About Learning to Read the Japanese Alphabet

The name of the basic Japanese alphabet is hiragana.  If you want to learn to read it, It will take only a little study.  My teacher emphasized that when I wrote hiragana, there is a stroke order.  She said if you learn the stroke order, and then you write the letter fast, it is still readable.  If you don’t learn the stroke order and write the letter fast, you will mess it up, and no one can read it.  My teacher gave us flash cards with each letter on them, and she told us the pronunciation in class, and we wrote the pronunciation on the back.  We took the cards home and tried to memorize them for several days.  After that, we had to learn to write them.  She gave us several sentences written in hiragana, and we were to copy the sentences saying them out loud as we copied. It is not too complicated just to learn to read the basic alphabet, but there is more to reading Japanese than reading hiragana.

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Each hiragana can’t be compared to an English letter.  There are five vowel sounds.  Except for the letters that are just vowel sounds and the letter that is pronounced like “ng,” each Japanese letter has a consonant and a vowel sound within the letter.  Usually the consonant sound can be compared to a sound in English, but sometimes it can’t. The Japanese are famous for their mixing up of “l” and “r” in English, and that is because they only have one sound that is somewhere between “l” and “r” in Japanese.

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Many Americans speak Spanish, and the pronunciation of the vowels in Japanese is equivalent to the pronunciation of the Spanish vowels.///// Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Japanese hiragana usually comes in groups of five letters when you say the alphabet. However, when you say “ya, yu, yo” or “ng,” it is different. When they write the romanization of hiragana (meaning writing it in English letters), the vowel sounds don’t take the sound of an English letter, but a letter more like Portuguese because they got those letters from the Portuguese. Many Americans have studied Spanish, so for Americans, the vowel sounds are like Spanish. If you are Romanian, the vowel sounds ae like Romanian.  That means that “a” is pronounced like “a” in father.  The next sound, “i” is pronounced like the English “ee.”  After that “u” is pronounced like the “oe” part of the word “shoe.”  The next sound is “e,” and it is pronounced like a short “e” in English.  The last of these five sounds is “o,” and it is pronounced exactly like saying the letter “o” in English.

After you learn the vowel sounds, each of the groups of five letters come with a consonant sound, and the basic vowel sound after it.  In most of the groups, they carry the same constant sound. However, in a couple of the groups, there is a different letter.  Most of the letter “t” sound is pronounced “t,” but one  is a “chi” and another is “tsu.”  When you say the “s” sounds, most of them are “s” except the one with “i” after it, and it becomes “shi,” pronounced like the English word “she.”

After you learn the sounds of the basic groups, there is a bit more.  If you see a small zero written in the corner on the right side of the letter, the consonant vowel changes.  If you see a mark like this: (“), the quotation mark, then the consonant vowel changes again. They do things like the “h” sound becomes “b” or “p” or the “t” sound becomes “d.”   If you see a small “tsu” between two letters, then you don’t pronounce it as a “tsu.”  The small “tsu” there means that the next consonant letter is doubled, and pronounced harder.

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After you learn to pronounce all the sounds and the stroke order, it is not so difficult to learn to read a Japanese word out loud that is written in hiragana.  You don’t read it like English. English is actually really complicated to learn to read because we have the letter names and the letter sounds, and we have lots of combinations of letters that when used together, they sound differently.  Reading in English is simply a difficult task everyone has to work at. However, after you learn the names of the letters in Japanese, a Japanese word is not as complicated to learn to read as English.  You simple say the letters you see, and you have a word. It won’t take lots of reading lessons like it does for our children when they try to learn to read English.  Basic reading is just not that complicated if you only want to learn to read hiragana.

However, the complicated thing happens when you realize that if you only read hiragana, then you can’t read the signs or the newspapers.  You can read the children’s books, as long as you stay to the easiest ones without katakana or kanji . You can know how Japanese is supposed to be pronounced without a problem, but you can’t read on an adult level.  The next alphabet you will need to master is the katakana. It has the same sounds as hiragana, so that makes it easier. However, it is not used as often as the hirgana, so it is easy for foreigners to forget.  The hard thing is, it is the one they emphasize that foreigners really must know. The reason is because all the foreign words are written in katakana, not in hiragana nor in kanji, the Chinese characters or pictographs.  However, the word you are trying to read in katakana may have come from English, but it may also have come from some other language you don’t know, so don’t be fooled thinking you will know every word written in katakana.

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The hardest part about trying to learn to read Japanese is the Chinese characters they use.  They are not letters.  They are pictures with a meaning.  If you go to any other country that uses these characters and you know them, you can understand the meaning even if you don’t speak that language.  In Japanese, they are pronounced one way. In Chinese, they are pronounced another way, and in Korean still another way, but the meanings are the same.

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The Japanese children struggle all the time they are growing up with the kanji, the Chinese characters.  While our children have already learned to read in English, the Japanese children are still having to master more and more of these kanji. They give them periodic tests to see what level they are on in kanji throughout their school years. If you want to learn to read kanji, just get ready to invest a lot of time.

