Learning Katakana? Here’s a Cool Trick

The Japanese writing system is an interesting one indeed. Learning hiragana (the most basic of the Japanese system), learning katakana (used for loan words or foreign words) and learning kanji are the three essentials of being able to read and write. Japanese is perhaps one of the more complex writing systems of the modern world. I don’t know who was responsible for creating the system but perhaps it was some ancient Japanese scholar whose flagship class was Memory Torture 101. For today, let’s focus on a finer point of one of the three systems, katakana.

Katakana is made up of 46 different characters. Here’s the katakana list:

When I started learning katana there were four characters that would irk me to no end. They were “shi,” シ“tsu,”ツ “so,” ソand “n,” ン. Looking at the chart above, can you see why it may have been tough to learn these four? It’s because they look so freakin’ similar!! If you already know your katakana, perhaps you ran into a similar stumbling block. But I learned a little trick that will help you to easily distinguish between shi and tsu, so and n.

Let’s start with the characters shi and tsu (the ones that look like smiley faces):

The way you can tell the difference between the two is by seeing where the two smaller, lines are in relation to the longer line. If the two smaller lines line up vertically along the left edge of the longer line (the smile part of the smiley face) then it’s definitely a “shi.”

If the two smaller lines line up horizontally with the right, upper edge of the longer line (the smile part of the smiley face) then you are looking at the character “tsu.”

Cool, right?

How about “so” and “n”? Well, the exact same rule applies. These are smiley faces with one eye, so you’re just seeing where the one, smaller line is placed in relation to the longer line (smile part).

If the single, smaller line, lines up vertically with the left edge of the long line (the smile part), then the character is “n.”

If the single, smaller line, lines up horizontally with the upper right edge of the long line (the smile part), then you’re looking at the “so” character.

You know what’s cool about this little trick? It can even help you to remember the stroke order when writing. If you just remember that you always draw your smaller parts of these four characters first, then it’s just a matter of thinking in top-to-bottom, left-to-right lines.

I hope that sheds a little bit of light on one of the more confusing aspects of reading and writing and memorizing your katakana. GOOD LUCK!!

Donald Ash

A Cool Katakana Trick Video

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  • kurt

    Ha. The exact trick my nihongo sensei taught me. She said I had an excellent ‘shi’ and ‘tsu’, gave me a Hello Kitty sticker with a よくできました !

    • Donald Ash

      Aww, I was hoping it would be something new for you, Kurt. But, Hello Kitty stickers rock, so you’re teacher must be pretty freakin’ awesome :)

      • S. Irving Beer

        Dude, Bravo! I was just sitting here wanting to mentally strangle the person who created such easily confused characters, and a simple google search and you have saved me a lot of time. Perhaps, it is time to practice some Shodo and create a good archetype in my mind. Thx again.

  • danglars

    brilliant article. this still trips me up sometimes. ace!

    • Donald Ash

      I’m glad to hear that, bro. I still have to practice it, but that really helped me. Thanks, Danglars.


    • thejapanguy

      Thanks Danglars! I still have to practice it from time to time, too, but I’m glad it was helpful.

      Edmund Dantes

  • My mind is blown! Epiphany! This is great. My method of remembering tsu and shi is based on the hiragana ones. Hiragana shi runs vertically, while katakana shi has horizontal-ish lines. Hiragana tsu runs horizontally and katakana tsu has vertical dashes. They are opposites. Also when write shi I remember the third line run down to up by think of the rising sound. shhhiiiiIII!

    • thejapanguy

      HOORAY! So glad to hear that, Alana (please excuse the EXTREMELY late reply, lol)

  • Dochimichi1

    Oh, wow! Easy, yet effective!
    I’m still mixing these up, especially when writing, so big thanks for the neat trick!
    Have any more of those up your sleeve? ^^

    • thejapanguy

      Yoshi!! Hmm, I’ll have to see if I have any more cool tricks up my sleeve, Dochimichi1. Great question ;)

  • Anthony

    So and N always give me some type of trouble. Thanks for posting this Donald! The way I figured out the difference between shi and tsu is by saying “She(shi) always looks up at tsu(you)”.

    • thejapanguy

      It is 100% my pleasure Anthony. I’m just glad you found it useful!

    • kasra dalirian

      That is really clever, You just helped me a lot good sir.

  • Tom

    I shared this with my Japanese language class and I’m sure it will help a lot of people – even I struggle with that pesky ‘Shi-Tsu-N-So’ (and every so often, ‘No’ will throw me off my game by mere association! XD ) so it’s a great perspective tI hadn’t been shown before.

    Thanks, Donald!

  • Keshi

    wow i’ve read a lot of articles about the difference in shi and tsu and so n and it’s only now that i’ve understood it. :D

    • Donald Ash

      Yoshi!! I’m glad to hear that, Keshi. I had a hard time making sense of those too, at first, but I am glad it’s clearer now.

    • thejapanguy

      WOO HOO!!! I’m so glad it helped!

  • Giang

    whoooaaaa, just whoooaaaa. Thank you, Donald! I feel like I’ve been enlighted.
    This explanation was really effective. Thanks again :)

    • thejapanguy

      YAY!!!! Glad I could help, Giang!

  • Steve T-F

    Thanks so much for these tips – Shi and Tsu were driving me nuts! All sorted now :-)

    • thejapanguy

      Can’t have people going crazy. WHEW! Glad this post got to you in time. LOL

      Seriously, thanks for checking it out, Steve T-F

  • Ren

    Thanks for this :D I’m really enjoying reading through your website.

    • thejapanguy

      Thank you for the support, Ren!!

  • Fuad Daviratma Husni

    arigatou gozaimasu donald

    • thejapanguy

      Anytime, Fuad!

  • Melissa Bailes

    ありがとうごじあます! I have been so frustrated with these four characters. You have just made it sooo easy to understand. I’m going to share this with my classmates!

    • thejapanguy

      They’re confusing, right?!? I wish I could take full credit for it, but a Japanese friend taught that to me years ago, and I had to share it!
      I’m so glad it helped you, too!

  • Samuel

    thanks Donnie! this helped a lot, now I just gotta practice.

  • Hestia

    These are handy tips man. Thank you

  • Mukki

    Thanks for this!

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