How to Read Japanese - Master the 4 Writing Styles

By ken cannon - 7:20 PM

a japanese book
How to Read Japanese
If learning to read in English wasn't tough enough, learning to read Japanese can possibly be even more daunting because they actually have 4 different writing styles: Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji, and Romaji. The typical Japanese learner starts off learning Hiragana, followed by Katakana and then the most daunting of all, Kanji.

1. Hiragana: a rounded and curvy looking alphabet consisting of 46 characters used mainly for Japanese words
  • Hiragana is phonetic, so once you learn the 46 characters you will be able to sound out and read most anything. However, a word to the wise, there are no spaces between words so it does take a while to get used to it. Keep reading and you'll eventually get the hang of it.
  • The reason most people start with Hiragana is because the majority of Japanese is written in this style. It is also commonly used for furigana, which are characters on top of Kanji to help you determine how to pronounce them.
  • And as overrated as it sounds, flashcards really help. Put the Japanese character on one side and the English pronunciation on the other and practice, practice, practice!
  • Read some manga! Most manga have furigana so you can read them without knowing Kanji, and the pictures will also help you quickly decipher the meanings.
2. Katakana: a more square looking alphabet also consisting of 46 characters used mostly for foreign words
  • Katakana is both the same and the opposite of Hiragana at the same time. There are still 46 phonetic characters that represent the exact same syllables as Hiragana, but the characters are completely different.
  • Katakana is most commonly found in restaurants and electronic stores so it's not as prevalent as Hiragana.
  • Hiragana and Katakana can usually be mastered in a few weeks, so it's perfect for those just learning to read Japanese.
  • Children's books are perfect for beginners! They are mostly written in kana, both Hiragana and Katakana characters, with very little Kanji so it can be read easily once you've learned the alphabets.
3. Kanji: borrowed Chinese characters
  • The reason Kanji is so daunting to most people is because it is not phonetic and instead relies on symbols and images to derive it's meaning.
  • On average about 2000 Kanji characters are used regularly in the Japanese language. However, don't let that daunt you! It turns out if you study the most 1000 commonly used characters you will be able to achieve a 93% comprehension rate.
  • There are two different readings for Kanji: a Japanese reading, kunyomi, and a Chinese reading, onyomi. Usually kun readings are written in Hiragana, for native words, and on readings are written in katakana, since it's borrowed.
  • Since Kanji is a logographic writing system, it may help to find some pictures in the character or come up with a story or a little mnemonic device about the character and it's meaning to help you remember the Kanji.
  • The best place to practice reading Japanese is online! There are several helpful internet apps that help instantly translate and provide definitions of Japanese characters that make reading that much easier. It's like having a Kanji dictionary at your fingertips!
4. Romaji: words written in the Western alphabet
  • Romaji is the fastest way to learn to read and understand what the Japanese language sounds like. It provides a huge initial boost for beginners to read Japanese.
  • However, since the pronunciation is Westernized, reading Romaji will not help achieve a great Japanese accent. In addition, very few Japanese people use Romaji. It's mostly used when Japanese people are trying to communicate with foreigners.
Japanese can be a very tricky and difficult language to read since it's so radically different from our English alphabet. However, these tips and tricks will help you cut down your learning time and propel you to becoming literate in record time. To see how I personally learned Japanese in less than 1 year, download this free video: How to Learn Fluent Japanese

Ken Cannon

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