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How to speak Japanese

What to Know About the Japanese Alphabet

Learning a language can be challenging, but working with the same alphabet makes things a little easier. When you have to navigate an entirely new alphabet filled with unfamiliar shapes, letters, and symbols, things can get a little harder. This is especially true when learning Japanese.

Japanese is an exotic language that’s extremely unique. The first step in mastering this language is understanding the alphabet in Japanese. Unlike other languages, this can take a little bit of time. In fact, the Japanese alphabet makes this language one of the more challenging to learn by native English speakers. Luckily, speaking Japanese is often much easier than writing. Regardless, you still need a solid base, which begins with learning the Japanese alphabet.

In this article, we’ll go over some key pieces of information regarding the Japanese alphabet in English and everything you need to know for the first step towards fluency.

An Overview of the Japanese Alphabet from A – Z

English uses Latin script, but the Japanese alphabet uses two different scripts called kana (which includes hiragana and katakana) and kanji. Hiragana, katakana, and kanji are all complementary to each other. They aren’t different alphabets, but instead they all work together to create the written language of Japanese. This is one of the reasons that many people struggle to master this language, but it’s not impossible.

Some examples of sentences that incorporate various parts of the Japanese alphabet include:

  • この後、映画を観に行きたい — I want to go to the movies later
  • 外で過ごすのが好きなんです — I like spending time outside
  • 好きな色はブルーです — My favorite color is blue
  • アマゾンで働く — I work for Amazon
  • 私の母は日本で生まれました — My mom was born in Japan

There are some sentences that combine all three, while others may only use two. It just depends on what’s being said. Luckily, once you master hiragana and katakana (which are considered “kana” characters), you’ll be able to start reading Japanese. However, if you want to reach full fluency, you’ll need to master kanji as well, which are often more difficult.

After you learn the Japanese alphabet, you can start learning how to conjugate verbs in Japanese, different adjectives, and nouns. Luckily, you won’t have to worry about articles, grammatical genders, or even spaces in your writing!

Japanese Alphabet Kana

The kana Japanese alphabet is used to represent various sounds used in the spoken language. This includes both hiragana and katakana, which each have a unique character for specific syllables.

Both hiragana and katakana Japanese alphabets have 46 basic characters, making them a good first step in the learning process. The Japanese alphabet contains vowels for each kana, which are also a, i, u, e, and o. These combine with the consonants k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, and w to complete all of the possible sounds. Rather than singular letters like a, b, c, the Japanese alphabet represents entire sounds.

You can learn more about each type of kana below.

Hiragana Japanese Alphabet

The hiragana form of the Japanese alphabet is usually used to represent adverbs, auxiliary verbs, postpositions, particles, and even function words. They may also be used in some instances to replace kanji characters. The hiragana Japanese alphabet of sounds is as follows:

Hiragana Japanese Alphabet
(a) あ(i) い(u)う(e) え(o) お
k(ka) か(ki) き(ku) く(ke) け(ko) こ
s(sa) さ(shi) し(su) す(se) せ(so) そ
t(ta) た(chi) ち(tsu) つ(te) て(to) と
n(na) な(ni) に(nu) ぬ(ne) ね(no) の
h(ha) は(hi) ひ(fu) ふ(he) へ(ho) ほ
m(ma) ま(mi) み(mu) む(me) め(mo) も
y(ya) や(yu) ゆ(yo) よ
r(ra) ら(ri) り(ru) る(re) れ(ro) ろ
w(wa) わ(wo) を
n(n) ん

Since these sounds don’t make up the entirety of Japanese spoken words, you’ll also need to learn how to combine or modify certain characters in order to achieve the right syllable. This involves adding either a dakuten or a handakuten, which provide you with more information on how to pronounce the change.

Katakana Japanese Alphabet

The katakana form of the Japanese alphabet is used to represent several technical terms, foreign words, certain plants and animals, onomatopoeias, and much of the Japanese slang. The katakana Japanese alphabet of sounds is as follows:

Katakana Japanese Alphabet
(a) ア(i) イ(u) ウ(e) エ(o) オ
k(ka) カ(ki) キ(ku) ク(ke) ケ(ko) コ
s(sa) サ(shi) シ(su) ス(se) セ(so) ソ
t(ta) タ(chi) チ(tsu) ツ(te) テ(to) ト
n(na) ナ(ni) ニ(nu) ヌ(ne) ネ(no) ノ
h(ha) ハ(hi) ヒ(fu) フ(he) ヘ(ho) ホ
m(ma) マ(mi) ミ(mu) ム(me) メ(mo) モ
y(ya) ヤ(yu) ユ(yo) ヨ
r(ra) ラ(ri) リ(ru) ル(re) レ(ro) ロ
w(wa) ワ(wo) ヲ
n(n) ン

After learning both hiragana and katakana, you may notice that they’re very similar. The two components of the Japanese alphabet represent the same sounds, but they’re written differently. They’re also used for different words.

Japanese Alphabet Kanji

The kanji script is a part of the Japanese alphabet that’s influenced by the Chinese alphabet. Rather than representing a letter, each kanji character stands for an entire concept or idea. They act almost as pictures that represent words or phrases. Practicing kanji can be fun and rewarding when working with a native speaker. To help improve your understanding of the Japanese alphabet, download Tandem today.

Kanji characters are often used for adjectives in Japanese, nouns, adverbs, and verbs. This means they’re more commonly used than hiragana and katakana. The variations in scripts may seem pretty fascinating when trying to learn the Japanese alphabet in English, but it can also be overwhelming.

There are over 50,000 different kanji characters that are used in the Japanese language. However, you don’t have to stress over memorizing them all, as most native speakers don’t even know them all. A more obtainable goal is trying to learn the most common kanji used in the Japanese alphabet, which is about 500 symbols.

You should also try to memorize the Japanese noun cases you use most often. Some examples of the most common kanji characters include:

Kanji SymbolKanji Meaning
sun, day, Japan, counter for days
book, true, present, counter for long cylindrical things
exit, go out, leave
going, row, journey, carry out, line
alternative, direction, person
city, town, market
interval, space
in front, before
behind, back, late
rice, meter, USA

As you can see, some kanji characters have several different meanings. Oftentimes, you’ll be able to understand which meaning is intended based on the context of a sentence. Some kanji are simple, like person, and can be written with two strokes. Others, like behind, can take several strokes. In fact, certain kanji characters require over 20 different strokes to write!

A good way to memorize the kanji alphabet in Japanese is to simply practice identifying them, writing them, and using them in a sentence.

Although difficult, learning the Japanese alphabet is not impossible. With a little education, dedication to studying, and the right amount of practice, fluency is obtainable. Communicating with a native speaker is one of the best ways to help you get the most out of your efforts, but finding someone in your area that speaks Japanese (and wants to help you practice) may be difficult. That’s where Tandem comes in.

Tandem is a unique language learning platform with a community of learners around the world. All you need to do is sign up, download the app, match with a native Japanese speaker, and start communicating. You’ll work together to teach each other your native language while continuing to perfect the pronunciation and grammar needed for fluency. Tandem works to help our members foster a deeper understanding of language while improving fluency and building long-lasting friendships. To join our community and work on your fluency, sign up for Tandem today.

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