The Japanese Writing System

By Donald Ash | Educational Articles & Videos

Writing in Japanese can be quite daunting if you don’t have a method for learning it.  From my personal experience, writing in Japanese has been far more difficult than speaking.  Why?  Because Japan’s writing system is so much more complex than the standard, super-simple, 26-letter alphabet.  For starters, Japanese is made up of two different writing systems: kana and kanji.

The kana can be broken down into two different groups, hiragana and katakana (so in essence there are three ways to write in Japanese).  Let’s take a look at each group.


The easiest of the three ways to write in my opinion, is made up of 46 characters:

あ い う え お

a i u e o


か き く け こ

ka ki ku ke ko


さ  し す  せ そ

sa shi su se so

た ち つ て と

ta chi tsu te to

な に ぬ ね の

na ni nu ne no


は  ひ ふ へ ほ

ha hi fu he ho

ま み む め も

ma mi mu me mo

や ゆ よ

ya yu yo


ら り る れ ろ

ra ri ru re ro

わ を   ん

wa o n

Often, hiragana is the first set of characters that a child will learn in Japan.  It’s perfect for learning words that are specific to the Japanese language.  Here’s a  simple example: the Japanese word for dog, inu, is made up of the two hiragana characters い (i) and ぬ (nu)…いぬ.  Hiragana really helps to grasp the concept of spoken Japanese pronunciation much more easily.  Another great advantage of having Hiragana under your belt is that you can start reading children’s books.  You may not understand everything you’re reading, but it’s great practice to become quick-and-slick with these things.

Hiragana will also help you to learn the third writing system, kanji.  Here’s how:  many kids books have what’s known as furigana.  Furigana is essentially, a kanji character with the small hiragana written beside it for those who may not recognize the character (i.e.-small children.  I’ll use the dog example again.  So in kanji, dog is written as this character 犬.  If I were to see this in a children’s book, I might see it written like this:


Depending on the book, characters can be written horizontally or vertically.  If the characters follow the vertical writing style, the the furigana will be written on the right of the kanji.  For horizontal writing, the furigana are written above.


Also made up of 46 characters, katakana uses the exact same phonetic sounds as hiragana:

ア イ ウ エ オ

a i u e o


カ キ ク ケ コ

ka ki ku ke ko


サ シ ス セ ソ

sa shi su se so

タ チ ツ テ ト

ta chi tsu te to


ナ ニ ヌ ネ ノ

na ni nu ne no

ハ ヒ フ ヘ ホ

ha hi fu he ho

マ ミ ム メ モ

ma mi mu me mo

ヤ ユ ヨ

ya yu yo

ラ リ ル レ ロ

ra ri ru re ro

ワ ヲ ン

wa    o     n

Katakana are used for words that may be borrowed from other languages, most commonly English.  For example, the word milk in Japanese is phonetically similar to the English.  Using katakana, I would write this: ミルク, these are the closest phonetic sounds to produce the word as it would be said in English (mi-ru-ku).  It may not look like ice cream, but try saying it.  It sounds pretty close.
The bane of my existence…just kidding…kind of.  Kanji actually come from China, and were adopted into the Japanese writing system long ago.  There are over 1500 of these characters, and have been around for more than 1000 years:

一    二    三    四   五    六     七      八     九     十

ichi   ni    san   shi     go       roku     shichi     hachi   ku   ju

口    山    日    本   語    川     田      雨     車     気

guchi   yama   hi    hon   go   kawa   ta    ame    kuruma     ki

A friend of mine once told me that kanji are just pictures.  In a way, he’s right, but to me, kanji don’t always look like the things they are supposed to represent.  If you look above, though, yama means mountain and you can kind of see that it looks like a mountain.  Kawa means river, and it kind of looks like a river.  Kuruma means car, and it looks somewhat like a car.  Ki means spirit…how do you even draw that?!?  Learning all of these is definitely a bit much, since we’re just starting out (plus I don’t know them all myself), but there’s much much more to come.

This has been a brief introduction into the Japanese writing system.  Over time I hope to give you more information about how to write and use these.  Again, I’m not an expert, but I do like keeping things simple, and in my opinion, that’s the best way to learn.

Thank you for visiting,

Donald Ash

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