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Read and Write Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji

In Japanese, we use three scripts (also called “alphabets” or “syllabaries”).  These scripts are Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji, all of which play an important part in learning Japanese.  If you use this learning guide as your primary tool, it won’t be long before you will be reading and writing Japanese like a master!  

kana cards

Before we start: Flashcards!

Whether you make your own or buy them through us, the use of flashcards is an efficient way to learn Hiragana and Katakana.  If you go with the Do-It-Yourself route, you may find the format on the left quite helpful.  Start with the Hiragana or Katakana symbol and then list off examples to practice.  Doing this will expand your vocabulary while honing your reading skills at the same time.  The four boxes you see on the bottom of the cards are for practicing the “stroke order” which we will talk more about later.   Keep in mind that everyone has there favorite way of learning, so maybe flashcards isn’t your thing.  In that case, we have more tools to help you get started.

3 Scripts: A Quick Breakdown

Hiragana is the main writing system used to represent every possible Japanese sound that will ever reach your ears.  Because it lays the foundation of the entire language, you will be learning Hiragana first.  You’re not alone – every Japanese child had to start the same way.  Your first step as a student should be learning to read at least some Hiragana.

Katakana represents the same sounds as Hiragana, but is used primarily for foreign names and words of foreign origin.  If you are not Japanese, then chances are your name, home country and favorite local restaurant would be written in Katakana as well!  It is also used as an onomatopoeia.  For example, a Japanese “meow” is にゃん (“Nyan”).  This sound, like it’s English version is an onomatopoeia and is spelled with Katakana.  Any word that imitates a sound will fall under this category as well, and I should let you know now that there are a lot of them in Japanese!

Kanji represents entire words and meanings.  Originally created by the Chinese, these were “modified” to adapt with the Japanese language.  The pronunciation of kanji became a mixture of Japanese readings and Chinese readings.

Hiragana and katakana are much easier than kanji, since they only have 46 characters each.  Compare this to the thousands of Kanji in existence.  What’s that, you say?  You want to save the Kanji for last?  That’s what I thought.  Let’s start by learning Hiragana and Katakana!

 

The Origin of Kana: Where did Hiragana and Katakana come from?

Hiragana characters actually started as a simplified version of Kanji during the Heian Period (794 – 1185 AD).  At that time, China had major influence on every other Asian country, including Japan.  Kanji was limited to the upper classes and was modified to express native Japanese words.  In fact, some of these Kanji were borrowed only for their sound rather than their meaning.  Over time, this small group of Kanji became Japan’s phonetic alphabets (or as most of us like to call them, syllabaries).  We now know these as two distinct scripts – Hiragana and Katakana.  Hiragana was simplified from entire Kanji characters and used for informal writing, while Katakana took on more of a “partial” Kanji look.  For awhile, Katakana was only used by men while women used Hiragana.  Eventually of course, men and women used both scripts.    

 

 How to read Hiragana

The first thing you will need is a Hiragana chart.  Use it as a reference and have it handy at all times when you’re browsing other sections of JapaneseMEOW.


Print the Hiragana Chart (PNG)
 

I would like to talk about those small marks (“) next to the characters on the left side of our chart.  The “ten-ten” mark, technically called the “dakuten”, looks like a set of quotation marks:.  This is added to some Hiragana and Katakana to alter the sound.  The “maru” mark, technically called the “handakuten”, looks like a degree symbol, °.   As you can see, this changes the sounds of our syllables as well.  This should be great news to any beginner who is learning Japanese – this means you only have to remember the base characters and change their sounds accordingly when you see a dakuten () or a maru (°) mark. 

Play the Hiragana Game for practice

If you think you have a good handle on the Hiragana chart above, go ahead and test your memory by playing the JapaneseMEOW Hiragana Game.  It’s available for iOS & Android and totally free.  We hope that it’s a relaxing, fun way to finish off a study session.  Just don’t land on the wrong balloon, or you will pay with your life.  🙂

How to write Hiragana

If you follow the correct stroke order, your writing will tend to look much nicer.  Select any of the Hiragana below to watch me draw them and then cycle through the groups with the side arrows.    Grab a piece of paper and try it out along with the demonstration below.

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"a"

"a"

"a"

"i"

"i"

"i"

"u"

"u"

"u"

"e"

"e"

"e"

"o"

"o"

"o"

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"ka"

"ka"

"ka"

"ki"

"ki"

"ki"

"ku"

"ku"

"ku"

"ke"

"ke"

"ke"

"ko"

"ko"

"ko"

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"sa"

"sa"

"sa"

"shi"

"shi"

"shi"

"su"

"su"

"su"

"se"

"se"

"se"

"so"

"so"

"so"

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"ta"

"ta"

"ta"

"chi"

"chi"

"chi"

"tsu"

"tsu"

"tsu"

"te"

"te"

"te"

"to"

"to"

"to"

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"na"

"na"

"na"

"ni"

"ni"

"ni"

"nu"

"nu"

"nu"

"ne"

"ne"

"ne"

"no"

"no"

"no"

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"ha"

"ha"

"ha"

"hi"

"hi"

"hi"

"fu"

"fu"

"fu"

"he"

"he"

"he"

"ho"

"ho"

"ho"

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"ma"

"ma"

"ma"

"mi"

"mi"

"mi"

"mu"

"mu"

"mu"

"me"

"me"

"me"

"mo"

"mo"

"mo"

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"ya"

"ya"

"ya"

"yu"

"yu"

"yu"

"yo"

"yo"

"yo"

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"ra"

"ra"

"ra"

"ri"

"ri"

"ri"

"ru"

"ru"

"ru"

"re"

"re"

"re"

"ro"

"ro"

"ro"

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"wa"

"wa"

"wa"

"wo"

"wo"

"wo"

"n"

"n"

"n"

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As you probably have noticed, I didn’t include any of the Hiragana with the ten-ten or maru marks.  I wanted to demonstrate the base characters, but you can add the marks if you want extra practice.    If you think you’ve got it, proceed to the Katakana section.

