sun). These individual kanji characters can also be combined to create new words.
Let’s take a look at the example below:
- 日 = sun
- 本 = origin
Now let’s combine the two kanji characters to make a new word:
日sun + 本origin = 日本 = Japan
(This combination of characters 日本 means ‘Japan’. It makes perfect sense that these two kanji’s combined (日sun + 本origin) mean Japan since in ancient times Japan was referred to as the land of the sun’s origin and nowadays Japan is nicknamed as “The land of the rising sun” by foreigners.)
What are kanji used for?
Kanji are used for writing nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs…which means you’ll need to know kanji to be able to read almost all the words used in the language.
The structure of a Japanese sentence
A complete Japanese sentence cannot be written entirely in kanji. It requires the help of the other two writing systems (hiragana & katakana) which is good news since these two writing systems are not as complex compared to kanji.
Take a look at the illustration below:
In the above illustration, you can see that the sentence “My name is Tom.” is put together by using the three writing systems, hiragana(green), kanji(blue) and katakana(yellow).
Not every Japanese sentence uses the three writing systems. You will encounter any of these combinations and more:
- hiragana + kanji
- hiragana + kanji + katakana
- katakana + hiragana + kanji
The main point to remember is that Japanese is not written entirely in one writing system, but rather uses a mix of the writing systems to form a complete sentence.
How many kanji are there in existence?
It is said that there are some 50,000 kanji in existence but in 1981 the Japanese government along with the Ministry of Education compiled a list of 1,945 kanji that were to be the only characters used in in legal and public documents, newspapers, magazines and broadcast media.
How many kanji characters will I need to learn to be able to read Japanese writing?
There are 1,945 characters regularly used in Japan. Those 1,945 characters are known as the “joyoo” kanji. The word “joyoo” literally means “regularly used Chinese characters” and are the kanji you need to know in order to read newspaper and general texts. So if you want to be fluent in reading Japanese you will need to learn 1,945 kanji characters. The good news is that by learning just 1,000 kanji you will be able to read about 90% of the kanji used in a newspaper, but don’t let that stop from learning the remaining 945 jooyoo kanji.
How many kanji should I learn per day?
One mistake that many students make when learning the kanji, is that they try to cram or memorize as many kanji as they can in relatively short amount of time, only to forget most of them because of the overwhelming amount and lack of reinforcements in order to retain the information such as reviews and drills. Do not feel that you have to learn a a million kanji a day because this will work against you. It has been scientifically proven that the human brain does a better job at retaining information when fed in small amounts daily over the course of a considerable amount of time. However with that in mind, it is also known that everyone learns at a difference pace and some learner’s prefer one method over another depending on their learning style. So, what one person considers as a good amount to learn daily may not necessarily work for you. So you must find a pace that works for you, but I recommend not exceeding 10 characters per day. I myself started out learning just 5 characters a day and gave myself a realistic goal of 3 to 4 years to learn all 1,945 and be fluent in writing kanji.
Start learning essential kanji below: