How to Learn to Read Japanese
Japanese is made up of three unique writing systems: hiragana (ひらがな), katakana (カタカナ), and kanji (漢字). Additionally, Japanese can be written in English script, called Romaji (ローマ字), which is frequently used by beginning learners. Hiragana and katakana are syllabaries, which means each character/letter represents a full syllable. Kanji are symbols that represent an idea or concept. These can have many different readings depending on context, unlike hiragana, katakana and Romaji, which are always read the same. Reading Japanese may seem daunting at first, but with a little effort, practice, and a few tricks, you'll be reading simple Japanese in no time.
Familiarize yourself with Japanese vowels. There are five vowels in Japanese, and these are generally consistent in pronunciation. Unlike English, where vowels can be read many different ways depending on context, in Romaji you can most always expect:
- The "a" to sound like the "a" in "father."
- The "i" to sound like the "ee" in "feet."
- The "u" to sound like the "oo" in "fool."
- The "e" to sound like the "a" in "tape."
- The "o" to sound like the "oa" in "boat."
Learn the basics of Romaji. Aside from vowels, Romaji mostly follows the rules of English pronunciation, but there are a few special characteristics you'll want to keep in mind. For example, long vowels in Romaji are often marked by a long bar above the vowel (as in ā, ī, ū, ē, and ō), but in some cases may be represented by a double vowel (as in aa, ii, uu, ei, and ou). Furthermore:
- Some Romaji systems use an apostrophe to indicate syllable boundaries, especially before the sound "n" (ん). For example, the word shin'ya (しんや) is three syllables「shi (し) • n (ん) • ya (や)」whereas shinya (しにゃ) is only two「shi (し) • nya (にゃ)」.
- Doubled consonants represent a short, abrupt pause when reading aloud. This pause is important and can completely change the meaning of a word, like in sakki (just now) and saki (previous, prior).
Break Romaji into syllables. Japanese is a metrical language. Each syllable is approximately the same length, excluding long vowels, which are held for two syllables. Breaking Romaji into syllables will help you figure out common word endings and boundaries, will improve the flow of your reading, and will help prepare you to learn hiragana and katakana.
- Generally, you can expect an alternating consonant (C) vowel (V) structure in Japanese, as in CVCVCV or kodomo (children), where each CV alternation forms a syllable.
- Some Japanese sounds have clusters of consonants followed by a vowel. Some common examples are tsu (つ), kya (きゃ), sho (しょ), and cha (ちゃ). These form a single syllable, each.
Practice difficult combinations. Speaking in a different language frequently involves using muscles in and around your mouth differently than you do in your native tongue. Practicing difficult or uncommon sounds in Japanese will help them become more natural in both your reading and speaking. Some words you might use for practice include:
- Kyaku (きゃく ; guest), with the syllable breaks: kya • ku
- Kaisha (かいしゃ ; company), with the syllable breaks: ka • i • sha
- Pan'ya (ぱんや ; bakery), with the syllable breaks: pa • n • ya
- Tsukue (つくえ ; desk), with the syllable breaks: tsu • ku • e
Learn new words while practicing reading Romaji. When you read Romaji regularly, the flow of Japanese will become more familiar to you and the sound patterns easier to grasp. As you read, keep a notebook handy and write down words you don't know to look up in a dictionary later.
- Review your new word notebook often so the words become ingrained in your mind. For example, you may want to glance over new words every morning and evening.
- If you don't have a textbook to practice reading Romaji, there are plenty of resources available online. Try a general online keyword search for "Japanese romaji reading resources."
Learn the vowels. Five vowels form the basis of hiragana. These are: あ, い, う, え, and お (a, i, u, e, o). Almost all consonants in Japanese pair with these five vowels to make up consonant groups of five symbols. These groups often have voiced and unvoiced members, which will be further explained later.
- An example of a consonant group is the "K" group. The consonant sound of this group combines with each vowel to make the five symbols: か (ka), き (ki), く (ku), け (ke), and こ (ko).
