Beginners Guide to Learning Japanese: The Kana

If you're interested in learning Japanese, but not sure where to start, this is the guide for you! 

I've decided to start a series that can give you the building blocks to starting out in Japanese! In this post, I'll be breaking up the basics of starting to learn how to read and write Japanese. This is absolutely imperative and should be the first thing you attempt when beginning your Japanese learning journey.

The first step is to gather practice materials. 

You will need:

- A pen or pencil. I recommend a pencil because you'll make a lot of mistakes when you're learning how to write.

- A designated Japanese notebook. Not only will it help you document your progress, but you can physically see your improvement with writing. I highly recommend you use a notebook to learn and NOT your computer. Manually writing will help you remember the kana better.


- A printable Hiragana/ Katakana chart. You can download my FREE Hiragana and Katakana printables by clicking the boxes below!! Blue is Katakana, Pink is Hiragana!

The second step is to start learning the alphabet(s). 

Japanese has 3 main alphabets, with an additional romanized form of the alphabet. Romaji is how we would spell Japanese words in Roman letters, however, I strongly advise against using romaji in any capacity.  Romaji it doesn't help you understand the meaning of what you're writing. For example, the word 'ame' can mean rain, but it can also mean candy. Without some form of Kanji to help you, you cannot distinguish the meaning of this word using just Romaji.  

A good example of how quickly you should lose romaji starts with the popular Japanese textbook: Genki. Genki 1 uses Romaji for the first chapter of the textbook however by the second chapter all romaji is erased and replaced with Hiragana. In this same fashion, I highly advise that romaji be the first thing that you drop during your Japanese language learning studies. 

Learning the Kana (Hiragana and Katakana) is going to be the most important first step you take in learning Japanese. 

You may be asking: What do Hiragana and Katakana look like? 

This is a good place to whip out your Hiragana and Katakana charts! 

Hiragana (ひらがな) is used to write words that are of Japanese origin. 

Examples of Hiragana:

                 きもの       もり        みず          たてもの        しあわせ                でんわ             みせ

Katakana (カタカナ) is used to write loan words, which are words derived from other languages and input into Japanese.

Examples of Katakana: 

                  コーヒー            ノート          パン            ソファ ファッション             ジュース

From looking at these words, we can see some aesthetic differences that help us distinguish them. Hiragana tends to be more rounded, while Katakana has sharper lines.

When writing the different Kana, there is a general stroke order you should obey. It may seem difficult to understand at first, but as you write this stroke order will start to feel natural. Stroke order goes by the universal rule of, start from the top and work your way down to the bottom. Then, move from left to right.

Here is a diagram that breaks it down visually!

Hiragana あ - Japanese character stroke order animation - YouTube

Hiragana 'A'

Katakana ア - Japanese character stroke order animation - YouTube

Katakana 'A'

If you're wondering how to read the kana, each character represents a sound, usually one where a consonant is followed by a vowel. Let's break down some of the words you saw previously! Words are basically 'built' this way!

きもの --> kimono --> (ki)(mo)(no)

コーヒー --> kouhii --> (ko)(this line signifies the extension of the same sound. This is exclusive to Katakana)(hi)(extend the i sound from hi)

You may be wondering: How should I study Kana?

There are a few tried and true methods of learning Kana. 

Written Repetition

This worked for me but can be monotonous for some. Essentially, this method involves copying a list of Hiragana various times on paper until you've mastered writing, effectively engraining the kana in your memory as well. This is a popular method used to teach children Kana. Children are given a kana writing notebook, which has boxes in which they can freely practice their writing. This kind of paper is called げんこうようし. 

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SRS (Flashcard) Based Learning

This is a common approach taken by people who learn Japanese later in life. Flashcards can be reviewed at any time, and using a program such as Memrise or Anki, you can space out when you see certain cards, to maximize long-term retention. The only issue with this method is that this doesn't teach you how to write the kana by hand!

The Heisig Method

The Heisig Method is created by the James Heisig, the writer of the series Remembering the Kana/ Remembering the Kanji. It's a very well known method, in which the reader creates a story around the Kanji that helps with memorization. Some stories can be simple, while some can be fun and elaborate. For example, one can say the letter の looks like an eye looking at the side, essentially staring at nothing. This kind of story association is a unique way to learn and doesn't work for everyone, but there are some who swear by this method!

You may be thinking: How long does it take to learn the Kana?

I would say it would take a solid month for a medium speed learner to completely master both Hiragana and Katakana! However, this is a very flexible estimate. I know people who've taken a month to learn Hiragana alone, or learned both Kana in a week. It's all about how fast you learn and how much time you put into it. 

Don't try to rush through kana because you're afraid you'll seem too slow, take your time and study hard! Kana is the foundation of your Japanese, so everything from here on out is more practice!

I hope you enjoyed this first part of my Guide to Learning Japanese series! I'll be making more of these in the future, so please comment some things you'd like to see in the next installment! You can find all Japanese language related posts in the 'Japanese Learning' Category of my blog.