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Reading and writing Japanese
If you want to learn Japanese, you’ll have to know how to read Japanese.
The Japanese writing system is unique and beautiful, no doubt about that. It is also famously complex. Unfortunately, that can put off any newcomers to the language.
Don’t be afraid of the Japanese writing system! Yes, it’s complex, but it’s also logical. Anybody can learn it!
In this article, we’ll talk a bit about the structure of the Japanese writing system. We’ll also talk about the best ways to approach learning to read Japanese.
The Japanese scripts
First off, did you know Japanese actually uses four scripts?
Yep! Don’t panic, that may sound like overkill, but in fact, this will make your life easier.
In fact, you already know one of them!
The four scripts used in Japanese today are romaji, hiragana, katakana and kanji.
Romaji is a special case. Romaji means ‘roman letters’. Guess what – roman letters are what we use every day in English. It’s what you’re reading right now!
However, romaji is mainly used for translating things for non-Japanese speakers. Sorry if you thought you’d spotted a shortcut – it isn’t commonly used in everyday Japanese.
This is because each script has a distinct purpose. Each one indicates a different part of the language. They work together to show you the function and origin of each word.
Have a look at this sample text, which we’ve color-coded to show the three different types of character:
In Brazil, the biggest Rio de Janeiro carnival has started. All the dancers wore beautiful costumes and paraded 700m while singing and dancing samba.
(Source: NHK News Web Easy)
Kanji – complex characters, taken from Chinese. These are used for basic blocks of meaning. They are the foundation of many words.
Hiragana – simpler characters, rounded shape. This is a phonetic script used for grammatical functions, word endings and similar.
Katakana – simpler characters with a more ‘spikey’ shape. This is a phonetic script used mainly for foreign loan words.
You can see how all three scripts are intermingled in the same sentences.
We’ll take a more detailed look at the uses of the different scripts below:
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Romaji, or roman letters, are used for writing Japanese sounds in English letters, to help non-Japanese speakers read Japanese.
Now, you may be thinking “awesome! I’ll just write everything in romaji. I don’t need to learn those other scripts at all!”
Sorry, my friend. That isn’t going to work.
Although romaji is an official script of Japan, as sanctioned by the government, it isn’t used in usual Japanese writing.
Instead, it’s mainly used for translating road signs, town names, train timetables and so on, for the benefit of foreign visitors to Japan.
It’s also used in text books and language learning programs for beginners.
However, a good language learning program will move into hiragana as soon as possible.
That’s because unfortunately romaji is just not used for real Japanese! If you ever want to learn to speak and read Japanese fluently, you will have to learn the other three scripts.
Hiragana is a phonetic script. This means that once you’ve learned it, you will know how to pronounce any word written in hiragana.
What you see is what you say!
Hiragana has 46 characters. Each character corresponds to one syllable. These syllables represent all the sounds in the Japanese language. So once you know hiragana, you can read and say anything in Japanese!
We recommend learning hiragana first. It’ll be an essential foundation if you want to learn how to read Japanese.
You can find our cute hiragana chart here.
Any and all Japanese words can be written in hiragana. You will often find children’s books, or Japanese study resources for foreigners, written only in hiragana. But, as you can see in the example text above, in natural Japanese hiragana is just one of the three scripts.
In usual Japanese texts, hiragana is used for grammatical functions such as verb endings and particles, and also for some Japanese words not written in kanji.
Katakana is also a phonetic script. It also has 46 characters, which represent the same syllables as hiragana.
So why do they have both?
This includes foreign people’s and place names, words for foreign foods and sports, new technologies, and anything else which doesn’t already exist in Japanese.
As you will see in the text above, katakana have a distinctive look – kind of spikey compared to the rounded shapes of hiragana.
Katakana is another essential building block of the Japanese language. You will want to learn it soon if you want to read Japanese fluently!
Head over to our page on katakana for more info and a colorful katakana chart.
By the way, hiragana and katakana are together known as ‘kana’.
The last of our Japanese writing methods is kanji.
The Japanese word kanji (漢字) literally means ‘Chinese characters’. This is because – you guessed it! – the Japanese language borrowed them from Chinese.
Kanji are logographic characters. This means that each character represents a block of meaning (unlike the kana or the English alphabet, where each character represents a sound).
One single kanji character could be a word by itself. Or, some words are formed by two or more kanji together, or kanji plus hiragana (the hiragana is usually for a grammatical ending).
Kanji are probably the biggest challenge for most people who want to read and write Japanese.
Unlike hiragana and katakana, kanji are not phonetic. That means you have to learn the pronunciation along with the character each time. You won’t necessarily see a new kanji and know how to pronounce it – although as your knowledge of Japanese gets more advanced, you will see that there is some kind of logic, and you may be able to take an educated guess at the pronunciation of a new kanji!
Since kanji came from Chinese, most of the characters actually have two possible pronunciations. This is because one pronunciation was borrowed from Chinese, and one is the Japanese pronunciation that was applied to that kanji.
Usually the Japanese pronunciation is used when the kanji is a standalone word. We call the Japanese pronunciation kunyomi or ‘meaning reading’.
The Chinese pronunciation is used when the kanji is part of a compound word. This means the kanji is joined together with other kanji to make a longer word. This is called onyomi or ‘sound-based reading’.
Take the simple kanji 山 – mountain.
The Japanese word for mountain is yama. When you talk about mountains in general (“oh, look at that huge mountain over there!”) you will use the word yama.
However, the Chinese pronunciation of 山 (mountain) is shān.
When the Japanese language borrowed the character 山 from China, it also borrowed the pronunciation shān. That pronunciation became san or zan.
We use the pronunciation san or zan when the kanji is used in a compound word.
So, the name of Japan’s tallest mountain is Mount Fuji.