Identify consonant groups. Groups are easier to remember because they're unvoiced (V-) symbols are only differentiated from voiced (V+) symbols by a quote-like mark (〃) or a small circle (゜). Voiced consonants in a group will make your throat vibrate, and unvoiced consonants will not.
- V-: か, き, く, け, こ (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko) V+: が, ぎ, ぐ, げ, ご (ga, gi, gu, ge, go)
- V-: さ, し, す, せ, そ (sa, shi, su, se, so) V+: ざ, じ, ず, ぜ, ぞ (za, ji, zu, ze, zo)
- V-: た, ち, つ, て, と (ta, chi, tsu, te, to) V+: だ, ぢ, づ, で, ど (da, ji, zu, de, do)
- V-: は, ひ, ふ, へ, ほ (ha, hi, fu, he, ho) V+: ば, び, ぶ, べ, ぼ (ba, bi, bu, be, bo) V+: ぱ, ぴ, ぷ, ぷ, ぽ (pa, pi, pu, pe, po)
Acquaint yourself with the nasal groups. A nasal is a sound like an "m" or an "n." These sounds vibrate in the top-back of your throat and into your nasal cavity. Japanese has two nasal groups in hiragana:
- な, に, ぬ, ね, の (na, ni, nu, ne, no)
- ま, み, む, め, も (ma, mi, mu, me, mo)
Make sense of the Japanese "Y" group. The "Y" group in Japanese can blend with consonant symbols that end in an い (i) sound (like き, じ, ひ / ki, ji, hi). This is represented by the consonant symbol followed by a small "Y" group symbol. The "Y" group has no unvoiced members.
- The "Y" group: や, ゆ, よ (ya, yu, yo)
- Some common "Y" group blends: しゃ (sha), じゃ (ja), にゃ (nya), きゅ (kyu), ぎゅ (gyu), しゅ (shu), ひょ (hyo), びょ(byo), and しょ (sho).
Study the tail end groups of hiragana. Traditionally, the "R" group is taught last along with three unique symbols. Neither of these two end groups have unvoiced members. All "r" sounds should be pronounced similar to the "t" sound in "water."
- The "R" group: ら, り, る, れ,ろ (ra, ri, ru, re, ro)
- The unique three: わ, を, ん (wa, wo, n)
Avoid particle confusion. Particles are a special part of Japanese grammar. There is no English equivalent, though it can help to think of particles like prepositions. Particles indicate the grammatical role words play in a sentence, and sometimes have a different pronunciation than you'd expect.
- For instance, in the sentence, "I go to school," the word "I" is the topic and "school" a destination, so it is written,「わたしはがっこにいきます」(watashi wa (I + topic particle) gakko ni (school + direction particle) ikimasu (go)).
- There are many particles in Japanese, but the most common include:
- は (pronounced wa): topic marker.
- か (ka): indicates a question at the end of a sentence.
- が (ga): subject marker.
- に (ni): indicates location, movement, marks time and the indirect object.
- の (no): indicates the word before の is possessive of the word following it.
- へ (e): indicates direction (of movement).
- を (o): marks the direct object.
Memorize hiragana symbols. The shape of hiragana symbols can be very foreign if you don't have experience writing in a similar Asian script. Practice regularly to improve your recall so that you can read these symbols quickly, fluently, and correctly.
- You may want to make flash cards to help study. Write each symbol on one side of an index card and the pronunciation of the symbol on the opposite side.
Build your vocabulary through reading. Many children's books and beginning learner Japanese materials are written solely in hiragana. By reading materials like these, you'll be sure to pick up some new vocab terms as you practice.
- You may want to make flash cards for new words, too. You can mix these in with your hiragana flash cards to add variety to your study.
- Some websites publish articles or simple stories in hiragana for beginning learners. An online keyword search for, "hiragana reading practice" should help you find something suitable.
Conquer katakana vowels. Exactly like hiragana, katakana is made up of five vowels which combine with consonant groups to create groups of five symbols. The five katakana vowel symbols are: ア, イ, ウ, エ, オ (a, i, u, e, o). An example of a consonant group combining with vowels to make its five symbols for the "S" group would look like:
- サ, シ, ス, セ, ソ (sa, shi, su, se, so).
