Meet the fascinating Japanese script
Welcome to WordBrewery’s Reading Japanese post series. The Japanese writing system uses three types of characters: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. (It also sometimes uses romaji, the Latin/Roman a–z alphabet). In this post, we will introduce the writing system as a whole and show how these different character sets are used. Then, we will gradually publish three series of posts to teach katakana, hiragana, and all the kanji you need for reading fluency. We will illustrate each character with high-frequency words that are among the 20,000 most common Japanese words. In the kanji post series, we will also illustrate the kanji with real example sentences from the WordBrewery database that contain exclusively high-frequency words.
Here is an example of a real blog title that uses all three character types:
- Otona demo pokemon-zuki
- Even adults love Pokémon
Kanji + hiragana
|好き||suki, -zuki (as suffix)||like, love; -lover (as suffix, e.g. Pokemon-lover)|
Kanji are Chinese characters that were imported from China through Korea by Japanese scholars before the Fifth Century C.E. Each kanji character generally has both a meaning and several possible pronunciations (usually called “readings”). These readings may be based on the original Chinese pronunciation of the character (on-yomi) or one of the original Japanese words that the character came to represent.
Hiragana and katakana are the two sets of kana representing one syllable per character—so as sets, they are sometimes called syllabaries. There are 46 hiragana characters and 46 equivalent katakana characters. Hiragana are used for native Japanese words. Katakana are used for foreign “loanwords” and onomatopoeia (words representing sounds, like meow [Eng.] or nyan [Jp.] for the sound cats make), among other situations.
It is traditional to learn hiragana before katakana (although you need both), so we put a lot of thought into the decision of which to teach first. In the end, we decided that katakana is more immediately useful to a beginning student of Japanese. Learning katakana allows you to read and pronounce portions of Japanese signs and menus. Also, by studying many examples of how English loan words are spelled in katakana and pronounced, you can learn the Japanese phonetic system. Japanese pronunciation is very easy and uses essentially the same vowel sounds as Spanish and Italian. Because English has many more sounds that Japanese, English words that are borrowed into Japanese are adjusted. For example, Japanese does not use the sound “l”; instead, the closest sound is “r”—pronounced by tapping one’s tongue against the ridge above one’s front teeth. If you quickly say the English name “Eddie,” you will also be pronouncing the Japanese word eri, meaning “collar.”
With a few exceptions, Japanese syllables are usually romanized—transcribed in the Latin/Roman, a–z alphabet that Engish uses—as one consonant followed by one vowel:
Karate is pronounced not like “KRAH-tee,” as in English, but like “kah-rah-tay.”
Nintendo is pronounced not like “Nihn-TEN-doh,” as in English, but like “Nee-n-teh-n-do”: five syllables, because “n” is sometimes pronounced as a separate syllable in Japanese. Importantly, Japanese does not place stress on any syllable; this is very different than English and other Germanic languages, which HEAVily STRESS SOME SYLLables OVer OTHers.
In the first part of the Reading Japanese post series, we will show you how to pronounce Japanese katakana by introducing one character at a time and giving you hundreds of words to practice in a sensible order.
The best way to learn any pronunciation system is to mimic native speakers. In this course, at least initially, we will have text-to-speech rather than native speakers—but that is good enough for our limited purpose of learning how to pronounce Japanese characters. So, rather than explain how to pronounce each example word, I will provide audio for each word. Please click, study, and repeat after the audio links for each word and sentence so you develop good pronunciation habits.