In Japanese, that’s 富士山 – Fuji-san.
The Japanese pronunciation – used when the kanji is a standalone word – is called kunyomi or ‘meaning reading’.
The Chinese pronunciation – used when the kanji is part of a compound word – is called onyomi or ‘sound-based reading’.
Don’t worry too much about the different pronunciations for now. It will all make sense when you start learning words in context. This article is just to give you an overview!
There are over 40,000 kanji altogether. But don’t panic! You don’t need to know all of them.
Think of English (or your own native language). You don’t know every single word in the dictionary, right? There are lots of very specialised words, which you would only learn if you had a particular profession or interest.
Japanese is the same! You don’t need to know all the words, or all the kanji, in order to read and speak Japanese fluently.
The government have made things easier by publishing a list of 2,136 kanji which they think are the most essential. These are called jouyou kanji. Jouyou literally means ‘daily use’.
Japanese schoolchildren are expected to learn all the jouyou kanji by the time they graduate high school.
If you can learn all 2,126 jouyou kanji, you can consider yourself functionally literate in Japanese. In other words, you will be able to read Japanese newspapers and books to a good level.
2,000 sounds much more achievable, doesn’t it?
You can see a list of all the government-approved jouyou kanji here. The list is broken down by the school grade when Japanese students learn them. I bet you can get on the same level as a Japanese first grader pretty soon!
There are several different methods for learning kanji, which we discuss here.
Best way to learn Japanese
So, you have an overview of the different scripts. Are you ready to jump in and start learning Japanese? Which method will you choose?
There are several different ways to learn Japanese. To decide which one’s right for you, think about your personal learning style, your self-discipline, and the time you have available.
Here are some methods you might want to consider:
Formal Japanese classes
You can enrol in a Japanese language course at a college or perhaps a community centre. However, you will be sitting in classes on the days and times scheduled by the course planners, which can be difficult if you have a busy schedule. You will have interactive sessions with other classmates and an instructor. This kind of formal class can be great if you lack the motivation to study by yourself: you won’t want to miss a scheduled class once you’ve paid for it.
However, these classes can be slow. Realistically, you won’t make much progress in just an hour or two each week. If your goal is to become fluent in Japanese, you’ll have to supplement with a lot of self-study.
Self-study with books
Teaching yourself a language from textbooks is a popular option. For years, this has been the go-to option for anyone who wants to learn a language in their own time, without relying on a scheduled course. Some of the most popular Japanese textbooks for beginners are Japanese for Busy People, Japanese From Zero and Genki.
The advantages of self-studying with textbooks is that you can go at your own pace. You can move through each chapter as fast or as slowly as you want.
The downside is, well, books can be a little dry. It can be hard to keep your motivation up using books alone. And if you’re bored, you’re more likely to quit. You also won’t have a teacher to ask about anything you don’t understand. And while your reading and writing may come along fast, you’ll be missing out on the key communicative skills of speaking and listening.
Self-study with an online course
Here’s what we’re talking about! Like books, online courses or language learning software allow you to work at your own pace and fit your language study into your busy schedule.
Unlike books, a good online course or software package will take full advantage of technology to keep you entertained, motivate you and make learning fun. It should also work the four key language skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening.
Our favourite online Japanese course is Rocket Japanese. It has interactive audio lessons, grammar and culture lessons, fun flashcards to boost your memory, and an amazing voice recognition pronunciation trainer, which is the best way to get you speaking like a native without an actual teacher in the room. It also has a members-only forum where you can get your questions answered by tutors and other users.
You can read our full review here, or sign up for a free trial of Rocket Japanese here. This gives you completely free lifetime access to over 4 hours of interactive lessons, with no credit card or commitment required.
Self-study with other resources
There are plenty of other ways to learn Japanese without following a formal course or program.
Language learning apps in particular are great, because you can make use of any spare minutes you have throughout the day. Perfect for busy people! Some popular apps which teach Japanese vocabulary are Fluentu and Mindsnacks. Rocket Japanese also has an app, which can be used in conjunction with the desktop version for best effect. Apps are a great way to do something productive while commuting or queuing, which would otherwise be dead time.
Some people swear by studying Japanese from movies and anime. The main advantage is, this will keep you motivated and you will always enjoy your study! Your listening skills in particular should come on greatly. However, it’s difficult to learn a language through movies alone, so combine this tactic with other methods for best effect.
If courses aren’t for you, you can also teach yourself to read Japanese using real, native materials. Japanese children’s books and newspapers are a great place to start. NHK News Web Easy publishes simplified versions of the top news stories each day. It even has pronunciation guides for kanji.
Study in Japan
Ok, this might not be for everyone, but it’s by far the most effective way to learn Japanese! There’s nothing like full immersion in a language to turbo-charge your learning efforts. You’ll naturally remember more Japanese when you’re surrounded by it every day. You will improve your speaking, in particular. If you ever have the time, money and opportunity, and you’re serious about learning Japanese, why not head over to Japan and take an immersive course.
However, be warned – simply living in a country is not enough to learn the language. Learning to speak another language takes effort, even when you’re surrounded by the language every day. To make the most out of the opportunity, make sure you push yourself to speak every day, make Japanese friends, and avoid using your native tongue.
While living in Japan, you can also use all the other methods listed above to create a full on language learning experience. You’ll be speaking Japanese in no time!
We hope you enjoyed our guide to reading and learning Japanese. This article was designed to give you an overview. The real challenge starts now!
With so many different language learning methods available, it’s important not to get bogged down in details. The best way to learn any language is simply to get started and work on it every day.
If you want to learn Japanese, just pick a method, and dive in!
You can sign up for completely FREE trial access to our recommended course here. Let us know how you get on!