Japanese for Beginners: A Quick Guide for New Students

In this article, we will give you a brief introduction to one of the most challenging languages in the world to learn: Japanese.

The language has attracted more interest in the last decade, thanks to all the available Japanese cartoons on Netflix and Amazon Prime, making it very popular among teenagers. What makes it challenging?

1. Japanese characters

In America and most European countries, you can translate the spoken language into a written language by putting special characters on paper.

These characters are better known as letters, and they all belong to an alphabet like the Latin alphabet and other alphabets such as the Cyrillic, Greek, Arab, etc.

What makes the Japanese writing system different from the American or European is the use of syllables as written characters.

For example, when in English you say ka, we use two characters/letters, namely k and a. The Japanese language uses only one character for both letters: か. This character is part of the Japanese 'Hiragana' alphabet.

2. Japanese alphabets

Now you know about Japanese characters, we tell you that the Japanese language has two different alphabets. We already mentioned 'Hiragana,' the second one is called 'Katakana.'

Regarding their shape, the Hiragana characters are more curly, while the Katakana characters are more block-ish. For example, compare the ka syllable in Hiragana (か) and Katakana (カ).

Japanese and words coming from the Chinese language mainly use the Hiragana alphabet, while non-typical Japanese words use Katakana.

3. Kanji

Next to Hiragana and Katakana, the Japanese language uses Chinese characters called Kanji 漢字. Kanji means characters (Ji) of the Han (Kan) Chinese people.

For a long time, Japan did not have a written language. Around 400 AD, due to close contact with China, the Japanese people started to adopt Chinese characters.

The Chinese language has around 50,000 Kanji characters. The Japanese language only uses about 2136 of them. Kanji is combined with Hiragana when conjugating verbs.

4. Onyomi and Kunyomi

All Kanji characters have Chinese (Onyomi) and Japanese (Kunyomi) pronunciations.

For example, the Kunyomi version of water is 'Mizu,' and the Onyomi version is 'Sui.'

Most of the time stand-alone words are pronounced the Kunyomi way while combined words are pronounced the Onyomi way.

5. Romaji

Romaji means Roman characters and is used to translate Japanese characters and Kanji into the Roman alphabet.

Traffic signs use Romaji characters below the Japanese characters. Romaji is also used in schools to help Japanese children learn English.