Katakana — The Second Order in Japanese Writing

Japanese wouldn’t be Japanese without katakana — that cool, edgy script so often found in manga, slang text, and the like. In fact, katakana is one of the three pillars of the Japanese writing system and is essential to master for any Japanese language student.

Katakana characters with colorful circles as background

The thing is, it may be more complex than one might expect at first glance. This article is all about what exactly katakana is and how exactly it is used in the Japanese language!

What is Katakana?

カタカナ (katakana) is one of the three Japanese scripts used for writing (the other two being hiragana and kanji). Technically, the Latin script, a.k.a English letters (known as ロマジ | romaji), is also a part of this list, but its use is more sparse and, therefore, can be considered a minor contribution to the equation.

Katakana is used for foreign words and for adding emphasis. It’s different from hiragana, but they both have the same sounds. Foreign words in katakana can sound very different, making them hard for English speakers to pronounce.

To avoid confusion, treat them as separate Japanese words. Forget the original English word to avoid using English pronunciation. Along with hiragana, katakana can be seen as the Japanese alphabet itself!

The Origin of Katakana

Katakana literally means “fragmented kana” kana being basically the symbols used to represent Japanese sounds. This name stems from the fact that both katakana (and hiragana too) as a written system derive from the fragments of larger and more complex Kanji characters.

In other words, the Japanese language writing system totally owes itself to Chinese characters! Actually, an early version of カタカナ (katakana) was first used by Buddhist monks during the 9th Century Heian Period when describing works of art and other texts from India.

There was a great correspondence between both Indian and East Asian monks during that time, so カタカナ (katakana) itself is heavily influenced by the old language of Sanskrit!

Katakana Characters

The カタカナ (katakana) alphabet is made up of 48 major characters like ひらがな (hiragana). There are some fanciful exceptions that we’ll discuss a little further along. Take a look at the major 48 here:

Japanese alphabet in katakana

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

As can be seen, when compared to ひらがな (hiragana), カタカナ (katakana) is much more blocky and straight. Thusly, it can be easily distinguished from the former when seen in writing. This is perhaps the same reason why historically カタカナ (katakana) was seen as “men’s writing.”

Also, some kana are basically the same in both writing systems, namely へ (he) and り (ri). Some others are really similar, like カ (ka) or ヤ (ya), but are actually written differently.

Katakana vs Hiragana – Writing Katakana Correctly

With the foundational stuff out of the way, let’s tackle some of the differences between katakana and hiragana. Mostly, these two alphabets function the same way within the Japanese language – but some differences are definitely worth noting (and mastering, for that matter!)

Long Vowels in Katakana

When creating long vowels, also known as double vowels, in katakana, a long is used in place of the second vowel. This makes crafting long vowels much easier to do in katakana than hiragana.

Here are some examples of words in katakana with long vowels:

タクシー | takushii | taxi

クレジットカード | kurejitto caado | credit card

コーヒー | kouhii | coffee

スーパー | suupaa | super market

クレーム | kureimu | claim

アンケート | ankeito | survey (this one comes from French!)

ベーコンチーズバーガー | beikon chiizu baagaa | bacon cheeseburger

No matter which of the 5 vowels is elongated, add this dash (ー) after the character to achieve the effect!

Dakuten and Handakuten in Katakana

In Japanese, there is such a thing as voiced consonants and voiceless consonants. In the standard or base form, all consonants are voiceless. To achieve their voiced counterpart, we must add either a dakuten (〃) or handakuten ( ゜) to the characters whose sounds are able to transform.

Tip: だくてん (dakuten | 濁点) and はんだくてん (handakuten | 半濁点) are also known as てんてん (tenten) and まる (maru), respectively.

Here’s a brief example just for review:

  • は(ha) → voiceless consonant
  • ば(ba) → voiced consonant with dakuten
  • ぱ(pa) → voiced consonant with handakuten

When using these marks in カタカナ (katakana) they look and work exactly the same as in ひらがな (hiragana)… with one exception.

Since katakana is used to create foreign sounds in Japanese (more on that later), there is more flexibility in how sounds can be created than exists in hiragana. Here are the exceptions:

  • ワ(wa) → ヷ(va)
  • ラ(ra) → ラ゜(la) – This holds true for all R-based kana
  • リャ(rya) → リ゜ャ (lya) – This holds true for all R-based kana with combined sounds

Out of these three, you’ll probably never come across the last two. They are historical and accepted, however, so it’s good to be aware of the possibilities of katakana.

