Japanese Alphabet — All about the three writing systems

The Japanese Alphabet. What do you know about it? How many letters does it have?

English, the world’s most spoken language, has 26 letters. Sanskrit, one of the world’s oldest languages, has 46 letters. But how about the Japanese language?

Today, we’ll present all of them to you. If you’re wondering where and how to start learning Japanese, it’s your day! Let’s get started!

Hiragana chart and Japanese gate

Japanese Alphabet

The Japanese alphabet has three series. All of them are essential in the Japanese writing system.

There is a phonetic alphabet called かな (Kana | 仮名) and an alphabet called かんじ (Kanji | 漢字).

Kana has two types, hiragana and katakana. The paralleled letters hiragana and katakana have the same sounds from the first character to the last character but are written in different forms.

In this guide, we’ll cover the three Japanese alphabets (hiragana, katakana, and kanji) that will help you read, speak and write in Japanese.

Japanese Language Alphabets

The Japanese alphabet hiragana and katakana have 46 Japanese letters each. Kanji has over 2,000 letters, and sounds vary from each Kana. In spoken Japanese, each Kana can represent all of the sounds.

Let’s take a closer look at the beauty of the Japanese writing system and the Japanese alphabet!

Hiragana Alphabet

The first alphabet all learners should focus on is called hiragana (ひらがな | 平仮名). It’s also the foremost Japanese alphabet children see in picture books.

Hiragana characters were developed by mimicking the cursive script of Chinese characters called そうしょたい (soushotai | 草書体) about 1,200 years ago. Hiragana composes words, suffixes, people’s names, and so on.

Hiragana Chart

The Hiragana alphabet has 46 letters in it. Learn all of them in the Hiragana chart below. You can practice writing them on separate sheet of paper.

Hiragana Chart*Among the hiragana characters, ゐ (yi) and ゑ (ye) are no longer used.

Katakana Alphabet

Katakana (カタカナ | 片仮名) characters come in the second order you should learn in the Japanese writing system. Katakana literally means fragmentary Kana characters, and they were created after hiragana. People regularly use katakana to describe foreign words, foreign names, loan words, and onomatopoeias.

Some English speakers might feel funny when they encounter words borrowed from English or other foreign languages.

Katakana Chart

The Katakana alphabet has 46 letters similar to Hiragana (ひらがな). Here’s the Katakana chart for you. You can practice writing them on a separate piece of paper.

Katakana Chart

 

*Among the katakana characters, ヰ (yi) and ヱ (ye) are no longer in use.

Kanji Alphabet

Kanji (かんじ | 漢字) is the Japanese writing system that originated from the Chinese Hanzi characters. Kanji characters have the widest variety among the three Japanese alphabets. Allegedly, the total number of Kanji could be more than 10,000 letters, though Kanji doesn’t have a particular order like the hiragana and the katakana chart.

Japanese children start learning Kanji at age six, and they extend their knowledge every year at school. By the age of eighteen, children learn about 2,100 letters. Kanji constructs words, idioms, place names, and people’s names. People regularly use about 3,000 Kanji, and it’s called じょうようかんじ (jouyou kanji | 常用漢字).

There are usually two ways to read each kanji: onyomi (Chinese origin) and kunyomi (Japanese origin). If you know Mandarin Chinese characters, you’re ahead of the game! You just need to learn how to write the other two, hiragana and katakana.

A single character can already mean one word. Fascinating, right? Well, kanji is probably the most challenging yet most fun part of learning Japanese. You’ll definitely recognize a kanji character when looking at a Japanese word.

Kanji word examples:

EnglishKanjiHiraganaRomaji
Tokyo東京とうきょうtoukyou
travel, trip旅行りょこう)ryokou
cherry blossomsさくらsakura
beautiful, pretty綺麗きれいkirei
beauties of nature花鳥風月かちょうふうげつkachoufuugetsu

How can I learn Kanji and the Japanese Alphabet?