The kanji I have studied actually make sense. When they tell you the meaning, often the picture looks like the meaning, but not every time.  Here are some examples of the pictures looking like the meaning:  The kanji for “person” has two legs.  The kanji for “woman” has a roof over her head protecting her.  The kanji for “tree” has a trunk and branches, and the kanji for “root” or “book” looks like the kanji for tree, but has a small line where the roots would be.  The kanji for “river” is a set of parallel lines that in the beginning, were squiggly lines side by side that actually looked like a river, but they have straightened them out with time. When you see the kanji for “rain”, you can see the raindrops.  When you see the kanji for “fish,” you can also see drops of water. The kanji for the numbers begin by making a lot of sense. The kanji for “one” is just a simple line like a dash.  The kanji for “two” is just two lines. The kanji for “three” is three lines. However, they get more complicated after that. As you get into the more complicated kanji, often they are a combination of the less complicated kanji.  An example would be the one for “woman” where she has a roof over her head protecting her. Another example would be one that has the kanji for man leaning on another kanji.  As a foreigner, I don’t know as much kanji as I would like, but those foreigners who have been in Japan for man years and just keep studying know many more than I know. My point is that kanji makes sense. It is not just a bunch of random pictures, but sometimes, that is how they seem.

I have learned from the Japanese that even they don’t know all the kanji on the signs.  They say that they learn all the kanji on the signs in the place where they live, but if they go to another part of Japan, they would have to learn another group of kanji to read the signs in that area.  There are different dialects from one place to the other in Japan that are more different than the accents we find in English.  In English, we just elongate a vowel or occasionally use a word that isn’t used in another place they speak English or drop an “h” or something like that, but in different areas of Japan, it is even worse.  My Japanese son in law is from Okinawa, and he went to Tokyo to study Tokyo ben.  “Ben” is the dialect.  He wanted to be understood no matter where he traveled in Japan. Tokyo ben is considered the standard Japanese, and every Japanese needs to learn to understand it if they want to talk to people in other areas of Japan.  That is the Japanese they teach the foreigners. The kanji is just as complicated. They use different kanji in every area of Japan.

The nice thing is that you can find books that have kanji in them, but beside them in very small hiragana is written the pronunciation of the kanji. If you know that hiragana and know the word, you can read that book without knowing kanji.  However, the Japanese like the kanji because many words are pronounced the same, but have different meanings. The kanji differentiates the meanings for them.  It also makes Japanese a very difficult language to learn to read on an adult level.

This Japanese text is written from top to bottom, from right to left.  If you look at the larger letters, they are the kanji.  If you look next to them there are smaller letters. Those are the hiragana pronunciations.  Start at the left and count over six lines.  Go up slightly from the bottom, and you see a kanji that looks similar to a big “X.”  That kanji means “father.”  If you look next to it, it has the pronunciation “chi chi.”  That is one way of saying “father” in Japanese. It is what you call your own father.  However, if it is someone else’s father, the pronunciation  of “father” is “oto-osan.”  You can see how things could get confusing if they don’t do what they do with their language.  This is actually the opposite direction of what I described.  However, they need the kanji and the hiragana to actually sort it all out properly. If you look about 12 lines over from the left, and then up a little, you will see a larger letter, a kanji, that looks like and upside down “T” with a mark on the side of it.  That actually carries the meaning of “up” or “on” and if it has that meaning, often the pronunciation is “ue”(oo-ay).  However, it has another pronunciation written by it here. When I enlarged the picture I took, the pronunciation is “a” like the “a” in “father.”  They need all the letters to make sense of Japanese. That kanji that usually means “up” or “on”  that looks like an upside down “T” with a mark on the side of it has a counter part.  It is a kanji that actually looks like a “T” with a mark on the side of it, but right side up.  It means “under” or “down.”  However, “under” in Japanese is “shita,” and often that kanji holds another pronunciation, and when you see it in a verb, it is part of making the verb a request form.  Maybe you are getting the idea of why they consider these kanji important. To request in Japanese, you say ” –te kudasai” or “shinasai.”  I don’t see the pronunciation of “shita” which is what my Japanese teacher taught me as the pronunciation and meaning of that kanji, anywhere there.  


After all this, Japanese can be written any direction they choose.  You can write from left to right like English. You can write from right to left like Arabic.  You can also write from top to bottom, but you can’t write from bottom to top. One of the problems with learning Japanese for foreigners is that too often the kanji is emphasized.  If you are a foreigner and don’t plan on spending your life in Japan, the kanji is fun, but it won’t teach you to speak Japanese. Learn the hiragana, and then the katakana.  Learn to speak. It isn’t that difficult to learn to speak Japanese even though you might think it is. Japanese conversation is not that complicated and the Japanese people are very friendly and like to speak in Japanese rather than English.  Only study the kanji if you plan on spending a long time in Japan.  It is okay not to read all the signs as long as you can ask questions.  That is how I get around in Japan. I don’t read as many kanji as I would like, but it is okay because I can ask questions.  I spend a lot of time asking directions when I am in Japan and get around just fine.  The Japanese don’t mind giving directions, and they like foreigners who speak Japanese. Don’t get bogged down in the kanji.  If you are interested in learning, Japanese, have fun!



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