The first on this list is rather popular, and you may have even come across it already if you’re a frequent manga reader!

Combining sounds in Katakana

The Japanese language allows for all of the i-kana to be combined with ヤ (ya) ユ (yu), and ヨ (yo) to create completely new sounds. These are known as combined sounds in Japanese, and they are an unremovable part of the language.

While katakana does share all of the same rules of combination as hiragana, some extra components should be studied and mastered.

Katakana allows for all standalone vowels (a,e,i,o,u) to be “made small” and used as a combined sound. In essence, they can be used in the same way that the ヤ (ya) ユ (yu), and ヨ (yo) are used in hiragana all for the sake of creating cool and unique sounds!

This is necessary at times when approaching foreign words with totally unusual sounds when compared to the Japanese tongue.

Here is a quick reference guide for these combinations:

ティ (ti)、ディ (di)、デュ (du)、トゥ (tu)

ツァ (tsa) 、ツィ (tsi)、ツェ (tse)、ツォ (tso)

ファ (fa)、フィ (fi)、フェ (fe)、フォ (fo)、フュ (fyu)

ウィ (wa)、ウェ (we)、ウォ (wo)

ヴァ (va)、ヴィ (vi)、ヴ (vu)、ヴェ (ve)、ヴォ (vo)

チェ (che)、シェ (she)、ジェ (je)

And here are some word examples:

イェイ(iei) – Yay!

ウィー(wii) – Wee!

ウィールス(wiirusu) – Virus

What’s cool about katakana is that it’s super flexible and leaves room for play – it pretty much has to be ready for any new and unfamiliar foreign words which cross its path!

When is Katakana used?

Now it’s time for us to tackle exactly when to use katakana in Japanese.

As we’ve mentioned quite a few times in this article already, katakana was designed as a system for saying and writing foreign words in Japanese. Having a different written system makes it super easy to recognize when a word is native versus when it is borrowed.

Thus, such cases will be the majority, and while that’s still the primary purpose of カタカナ (katakana), it has evolved over time to take on other usages as well!

Slang words

These are often written in カタカナ (katakana), probably because technically they are “foreign” to the Japanese language. There’s also something about the “outside” or non-normal quality of カタカナ (katakana) that makes it appear more cool and stylish for Japanese natives. Even personal names are sometimes written in this way!

Onomatopoeia

カタカナ (katakana) is often used when writing onomatopoeia, also known as ぎおんご (giongo | 擬音語) in Japanese. This is a strange one because some onomatopoeias are always written in カタカナ (katakana) while others are always written in ひらがな (hiragana) while some others still can be written as both!

Regardless, you will most likely come across written sound effects in the secondary script!

Certain food names

In Japan, the names of certain foods are always written in カタカナ (katakana). To be fair, these are pretty much only foods that were adopted from other countries originally, but which also have become so Japanified that they should be considered a traditional cuisine at this point.

Take for example ピーマン(piiman), which are green peppers, or ココア(kokoa), meaning hot chocolate.

AI speech

カタカナ (katakana) is used for robot or AI speech to make it distinct from a human’s speech. It is also often used as a form of emphasis in writing too.

Other minor usages include plant names and scientific terms. At a super casual level, there really are no hard rules for using katakana — you’ll get a feel for when it applies well as you continue along the Japanese Mastery journey!

Common words that use Katakana

Adding on to some of the really popular katakana words in Japanese, here are a few extra worth studying and adding to your lexicon!

Food

Here are some mouthwatering list of food written in katakana, perfect for satisfying your cravings and exploring Japanese cuisine.

アイスクリーム | aisukuriimu | ice cream

フライポテト | furaipoteto | french fries

ハンバーガー | hanbaagaa | hamburger

チョコレート | chokorēto | chocolate

チーズ | chiizu | cheese

ケーキ | kēki | cake

ピザ | piza | pizza

Places

Navigate your way through Japan with ease using this list of places written in katakana, which is ideal for finding accommodations and dining options.