Study similar groups for easier learning. Same as hiragana, katakana generally separates similar consonant groups into unvoiced (V-) and voiced (V+) members. To change a symbol from unvoiced to voiced, you only need to add a quote mark (〃) or small circle (゜). This makes learning the symbols easier. Voiced consonants will make your throat vibrate, unvoiced ones will not.
- V-: カ, キ, ク, ケ, コ (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko) V+: ガ, ギ, グ, ゲ, ゴ (ga, gi, gu, ge, go)
- V-: サ, シ, ス, セ, ソ (sa, shi, su, se, so) V+: ザ, ジ, ズ, ゼ, ゾ (za, ji, zu, ze, zo)
- V-: タ, チ, ツ, テ, ト (ta, chi, tsu, te, to) V+: ダ, ヂ, ヅ, デ, ド (da, ji, zu, de, do)
- V-: ハ, ヒ, フ, ヘ, ホ (ha, hi, fu, he, ho) V+: バ, ビ, ブ, ベ, ボ (ba, bi, bu, be, bo) V+: パ, ピ, プ, ペ, ポ (pa, pi, pu, pe, po)
Learn the nasal groups. There are only two nasal groups in Japanese. Nasal sounds are those vibrate up into the top-back of your throat and into your nasal cavity. These sounds are generally represented by "n" or "m." The nasal groups in katakana are:
- ナ, ニ, ヌ, ネ, ノ (na, ni, nu, ne, no)
- マ, ミ, ム, メ, モ (ma, mi, mu, me, mo)
Master the "Y" group and its combinations. The "Y" group in katakana operates the same way it does in hiragana. "Y" group symbols can blend with symbols that end in an イ (i) sound (like キ, ヒ, ジ / ki, hi, ji). This is represented by the symbol ending in an イ sound followed by a small "Y" group symbol.
- The "Y" group: ヤ, ユ, ヨ (ya, yu, yo)
- Common "Y" group blends: シャ (sha), ジャ (ja), ニャ (nya), キュ (kyu), ギュ (gyu), シュ (shu), ヒョ (hyo), ビョ(byo), and ショ (sho).
Close out katakana with the final groups. Katakana mirrors hiragana in that its final groups contain the "R" consonant group plus three unique symbols. The "R" group has no unvoiced members, and the "r" sound should be similar to the "t" in "water."
- The "R" group: ラ, リ, ル, レ, ロ (ra, ri, ru, re, ro)
- The unique three: ワ, ヲ, ン (wa, wo, n)
Commit the symbols to memory. Katakana has a few symbols that are similar to hiragana. Making these connections (as in き and キ) will help you to learn katakana more quickly. You may want to isolate and practice easily confused katakana symbols, as a few look very similar to the untrained eye. Some katakana symbols you may want to practice include:
- シ (shi) and ツ (tsu)
- ソ (so) and ン (n)
- フ (fu), ワ (wa), and ヲ (wo)
Practice reading regularly. Since katakana occurs less frequently than hiragana, some students give it less priority or learn it incompletely. This, however, will only hurt your ability to read in the long run. The more you read katakana, the easier it will become.
- Since many students struggle with katakana, there are plenty of reading resources online. A general online keyword search for "katakana reading practice" should help you find suitable practice reading material.
Select high frequency kanji. Many kanji books teach the most frequently occurring kanji first. You're more likely to see common kanji, so it's not only more useful to study these first, but it will also help you to remember them better, as you'll see them more often when reading. If you don't have or can't afford such a book, in that case:
- Search for a kanji frequency list online with the general keyword search, "list of most frequent kanji" or "list of most common kanji."
Break your list into groups. Trying to learn the 100 most common kanji all at once will make learning more difficult. Breaking that number down into smaller, more manageable chunks will help you to learn kanji more completely and quickly. You'll have to experiment to find what works best for you, but you might start by learning 5 to 10 kanji at a time.
- You might also break up your list according to word type. For example, you might group all kanji that are used in verbs together, group food related kanji together, and so on.
