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Learning to Read and Write, or ABC Japanese Style by Dj Caffeine (BLW Contributor)

Linguists all over the world still argue about the exact number of existing languages. However there are only so many sets of letters for written communication. Japanese uses three.

Let this idea sink in. All European languages are based on two main writing systems. The entire Americas run on one. Japanese uses three. Impressive? You have no idea.

Out of the three, kanji** is the most complicated (meaning, scarily interesting) one. Good news is you don’t have to start with it. Not so good news – the remaining two still hold a bagful of challenges for you.

As you remember, the complicated writing system was the reason I avoided Japanese all along. This time around I stared at hiragana and thought: “How difficult can it be after all? Remember what you’ve done in your life.” Forgive my cockiness, it was love speaking.

To my defense I can say it was not completely untrue. I do have a history with alphabets. I come from a bilingual family living in a country that speaks yet another, third language. In this regard I’m probably no different from thousands and thousands of people who were born under the same linguistic circumstances, if not for one detail. All three languages have different alphabets. Which basically means I had to learn to read three times. And two more at different stages in my life. So yes, I read five alphabets, another three – pfff, bring it on!

The fact that both hiragana and katakana*** use syllabic system is not the most intimidating thing about them, I was used to this approach with Hindi. But as I kept staring at 46 letters of hiragana, I was overwhelmed with the realization that “ka” looked nothing like “ki” and was worlds apart with “ko”. A sensation of mild panic crept into my fingers.

Add the fact that I suck at drawing, and to an unaccustomed eye Japanese letters do look like they’re produced by drawing, not writing.

I allowed myself to soak in that panic for whole ten minutes. Then I started learning.

Practical advice number one. Buy a nice exercise book. I belong to the race of stationery maniacs who will spend hours on end at an office supplies shop going through exercise book covers even if I’ll throw it away immediately after it’s filled. But even if you don’t normally care, take my word and buy a nice exercise book. This will subconsciously enhance your performance.

Practical advice number two. Don’t attempt to learn in bulk, it’s not productive. Even if your alphabet consists of fifteen letters, divide it into convenient sets and don’t go onto next until you’re completely fluent with the previous. If your textbook doesn’t suggest any specific system, learn the letters in the order they come in the alphabet.

For Japanese, the most convenient division is into “rows” by consonants. Work at your own pace, but I would say, attempting more than three rows in one day isn’t reasonable.

Now how do you memorize letters? Exactly, by writing them as many times as possible.

ko ke

For the next couple of weeks I looked like a complete nutjob. At irregular times I’d drop anything I’d happen to be doing at the moment, grab an odd piece of paper and cover it with hiragana letters I had learned by then, mouthing inaudibly as my pen moved over the lines: “Ka, ki, ku, ke, ko. Ta, chi, tsu, te, to”.

Amount of paper slips around me grew, and so did the number of letters I could write each time.

Then one day you will suddenly notice that your scribbles don’t look like drunk wooden shavings dancing salsa but more like signs used for intelligent communication; that they are no longer faceless to you; and that you actually remember all of them.

You did it, congratulations!.. and welcome to katakana.

Check out other great articles from Dj Caffeine



  1. Never had many problems with hiragana. Most of my issues were with katakana (simply because it is used so infrequently) and kanji (because it’s just such an altogether different animal). I remember in college I would take exams in my Japanese classes and both know and not know certain kanji. In some cases I had memorized the meaning and so could translate just fine but would not be able to read the sentence aloud to save my life as I couldn’t recall the word, in other cases I could remember the sound of the word (as kanji has no sound value) but entirely forgot the meaning. Kanji ga muzukashii desu ne.

    1. I still haven’t began learning kanji but probably will soon. But I totally get your problem with katakana. This was actually the topic of Part 2 of this article, posted in my blog a couple of days ago.
      And to tell you the truth, I’m SO afraid of kanji right now, I secretly hope there will be a reform in the Japanese language in the next couple of weeks before I start 🙂

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