スーパーマーケット | suupaamaaketto | supermarket

レストラン | resutoran | restaurant

アパート | apaato | apartment

コンビニ | konbini | convenience store

ホテル | hoteru | hotel

ハウス | hausu | house

Technology

Here’s a list of techonology-related words written in katakana.

アニメ | anime | animation

カメラ | kamera | camera

テレビ | terebi | television

ラジオ | rajio | radio

ミッション | misshon | mission (in videogames)

パソコン | pasokon | personal computer or laptop

スマホ | sumaho | smart phone

Transportation

Plan your journeys efficiently with this katakana list of transportation words.

タクシー | takushii | taxi

バス | basu | bus

ミニバス | mini basu | mini bus

バイク | baiku | motorbike

トラック | torakku | truck

スクーター | sukuutaa | scooter

ボート | booto | boat

Other Words

Here’s a diverse list of common words written in katakana to add to your vocabulary.

カラオケ | karaoke | karaoke

デスク | desuku | desk

ライト | raito | light

アンサー | ansaa | answer

ペン | pen | pen

アルバイト | arubaito | part-time job

ズボン | zubon | pants

アイドル | aidoru | idol

Katakana words created in Japan only

Yes — there are some カタカナ (katakana) words in existence that do not exist in any other language and were completely made up by Japanese natives in order to shortcut their language (lovely).

While they are based on context (usually), they’re idiomatic nonetheless in that their “literal” meaning no longer carries the same definition! Such a thing is a staple of the great language ofにほんご (nihongo | 日本語). Take a look!

トランプ | toranpu | playing cards

バイキング | baikingu | a large buffet

ホッチキス | hocchikisu | stapler

でんしレンジ | denshi renji | microwave

レントゲン | rentogen | x-ray (in case you’re wondering, we actually know the origin of this one – it’s based on the name of the German physician “Roentgen”)

Example sentences with Katakana

We compiled example sentences for you to see how katakana is written with hiragana and kanji. You can notice each of the writings’ distinctive features when they’re written side by side.

コーヒーをのんじゃダメ。もうすぐねるんだから (koohii wo nonjadame. Mousugu nerun dakara ne | コーヒーを飲んじゃダメ。もうすぐ寝るんだからね)

You can’t drink coffee because you’ll go to sleep very soon.

デパートでおかあさんのためにクリスマスセーターをかってあげました (depaato de okaasan no tame ni kurisumasu seitaa wo katteagemashita | でデパートでお母さんの為にクリスマスセーターを買ってあげました)

I bought a Christmas sweater for my mom at the department store.

ウェズリースナイプスです! (wezurii sunaipusu desu!)

It’s Wesley Snipes!

かのじょのかみのけはマジでかっこいいジャン (kanojo no kami no ke wa majide kakkoii jan | 彼女の髪の毛はマジでかっこいいジャン)

Her hair is friggin’ cool.

このマサルがおなががぺこぺこのにマクドナルドのハンバーガーをくうってわけでわないんだよ (kono masaru ga onaka ga peko peko noni makudonarudo no hanbaaggaa wo kuutte wake de wa nainda yo | このマサルがお腹がペコペコのにマクドナルドのハンバーガーを食うってわけではないんだよ)

Even if I was starving, I can’t imagine eating a Mcdonald’s hamburger!

The Order of Japanese Writing

For any Japanese students just getting along the path of Japanese language mastery and wondering about the best steps to take when learning the Japanese writing system, follow this order: hiragana, katakana, kanji.

Make hiragana the first priority since most words are written in hiragana and since it encompasses all of the native sounds of the language. Once you have that down pat, move on to katakana. These two will come rather quickly with some diligent practice.

Kanji will be a work in progress for years to come, so it’s definitely the final hurdle to overcome.

Wrap Up

In summary, exploring Japanese katakana offers exciting opportunities for language learners. It’s a crucial writing system used in Japan that also enriches the reading experience for manga fans. By mastering katakana, you can truly grasp the subtleties and impact of manga scenes, immersing yourself in the story on a deeper level.

Japanese mimetic words and sound effects in katakana also add a touch of cuteness to your communication. They are incredibly adorable, allowing you to have kawaii moments with your partner while chatting.

So, embrace the challenge, unleash the potential of katakana, and embark on a captivating journey into the world of Japanese language and culture!

がんばってください (ganbatte kudasai)! ^^

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