Look up kanji details. Look up each of the kanji you are studying in an online Japanese dictionary. You can do this by copying the symbol from your list and pasting it into the word input box on the dictionary home page. You may have to select a "kanji" option for the text input box, first. This will bring up the dictionary page for the kanji, which should include:
- Stroke order. The order in which you draw kanji can influence its appearance. To prevent confusion, stroke order is always consistent.
- On-yomi. Is the reading of a kanji used when there is no hiragana added to it. On-yomi reading kanji are often made up of several kanji working together, which are called kanji compound words (as in 地下鉄 / chikatetsu / subway).
- Kun-yomi. This reading is used when hiragana has been added to kanji (as in 食べます / tabemasu / to eat) and is also used for words of Japanese origin.
Memorize the readings of kanji and common compounds. Along with the stroke order, On-yomi, and Kun-yomi, there should also be a list of common compounds on the dictionary page for your kanji. These will not only help build your vocabulary, but will also help you learn the kanji itself.
- You may want to write out useful compounds in a notebook and review these regularly, like every morning and evening.
- Kanji carries a lot of information. For this reason, you may want to make and use flash cards to help learn the kanji shape, On-yomi, Kun-yomi, and compounds.
- There are free-to-use kanji learning programs available for your computer or phone. These operate like flashcards, but many track your progress so you can isolate troublesome kanji.
Make use of radicals. Radicals are commonly occurring symbols contained in a kanji, and these can often help you understand words you don't understand. For example, in the word 詩 (shi / poetry, poem) you have the main radical 言, which means "speech." Even if you didn't know the symbol 詩, by seeing the radical for "speech," you could guess that the word is language related and may even be able to figure it out with context. Some common radicals include:
- ⼈ / ⺅: person, people
- ⼊: to enter
- ⼑ / ⺉: knife, sword
- ⼖: to hide or conceal
- ⼝ : mouth, aperture, entrance, exit
- ⼟: earth
- 日: sun
- 月: moon
- ⼠: man, scholar, samurai
- ⼤: large or big
- ⼥: woman
- ⼦: child, son
Make connections to interpret meaning. Even if you don't know how to read a kanji or kanji compound, you can still understand it. For example, if you know the kanji for sugar (糖), urine (尿), and sickness (病), although you might not know how to pronounce the word, you could deduce that 糖尿病 means "diabetes." Diabetes is a disease where the body can't process sugar, which makes people sick and causes the sugar to pass out their body in urine. Some other examples of useful connections:
- 地下鉄 • chikatetsu • kanji meaning: earth + below + iron • English: subway
- 水球 • suikyuu • kanji meaning: water + ball • English: water polo
- 地理 • chiri • kanji meaning: earth + logic/arrangement • English: geography
- 数学 • suugaku • kanji meaning: number/law/figure + study • English: mathematics
Read and practice kanji frequently. Even some native Japanese struggle sometimes with uncommon kanji. Give yourself plenty of time to learn these symbols, and add new ones to you list as you master them. In the nine years of education required for children by the Japanese government, approximately 2,000 kanji are taught.
- You can practice reading with Japanese newspapers and online publications that use kanji.
- For beginning kanji learners, you may want to read text that includes furigana, which are small hiragana letters over the kanji that assist with reading.
- Although most native Japanese learn 2,000 kanji during primary and secondary school, general literacy for Japanese of often set at about 1,000 to 1,200 kanji.
- This may seem like a big number, but many kanji and radicals repeat or combine to create new words. This means that after the first 500, you'll start to see patterns and similarities tha make reading these symbols easier.
- Most beginning learners first start with Romaji, then learn hiragana, then katakana, and finally learn kanji. This order of learning may help you learn to read Japanese the most quickly.
- Hiragana is generally used for Japanese words, so it is especially useful when first learning to read Japanese.
- Particles are always written in hiragana, unless you are writing in Romaji. In Romaji, particles are written as they would sound expressed in English script (i.e., は → wa, へ → e)
- Katakana is generally used for foreign terms, sound words (onomatopoeia), and emphasis. Due to this, katakana is used less frequently than hiragana, though both are still used regularly when reading.
- In some cases, katakana is used to mark peculiar speech, like that of an alien or robot.