If Japanese is a new language for you, learn both hiragana and katakana, then progress to Kanji is a way to go. Knowing the Japanese alphabet might not seem essential for speaking and listening, though it’s unavoidable in reading and writing.

A path to complete 3,000 Kanji might feel like a long and winding road at the moment. Although, there is some good news for foreign learners. Let us introduce you to some suggestions.

Using the beginner-friendly Romaji

Do you have no idea about the three writing systems? Don’t worry. The romanization of Japanese called ろーまじ (romaji | ローマ字) can be an excellent companion for those who might want to learn Japanese phrases naturally.

Romaji helps you to read and pronounce the Japanese alphabet without having advanced knowledge. Using Romaji, you can grasp the basic sounds and start practicing how to speak Japanese.

However, Romaji doesn’t indicate the meanings of Japanese words and sentences, so you still need to work on that part.

For example:

Do you have a favorite Japanese movie?

日本の映画で好きな作品はありますか?

にほんのえいがですきなさくひんはありますか?

Nihon no eiga de suki na sakuhin wa arimasuka?

Making use of a reading aid

When you first learn Japanese, kanji often seems complicated when we first face it, but the reading aid called ふりがな (furigana | 振り仮名) or ルビ (rubi | るび) can show you the way to read.

Furigana is located above or next to Kanji usually. They don’t appear all the time, though it’s helpful to look up a new word in a dictionary or take note of a new Kanji character. You can find them in children’s books, textbooks, and comics.

An example of a text with Furigana:

にほんご  よ  か  なら         じかん

日本語 の 読み書きを習うには、時間がかかります。

Learning one Kanji at a time

Written Japanese language always contains three combinations of the alphabet. So, elementary to intermediate-level language learners might get frustrated with being unable to read straightforwardly like other languages. Learning numerous Kanji characters might take time, but Kanji is full of astonishment.

Girl learning Kanji radicals

To learn Kanji, we recommend starting with radicals first and getting a picture of what a group of Kanji could signify. Kanji requires a lot of repetitions to memorize.

For example:

Kanji with multiple meanings and readings

いき (iki | 粋): chic, essence, purity

きっすい (kissui | 生粋): genuine, pure

ぶすい (busui | 無粋): inelegant, innocent

Native Japanese words in Kanji

とうげ (touge | 峠): mountain pass

ささ (sasa | 笹): bamboo grass

こうじ (kouji | 糀): malted rice

Not always, but Kanji could have more than one reading よみ (yomi | 読み ). The original Chinese style reading is called おん(on | 音), and the native Japanese style is called くん (kun | 訓).

  • For instance, Kanji 楽 has about five ways of reading:

Chinese-style reading: 音読み (onyomi | おんよみ)

おんがく (ongaku | 音楽): music

きらく(kiraku |気楽): comfortable, at ease

Native Japanese reading: 訓読み (kunyomi | くんよみ)

たのしい (tanoshii | 楽しい): enjoyable, pleasant

*the Kana places after Kanji is called おくりがな (okurigana | 送り仮名). They are Kana suffixes.

  • For instance: Kanji 生 has about ten ways of reading

Chinese-style reading: 音読み (onyomi | おんよみ)

せいぶつがく (seibutsugaku | 生物学): biology

いちれんたくしょう (ichirentakushou | 一蓮托生): to be in the same boat

Native Japanese reading: 訓読み (kunnyomi | くんよみ)

いきもの (ikimono | 生き物): living thing, animal, organism

なまびーる (namabiiru | 生ビール): draft beer

Learning the Japanese sounds and tones

Remember that the Japanese language has a limited number of sounds and tones. The Japanese language may have too many alphabets.

