Lesson 2: Reading Hiragana and Katakana

Japanese consists of three writing systems. The first two are the kana alphabets known as hiragana and katakana. The third is the more complicated system of kanji. It is important to learn hiragana and katakana first before trying to learn kanji.

Hiragana and katakana are made up of forty-six basic symbols that stand for syllables instead of letters. The exceptions to this rule are the consonant “n” and all vowels. These letters all have their own symbol even though they are Romanized as only one letter. Vowels and “n” can count as their own syllable, although this is not always the case. Vowels can be paired with consonants to form different syllables.

All Japanese words can be broken up into syllables. For example, the word for I is “watashi.” If we were to break this word up into the correct syllables, we would have wa/ta/shi. Even though there are vowels in this word, they are paired with consonants because only the consonant “n” can stand alone. All other consonants must be paired with a vowel. In some cases, syllables can be three or four characters if more consonants exist. For example, “shi” in “watashi” is its own syllable, even though there are two consonants and a vowel. Neither “s” nor “h” can stand alone, so they must be paired with a vowel. Dividing Japanese words into syllables becomes much easier after hiragana and katakana are mastered. Take a look at these examples.

Arigatou = a/ri/ga/to/u

Ohayou gozaimasu = o/ha/yo/u go/za/i/ma/su

Konnichiwa = ko/n/ni/chi/wa

Notice how some vowels are syllables on their own and how “n” sometimes stands alone.

The basic symbols of hiragana and katakana can be altered slightly with diacritical marks. The diacritical marks are added in the top right-hand corner of a symbol and can look like two small dash marks (“) or a small circle (。).

The first chart shows the basic hiragana characters while the second details the extra symbols created with diacritical marks. Notice the small circle mark is only used on the “h” symbols in order to indicate a “p” sound.

n wa Ra Ya Ma Ha Na Ta Sa Ka a
Ri Mi Hi Ni Chi Shi Ki i
Ru Yu Mu Hu Nu Tsu Su Ku u
Re Me He Ne Te Se Ke e
Wo** ro yo mo ho no to so ko o

*Note: All tables read vertically from right to left with Romanizations under the correct symbols.
**This symbol is Romanized as “wo” but pronounced as “o.”

Pa Ba Da Za Ga
Pi Bi Ji Ji Gi
Pu Bu Zu Zu Gu
Pe Be De Ze Ge
Po Bo Do Zo Go

*じ and ち” are pronounced the same. ずand つ” are also pronounced the same.

Hiragana also has contractions. These symbols are formed by adding a small や,ゆ, orよsymbol to the regular hiragana symbol. These contractions count as one syllable. The following charts detail all of the contractions in hiragana.

りゃ ぴゃ ひゃ にゃ ちゃ しゃ きゃ
Rya Pya Hya Nya Cha Sha Kya
りゅ ぴゅ ひゅ にゅ ちゅ しゅ きゅ
Ryu Pyu Hyu Nyu Chu Shu Kyu
りょ ぴょ ひょ にょ ちょ しょ きょ
Ryo Pyo Hyo Nyo Cho Sho Kyo
みゃ びゃ じゃ ぎゃ
Mya Bya Jya Gya
みゅ びゅ じゅ ぎゅ
Myu Byu Jyu Gyu
みょ びょ じょ ぎょ
Myo Byo Jyo Gyo

It should also be noted that double consonants can occur in hiragana. This is indicated by a small つsymbol. When pronounced, the small つsymbol indicates a slight pause in the word. These words are Romanized with repetitive consonants.

For example, katta is the word for writer. Katta is written かった in hiragana, where the smallつsymbol acts as a second “t.”

Katakana works the same way hiragana works. The only difference is that the symbols change. The sounds that exist in hiragana also exist in katakana. Hiragana is only used for native Japanese words and katakana is only used for loan (foreign) words.

Katakana treats double consonants the same way hiragana does. A small ツ character is used instead. Diacritical symbols remain the same. Long vowels are represented in katakana by a long dash after the vowel. Hiragana does not use a dash for long vowels; if a long vowel is present, another vowel character is added after the first vowel.

The following charts detail the basic katakana, the katakana as altered by the diacritical marks, and the katakana contractions.

