What Is the Japanese Alphabet?

Surprise! This is a trick question! To learn the Japanese alphabet you need to learn THREE writing systems, and they aren’t exactly Japanese alphabets.

Hiragana

Hiragana, the main Japanese writing system you will encounter is a series of syllables that you will need to memorize. Like the roman alphabet, each character corresponds to a sound, but unlike the roman alphabet, when making a syllable by combining two sounds like “ta” or “mi,” a new character is created, rather than just combining the two letters. These are usually memorized by young Japanese children by using a chart similar to this one.

Basic Hiragana Dakuten
vowel k s t n h m y r w g z d b p
a
a ka sa ta na ha ma ya ra wa ga za da ba pa
i
i ki shi chi ni hi mi ri gi ji dzi bi pi
u
u ku su tsu nu fu mu yu ru gu zu dzu bu pu
e
e ke se te ne he me re ge ze de be pe
o
o ko so to no ho mo yo ro wo go so do bo po
*
n elongate consonant duplicate and unvoice duplicate and revoice
Compound Hiragana Compound Dakuten
ya き ゃ し ゃ ち ゃ に ゃ ひ ゃ み ゃ り ゃ ぎゃ じゃ ぢゃ びゃ ぴゃ
kya sha cha nya hya mya rya gya ja ja bya pya
yu き ゅ し ゅ ち ゅ に ゅ ひ ゅ み ゅ り ゅ ぎゅ じゅ ぢゅ びゅ ぴゅ
kyu shu chu nyu hyu myu ryu gyu ju ju byu pyu
yo き ょ し ょ ち ょ に ょ ひ ょ み ょ り ょ ぎょ じょ ぢょ びょ ぴょ
kyo sho cho nyo hyo myo ryo gyo jo jo byo pyo

 

Dakuten are symbols that are added to a character that slightly change the sound of the consonant. They either look like a little quotation mark or a degree symbol to the right of the character. So if you take か (ka) and add dakuten you get が (ga). In the chart above see if you can recognize the other changes dakuten make!

It’s important to note that stroke order is VERY important in Japanese, so while you’re practicing writing these make sure you start with the correct order so you’re not creating bad habits from the get go. Stroke orders for every character are covered (and animated) in our Introductory Lessons to help you get them down properly. There’s also audio for everything to help you perfect your pronunciation!

Many people also find flashcards helpful for rote memorization. You can download a set of printable PDF hiragana flashcards HERE ranging from the simplest hiragana to the more complicated compound syllables.

Katakana

The next “Japanese alphabet” is katakana. Katakana is similar to hiragana in that it is a syllable-based system (a syllabary) but its usage in Japanese is different. Katakana is used for translating foreign words into Japanese, or also for writing “borrowed words” in the language. Whether the word is borrowed from English, Mandarin, Cantonese, or any language, katakana will be used to represent it. Katakana can also be used for onomatopoeia as well as for showing foreign accents in manga. You can learn all about katakana here. Katakana directly correlates to hiragana, meaning that the sound represented by the katakana is exactly the same as the corresponding sound in hiragana. Katakana is the simplest of the Japanese systems in terms of writing, and just like kanji and hiragana, stroke order remains important here.

Basic Katakana Dakuten
vowel k s t n h m y r w g z d b p
a
a ka sa ta na ha ma ya ra wa ga za da ba pa
i
i ki shi chi ni hi mi ri gi ji dzi bi pi
u
u ku su tsu nu fu mu yu ru gu zu dzu bu pu
e
e ke se te ne he me re ge ze de be pe
o
o ko so to no ho mo yo ro wo go so do bo po
*
n elongate consonant duplicate and unvoice duplicate and revoice
Compound Hiragana Compound Dakuten
ya キャ シャ チャ ニャ ヒャ ミャ リャ ギャ ジャ ヂャ ビャ ピャ
kya sha cha nya hya mya rya gya ja ja bya pya
yu キュ シュ チュ ニュ ヒュ ミュ リュ ギュ ジュ ヂュ ビュ ピュ
kyu shu chu nyu hyu myu ryu gyu ju ju byu pyu
yo キョ ショ チョ ニョ ヒョ ミョ リョ ギョ ジョ ヂョ ビョ ピョ
kyo sho cho nyo hyo myo ryo gyo jo jo byo pyo

Click here to download a free set of printable katakana flashcards!

Kanji

Kanji (漢字) is by far the most daunting of all Japanese writing systems. It’s based on Chinese characters and there is no way to learn it but simply to memorize all of them! While there are tens of thousands of kanji out there, only 2,136 are used regularly enough that they are learned in elementary and secondary school. These are the jōyō kanji (常用漢字, regular-use kanji). To help you learn we have special study lists for the jōyō kanji and premium members can add any kanji to their drills to help them practice! Any kanji outside of the jōyō kanji will be written with furigana in Japanese publications. Wait, what’s furigana you ask?

Furigana

Furigana (振り仮名) is a writing system in Japan used to phonetically pronounce kanji that aren’t very well known. While furigana is most often written with hiragana, there are some cases where katakana will be used. It can also be very helpful for Japanese learners because you can write furigana above any kanji that you’re still learning and many learning resources will include it! Here is an example where the furigana is written above the kanji:

かん

If you’ve been studying your hiragana, you know that かん spells “kan” and じ spells “ji.” Kanji!

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