Learning Katakana? Here’s a Cool Trick

By Donald Ash | Learn Japanese

A Cool Katakana 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. 


If you'd like me to personally walk you through the Katakana "Line Method."
I've created a bonus video tutorial just for you!
Click the play button, enter your email, and get your video.

Click here to subscribe

About the Author

Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of thejapanguy.com blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.

  • kurt says:

    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 says:

      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 says:

        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 says:

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

    • Donald Ash says:

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


    • thejapanguy says:

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

      Edmund Dantes

  • Alana says:

    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!

  • Dochimichi1 says:

    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 says:

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

  • Anthony says:

    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)”.

  • Tom says:

    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 says:

    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. 😀

  • Giang says:

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

  • Steve T-F says:

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

    • thejapanguy says:

      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 says:

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

  • Fuad Daviratma Husni says:

    arigatou gozaimasu donald

  • Melissa Bailes says:

    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 says:

      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 says:

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

  • Hestia says:

    These are handy tips man. Thank you

  • Mukki says:

    Thanks for this!

  • Richard Frederick says:

    That stroke order discovery is plain clever.

  • MEN_iiParfumDa says:

    This just helped me a lot. Using Anki right now and could never get these 4.

  • trash says:

    That was really helpful! Thanks❤

  • I’ve written small website for training: https://codepen.io/ppozniak95/full/BdKKWp/

  • Eric says:

    Great ! A least a super clear and definitive way to identify which is which! Thanks Donnie! That was brilliant!

  • totesose says:

    YES! Thank you! Those 4 were driving me crazy >.<

  • Ivanovsky says:

    I nener thought about that, what i can to do is just writing it in order. I wrote it just like check mark to replace from bold to thin. But now im just look from vertical and horizontal. Thanks Dude.

  • >