N Wa Ra Ya Ma Ha Na Ta Sa Ka A
Ri Mi Hi Ni Chi Shi Ki I
Ru Yu Mu Hu Nu Tsu Su Ku U
Re Me He Ne Te Se Ke E
Wo* ro yo mo ho no to so ko o

*This symbol is Romanized as “wo” but pronounced as “o.”

Pa Ba Da Za Ga
Pi Bi Ji Ji Gi
Pu Bu Zu Zu Gu
Pe Be De Ze Ge
Po Bo Do Zo Go

*ジ and チ” are pronounced the same. ズand ツ” are also pronounced the same.

リャ ピャ ヒャ ニャ チャ シャ キャ
Rya Pya Hya Nya Cha Sha Kya
リュ ピュ ヒュ ニュ チュ シュ キュ
Ryu Pyu Hyu Nyu Chu Shu Kyu
リョ ピョ ヒョ ニョ チュ ショ キョ
Ryo Pyo Hyo Nyo Cho Sho Kyo
ミャ ビャ ジャ ギャ
Mya Bya Jya Gya
ミュ ビュ ジュ ギュ
Myu Byu Jyu Gyu
ミョ ビョ ジョ ギョ
Myo Byo Jyo Gyo

Lesson 1: Introduction & Basic Phrases

Japanese can appear to be a very complex and confusing language, especially to native European speakers. The writing systems consist of sometimes complicated symbols that can easily scare off any beginner. Don’t be afraid; it can be done! You can learn basic Japanese really quickly. All it takes is some concentration and memorization. After you get the basics down, you can focus your time on perfecting your speaking habits, learning new verb conjugations, and expanding your vocabulary. Japanese is a really fun and interesting language to learn!

People learn Japanese for many different reasons. It is a useful language to learn if you are interested in visiting Japan, teaching English in Japan, or doing business with Japanese companies. You can also enjoy new music, movies, and television with your new found language skills.

The hardest aspects of Japanese for beginning students are usually the three writing systems. The sentence structures and verb conjugations can also throw you off, especially if you are a native English speaker. Japanese sentences occur in subject – object – verb form whereas English sentences are in subject – verb – object form. Japanese can also be confusing because the language relies on particles but does not have articles like English does. Also, Japanese sentences tend to omit the subject and are usually vague. English, on the other hand, typically includes a subject in its sentence structures and is a more specific language.

Japanese has three writing systems—hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Each of these writing systems can be transliterated into Roman alphabet characters. This technique helps new learners understand how a Japanese symbol should be read. Speakers of European languages tend to match a symbol with the Roman characters it sounds like, and this helps them to remember how to pronounce the symbol. This type of writing is called romaji or the Romanization of a text.

As a beginner, you should concentrate on learning hiragana first, then katakana, and finally kanji. Many Japanese lessons designed for beginners will show Japanese words in hiragana and katakana along with their transcribed romaji as a learning aid.

The list below contains useful words and phrases to get you started with Japanese. They are written first in English, then in hiragana, and finally in romaji.

Hello/Good afternoon.                        こんにちは                            konnichiwa

Hello (when answering a phone).       もしもし                                moshi moshi

Good morning.                                    おはようございます            ohayou gozaimasu

Good night.                                         おやすみなさい                    oyasumi nasai

See you later.                                      じゃまた                                jya mata

See you.                                               じゃね                                    jya ne

Goodbye.                                             さようなら                            sayounara

Please.                                                 おねがい                                onegai

Thank you.                                           ありがとうございます        arigatou gozaimasu

Excuse me.                                          すみません                            sumimasen

Nice to meet you.                               はじめまして                        hajimemashite

I am ____.                                           わたしは___です。        Watashi wa ___ desu.

How are you?                                      おげんきですか。                Ogenki desu ka?

I am fine/well.                                    わたしはげんきです。        Watashi wa genki desu.

What time is it?                                  なんじですか。                    Nanji desu ka?

What                                                   なん/なに                               Nan/nani

Why                                                     なんで/どうして                   nande/doushite

Where                                                 どこ                                        doko

When                                                   いつ                                        itsu

Who                                                     だれ                                        dare