 

         
 

How to read Katakana

 You will need a Katakana chart as a reference too, right?  Here you are!  
 

Print the Katakana Chart (PNG)

Play the Katakana Game for practice

When you’re ready to practice Katakana, then you can play the JapaneseMEOW Katakana Game.  In this death defying game, you are going to be popping Katakana balloons over the city of Osaka, Japan.  Finishing the game will earn you a FREE Skype lesson with Keiko.  The Osaka castle awaits you! 

How to write Katakana

Once again, select any of these Katakana characters to watch me demonstrate the stroke order.

    
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"a"

"a"

"a"

"i"

"i"

"i"

"u"

"u"

"u"

"e"

"e"

"e"

"o"

"o"

"o"

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"ka"

"ka"

"ka"

"ki"

"ki"

"ki"

"ku"

"ku"

"ku"

"ke"

"ke"

"ke"

"ko"

"ko"

"ko"

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"sa"

"sa"

"sa"

"shi"

"shi"

"shi"

"su"

"su"

"su"

"se"

"se"

"se"

"so"

"so"

"so"

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"ta"

"ta"

"ta"

"chi"

"chi"

"chi"

"tsu"

"tsu"

"tsu"

"te"

"te"

"te"

"to"

"to"

"to"

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"na"

"na"

"na"

"ni"

"ni"

"ni"

"nu"

"nu"

"nu"

"ne"

"ne"

"ne"

"no"

"no"

"no"

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"ha"

"ha"

"ha"

"hi"

"hi"

"hi"

"fu"

"fu"

"fu"

"he"

"he"

"he"

"ho"

"ho"

"ho"

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"ma"

"ma"

"ma"

"mi"

"mi"

"mi"

"mu"

"mu"

"mu"

"me"

"me"

"me"

"mo"

"mo"

"mo"

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"ya"

"ya"

"ya"

"yu"

"yu"

"yu"

"yo"

"yo"

"yo"

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"ra"

"ra"

"ra"

"ri"

"ri"

"ri"

"ru"

"ru"

"ru"

"re"

"re"

"re"

"ro"

"ro"

"ro"

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"wa"

"wa"

"wa"

"wo"

"wo"

"wo"

"n"

"n"

"n"

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The sounds are all the same as Hiragana, as I explained earlier.  As far as visual differences, I’m hoping you are starting to notice the similarities between Hiragana and Katakana.  Some the kana are pretty much identical to each other, such as with the case of the Hiragana (he) and the Katakana (he).  On the other hand, a lot of the Katakana have much sharper characteristics than it’s curvy cousin, Hiragana.  It’s a different style for sure!
 

Learn to Write Hiragana and Katakana with mnemonics

 

 

In this video, Misa from Japanese Ammo takes us through an entire demonstration of how to write Hiragana and Katakana.  She will start by reviewing some of the basics that we have already covered on this page, and then she will show you the brush strokes of every character. 

The major benefit of this video is that she is showing you a technique called “mnemonics” as a way to memorize some of the characters.  Other kana is memorized by drawing connections between them.  The theory of mnemonics, as applied to learning kana, goes something like this:

By associating a kana with a known object or pattern, you will recall it easier. 

This is a great method.. if it’s used correctly.  Not all mnemonics are , and I’ll show you why.  One popular Japanese learning website (which I won’t name), likes to use this one:

is “e” like an “exotic bird”

 

The above “mnemonic” is a little bit cringe-worthy because your brain has two make two indirect connections with the Hiragana.  First of all, you need to remember the English-named object, which is a bird.  Okay.. not so bad, right?  But then your brain also has to recall the English adjective used to describe the bird – exotic.  Once this has finally happened, an entire flock of exotic birds are making nests inside your roof because you are thinking in English rather than Japanese.  That’s just my opinion.

The mnemonics that I admire are the ones that accomplish at least one of three things:

  • Stays within the target language – which is Japanese.
  • Is directly related to an object or symbol (“bird” can be useful, but not “exotic”).
  • Is related in some way to other Hiragana or Katakana characters that you’re trying to learn.

Memorizing a short list of Japanese words and utilizing them as mnemonics will build a much more effective path in your brain every time you want to make a connection to a Hiragana or Katakana.  For example, as Misa demonstrates in her video:

is “fu” like “fuku

(fuku means “clothes”)

 

This is a much better mnemonic than the first one, as you are hitting two exotic birds with one stone.  The brain is soaking up a lot more because you are not just remembering the Hiragana, but you are also recalling a Japanese word and practicing it.  This technique should make  (“fu”) and ふく (“fuku”) stick in your head like glue after a while.  I bet that you will even begin to recognize “fuku” every time it is spoken in a nearby conversation as you involuntarily imagine a yellow shirt dancing around in your head.  That beautiful, curvy will pop out at you from every written Japanese sentence and you will know exactly what it is!  Later, the hiragana (ku) will seem easier to remember because you have already practiced it within this mnemonic.  The list of benefits goes on and on.

The result of this is a deep engraving of Hiragana and Katakana into your brain while your vocabulary takes off like a rocket – how awesome is that?  I’ll be adding a full list of mnemonics to this section.  For now, I suggest the video by Japanese Ammo that I posted earlier!

 

If you’ve gotten this far, your next step is to start learning some Kanji.  Proceed to the Kanji section next!