Yet, the Japanese language has only five vowel sounds and fourteen consonant sounds, unlike English and other languages. Consequently, speaking and listening may not be too challenging compared to writing and reading Japanese.

vowels

a, i, u, e, and o

(ア イ ウ エ オ)

consonants

k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w, g, z, d, b, and p

long vowels

aa, ii, uu, ee, and oo

(アア イイ ウウ エエ オオ)

Marks in the Japanese writing systems

You probably use them every day when learning Japanese, but you have no idea what they’re called. These marks made the Japanese language more simple. Let’s talk about them below.

Extra marks for turbid sounds and puffed sounds

Dakuten and Handakuten are the modifiers for certain hiragana and katakana. Two tiny lines for Dakuten to express turbid sounds, and a small circle Handakuten is for the light puffed sounds.

Both of them need to be on the top right corner of the hiragana and the katakana characters and are colloquially called てんてん (ten-ten | 点々) and まる (maru | 丸).

  • だくてん (dakuten | 濁点 )
  • だくおん (dakuon | 濁音 )
  • はんだくてん (handakuten | 半濁点)
  • はんだくおん (handakuon | 半濁音)

Letters with Dakuten

Dakuten Chart

Letters with Handakuten

Handakuten characters

Letters for twisted sounds

ようおん (youon) and そくおん (sokuon) are keys for the Japanese syllables. Youon means twisted sounds, and Sokuon implies double consonants to make popping sounds.

Both are written in small katakana and hiragana and placed after a character. Youon has five kinds of characters, and Sokuon has only one.

  • ようおん(youon | 拗音): ぁ, ぃ, ぅ, ぇ, ぉ, ゃ, ゅ, ょ, ァ, ィ,ゥ, ェ, ォ, ャ, ュ, and ョ
  • そくおん (sokuon | 促音): っ and ッ

Learn how to use ようおん (youon) and そくおん (sokuon) using this chart:

Youon and Sokuon Chart

For example

Youon in words

  • スウェーデン (suweeden | すうぇーでん): Sweden
  • ハロウィン (harowin | はろうぃん): Halloween
  • じゃがいも (jagaimo | じゃがいも): potato
  • りょこう (ryokou | 旅行): travel, trip

Sokuon in words

  • クッキー (kukkii | くっきー): cookie
  • まっしろ (masshiro | 真っ白): pure white, stark white
  • がっこう (gakkou | 学校): school

Japanese long vowels

Long vowels are called ちょうおんぷ (chouonpu | 長音符) and written with the mark “ー”. Long vowels convey onomatopoeia, foreign words, and foreign names in katakana while borrowing the sound of an original foreign language.

For example:

  • テーブル (teeburu | てーぶる): table
  • バンクーバー (bankuubaa | ばんくーばー): Vancouver
  • カレー (karee | かれー): curry
  • コケコッコー (kokekokkoo | こけこっこー): cock-a-doodle-do

Japanese Alphabet Fun Fact

When you learn a new language, it’s always fun to know some facts about it, right? Here are some fun facts about the Japanese alphabet (hiragana, katakana, and Kanji).

Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji are all families

Japanese Kanji is the parent of hiragana and katakana. Kanji characters arrived from China about 2,000 years ago, and old Japanese people invented hiragana and katakana later.

Here are examples of how each Kana was born from Kanji characters:

安 あ ア

以 い イ

宇 う ウ

衣 え エ

於 お オ

There are symbols not considered as a letter

There are about ten symbols called 踊り字 (odoriji | おどりじ) in Japanese. Odoriji can’t exist alone, so they are not listed as proper letters or grammatical elements. They don’t belong to any alphabet, but you can spot them in everyday life.

Symbols and meanings:

: same as above or front

: to repeat hiragana

: to repeat katakana

: to repeat hiragana with Dakuten

: to repeat katakana with Dakuten

: to repeat but valid only in the vertical writing system

For example:

いふどうどう (ifudoudou | 威風堂々): pomp and circumstance marches by Elgar

いすずじどうしゃ (isuzu jidousha | いすゞ自動車): Isuzu Mortors

The poetic and sentimental AIUEO song

Perhaps some of you remember that ABC songs helped us remember the alphabet when we were children. In Japan, people have AIUEO songs instead of ABC songs. Yet, there are no singular AIUEO songs that everyone knows.

