The Japanese Katakana Writing System

Published October 1st, 2017

Learning a foreign language can be difficult. A language like Japanese with three writing systems can be an even greater challenge! The different writing systems, or "kana", are hiragana, katakana and kanji. Hiragana is usually the first Japanese syllabary children learn in Japan. You use hiragana when writing native Japanese words. But why would you use katakana?

In Japanese, you would use a different writing systems for borrowed words. Borrowed words come from different languages. In Japanese, these words use katakana when written. How can you tell the difference?

The task of learning katakana can be easy if you know the rules. First, we need to remember that each kana character in hiragana represents a sound. For example, あ is the symbol for the sound of 'ah'. There are more complex characters as well. が is the symbol for the sound of 'gah'.

In words written in katakana, the symbols take a more angled shape, but sound pretty much the same. For example, ア is the character for 'ah'. Likewise, ガ is the character for 'gah'. Can you see the sharper angles? Katakana's stroke order is as important as in hiragana The strokes angles can appear pointed and sharp. This makes katakana more distinctive.

The similarities don't stop there. For each hiragana character and sound, there is a matching katakana character. Most of the rules about hiragana also apply. For example, the use of dakuten is similar across both writing systems.

Don't know what dakuten are? It's best you brush up on your hiragana skills in our Japanese classroom. Once you understand the details of writing hiragana, you will see the same rules applied here.

Katakana for Borrowed Words

As we mentioned, one of katakana's purposes is to use foreign words. When using these words, they sound Japanese but also familiar!

For example, let's use the English word, "computer". If we were to say it in Japanese, it would sound like "konpyuuta". Written in katakana, this words becomes "コンピュータ".

There are a lot of borrowed words in Japanese. Can you think of what these words might be?

  • ミルク (miruku)
  • ビジネス (bijinesu)
  • ガラス (garasu)
  • ホテル (hoteru)

Know more borrowed words? Share them in the comments!

Describing Sound

Katakana is also sometimes used to express onomatopoeia. Not sure what that even means? Onomatopoeia is when the use of a word describe a sound. Like ZAP! BANG! BOOM! This style of using characters to describe sound is in a lot in Japanese manga. Here are a couple of examples straight from our Japanese lessons! | While ハハハ is like English “hahaha,” there is more than one katakana laugh. The witch’s laugh sounds much like an evil laugh in English too! | katakana alphabet japanese laugh | |---|---| | When an insect is approaching, you can use カサカサ…kasakasa. This is also the onomatopoeia for the rustling noise that papers make! | japanese katakana alphabet |

Using For Emphasis, or When You Really Mean Something!

Katakana isn't used only for borrowed words and for describing sound. It is also used for emphasis. If you see a word that is usually written in hiragana but now you see it in katakana, then it's emphasized. Japanese manga uses this a lot, especially if a character is yelling!

For example, the Japanese word for a fool is ばか (baka). But if a character is mad at someone, then they might yell at them, "バカ!!!!"

Try These Flashcards

Need help brushing up on your skills? We've created flashcards to help boost your skills. Print these pages out then cut along the horizontal line. Fold each card in half so you have the sound on one side and the character on the other. Use these when sitting on the bus or eating lunch and you'll soon master reading all the characters. You can also use our hiragana flashcards to combine your skills! | download katakana flashcards | |:-:| | free japanese katakana flashcards pdf |