Learn the Japanese Alphabet with Hiragana, Katakana, And Romaji :One of the first steps to mastering the Japanese language is learning to read and write like the Japanese do. The Japanese syllabary can be challenging at first, but stick with it and practice every day, and in no time you’ll be communicating just as the Japanese do! Today, we’re going to learn three of the major Japanese writing systems: romaji, katakana, and hiragana.
- 1 Learn the Japanese Alphabet with Hiragana, Katakana, And Romaji
- 2 What is Japanese Romaji ?
- 3 Japanese Syllables – Katakana カタカナ
- 4 What is Katakana?:
- 5 What is Hiragana?:
- 6 Get ALL HIraganas & Katakanas cheat sheet ?
Learn the Japanese Alphabet with Hiragana, Katakana, And Romaji
When I first began my Japanese studies, I bought a book that was written entirely in the Roman alphabet. I would learn new words and phrases based on the writing system of my native English language, and I must say it was challenging. There were so many letters strung together that I had a hard time remembering what it all meant.
Once I moved to Japan, I met some other Americans who were studying Japanese as well. They knew all four writing systems: kanji, hiragana, katakana, AND romaji.
“What??” I thought. That sounded like a lot of work to me. Memorizing four different writing systems? Why not just write Japanese using the English alphabet? That seemed much easier.
However, one guy insisted that Japanese starts to make much more sense if you learn the Japanese syllabary, and boy am I glad that I took his advice!
What is Japanese Romaji ?
The word romaji is a combination of the words “Rome” (as in Roman) and ji (letters). Put them together and you have “Roman letters,” or “the Roman alphabet.”
When we first learn Japanese, it’s easier to get a better footing on the language by comparing it to the writing system that we learned in school, the alphabet.
Sushi, for example, is written in romaji because it takes a Japanese word and writes it using the ABCs.
The Japanese occasionally use romaji, but it is mostly a way to make a word or phrase stand out better. For example, if you’re at a ramen restaurant and there is an option on the menu for an extra helping of noodles, they might write, “KAEDAMA OK!!” (kaedama means an extra helping of noodles or rice).Romaji is also used as a means to communicate with non-Japanese people. For example, Japanese passports have their names written in romaji so that people in foreign countries can better pronounce their names. For instance, if the person’s name is 高橋美香, then most people who are not from Japan will not know how to pronounce their name. Therefore, if they want people who are not from Japan to be able to read their name, they’ll write it in romaji: Mika Takahashi.
Japanese Syllables – Hiragana ひらがな
Japanese Syllables – Hiragana ひらがな Combination
Japanese Syllables – Katakana カタカナ
What is Katakana?:
Katakana is much more commonly used than romaji, but it is used less frequently than hiragana.
Katakana is used mainly for foreign loan words. Foreign loan words are words borrowed from languages other than Japanese. The reason the Japanese would need to import a foreign word to replace a Japanese word is to keep the original culture associated with that word or concept. For example, if you go to McDonald’s, you may order a ハンバーガー (hambāgā, or “hamburger”). If the Japanese used a Japanese word for “hamburger” (pan to pan ga hasande iru gyū-niku, or “beef between two pieces of bread”) then that would be a bit of a mouthful to say each time, wouldn’t it? Therefore, it is much easier—and cooler—to use the English word “hamburger.”
There are also some English and other foreign-language phrases that the Japanese have adopted into everyday speech. Some examples include, ドンマイ (don mai, or “Don’t worry about it”), ナイスガイ (naisu gai, or “a handsome man”), and even something so simple as オッケー (okkē, or “Okay”).
Like romaji, Japanese also imports foreign words in order to make a word or phrase stand out or to place emphasis on it—kind of like putting an English word in italics.
Katakana is also used to write the names of foreign people who don’t have a name associated with kanji.
Other uses are for sound effects and as a go-to pronunciation guide, which is written directly above difficult kanji characters (believe it or not, the Japanese have difficulty pronouncing kanji, too!)
Japanese Syllables – Katakana カタカナ
Japanese Syllables – Katakana カタカナ Combination
What is Hiragana?:
We have now hopped out of the foreign pool and into the Japanese one. Hiragana is Japan’s unique writing system originating around 800 AD. Of the three writing systems, this one is the most common since it is used to express wholly Japanese words. Therefore, any time (or in other words, most of the time) when you are not dealing with a word borrowed from another language, you will be using a combination of hiragana and kanji.
Hiragana usually appears as a compliment to a kanji character to signify phonetic sounds and/or to indicate a part of speech. For example, the word 行く (iku, “to go”) uses the kanji meaning “to go” and the hiragana “ku,” which indicates that it is a verb. Another example is 可愛い (kawaii, “cute”). The first two characters are kanji meaning “the possibility to” and “love,” and the last character is the hiragana “i,” which indicates that it’s an i-adjective.
Hiragana can also be used in place of kanji characters depending on personal preference. It is not uncommon to see 可愛い written as かわいい simply because the person writing it feels that the hiragana expresses what he or she wishes to say better than the kanji does.
Although learning the Japanese syllabary can seem daunting at first, I guarantee, once you get these first basic steps out of the way—learning hiragana and katakana—you will be very glad that you did. A good way to practice your memorization is by looking at Japanese advertisements and pictures on the internet. Or perhaps even following some Japanese people on social media to see what they write. And, of course, you could also read some Japanese manga to really get a feel for how these writing systems work!