The classic and poetic song called いろはうた (iroha uta | いろは歌) is rather famous in Japan. It was written in Haiku style about 1,000 years ago, but still unknown who created it first.

Iroha Uta: Original Japanese song

いろはにほへと ちりぬるを  (色は匂へど 散りぬるを)

わかよたれそ  つねならむ  (我が世誰そ everything)

うゐのおくやま けふこえて  (有為の奥山 今日越えて)

あさきゆめみし ゑひもせすん (浅き夢見じ 酔ひもせず)

English translations

Even the beautifully blooming flowers will soon fall because an end will come to everything. If we overcome this uncertainty and reach enlightenment, we should be able to feel at ease without having a fleeting dream anymore.

Japanese people use Romaji to type

Mainly, there are two ways of typing methods in Japan. One is Romaji input, and another one is Kana input. About 90 percent of people use the Latin alphabet or English letters over Kana with PC keyboards.

Phone chat

But somehow, multi-tap input and flick input using Kana are more common among mobile phone users. Both are the same in a way, and the only difference is how fast you’ll type.

Many words share the same sounds

Some Asian languages have tones, but the Japanese language does not. Japanese is a pitch accent language instead. Quite a few Japanese single Kanji words share equivalent sounds, so be aware of the differences in pitch accents when you hear and speak.

For instance:

The words “Hashi” and “Kaki” can have multiple meanings by their sound. So, focusing on the accent will help you distinguish one from another. Accents should be on the underlined part.

し (hashi | 箸): chopstick

(hashi | 橋): bridge

(kaki | 柿): persimmon

き (kaki | 牡蠣): oyster

Different alphabets leave various impressions

It’s common among native Japanese speakers to get different impressions by how it’s written, even though three alphabets don’t exist to differentiate the nuance.

Study notes about Japanese Alphabet

For example, hiragana gives a gentle and approachable feeling, and katakana adds a light and rhythmical touch. Kanji often leaves a little more sophisticated and reliable impression. Once you start feeling the contrasts, you should recognize yourself as reaching an advanced level.

For instance:

The following sentences are “The sunset is very beautiful” and identical in English. However, native Japanese speakers might sense something.

Here is what native Japanese might sense from these contrasts.

(yuuyake ga totemo kirei da | ゆうやけがとてもきれいだ)

夕焼けがとても綺麗だ: The sunset probably brought back a nostalgic memory.

夕焼けがとてもきれいだ: Maybe it was a heart-warmingly beautiful sunset.

夕焼けがとてもキレイだ: This person could have felt refreshed after seeing the sunset.

Learn the Japanese alphabet and discover more about Japan

The Japanese language has three types of alphabet, hiragana, katakana, and kanji. It would be untrue to say that the Japanese language is a beginner-friendly language, though this complexity is what makes learning Japanese more satisfying!

When you’re interested in Japanese culture, it makes you want to learn their writing systems, right? Reading and writing all three types of the Japanese alphabet is a significant accomplishment! So grab a notebook and start practicing now. Keep it simple — begin with a common word and hiragana characters.

がんばってください (ganbatte kudasai)! ^^

    4 replies to "Japanese Alphabet — All about the three writing systems"

    • Steven

      I type in the ground because I don’t have a paper.
      But I really want to learn Japanese language

      • 90 Day Japanese

        Thanks for your sharing, Steven! If you want to find more great content on learning Japanese, you can visit the 90 Day Japanese Blog. You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel for video lessons. You’ll get updated when our latest videos become available.

    • Emma

      I want to learn it so i can Travel to japan and meet Koyaharu Gotouge, the creator of my fav anime

      • 90 Day Japanese

        Sounds like a plan! We wish you good luck in your Japanese learning journey, Emma! (◕‿◕)

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