1| The Alphabet

The Japanese alphabet is a simple system, however it can look daunting at first. The alphabet is made up of characters referred to as kana. These kana symbols each represent a different sound. And within the kana, there are three parts;

There is hiragana, which are the symbols used to spell words that are traditionally Japanese.
There is katakana, which are used to spell words borrowed from foreign countries, such as brand names or names of people.
And there is kanji, a Japanese system of writing based on borrowed or slightly modified Chinese characters. These characters are not necessarily used as letters to make up a word, but single symbols used to represent the word (for example, ‘fire’ in kanji is . This is pronounced kasai and can also be spelled using the hiragana system).

There is also something called romaji. Romaji is the English representation of Japanese words, to show how to pronounce the word. For example;
English:     fire
Hiragana:  か さ い
Romaji:      kasai
The excellent thing about the Japanese language is that it is phonetic, which means it is pronounced exactly as it is spelled.  Both hiragana and katakana work off the 5 vowels:
a   i  u  e  o.
The ‘a’ is pronounced like the ‘a’ in father.
The ‘i’ is pronounced like the ‘i’ in intern. 
The ‘u’ is pronounced like the ‘u’ in udon noodles. 
The ‘e’ is pronounced like the ‘e’ in everything. 
The ‘o’ is pronounced like the ‘o’ in opera. 

Hiragana

a ka sa ta na
i ki shi chi ni
u ku su tsu nu
e ke se te ne
o ko so to no
ha ma ya ra wa
hi mi   ri  
fu mu yu ru n
he me   re  
ho mo yo ro wo

Katakana

a ka sa ta na
i ki shi chi ni
u ku su tsu nu
e ke se te ne
o ko so to no
ha ma ya ra wa
hi mi   ri  
fu mu yu ru n
he me   re  
ho mo yo ro wo

There are other characters (I know, even more!). The following characters are considered almost new additions to the alphabet system, to accommodate for languages other than Japanese (for instance, have you noticed there is no ‘L’ sound in the alphabet?). They are created in two ways. One; by using the current characters and combining two of them to create new sounds.  Two; by either  adding  ”  or  °  to the character. Notice the way option one and two have been done in the following tables.

Hiragana

ga za da ba pa
gi ji ji bi pi
gu zu zu bu pu
ge ze de be pe
go zo do bo po
kya きゃ sha しゃ cha ちゃ hya ひゃ pya ぴゃ
kyu きゅ shu しゅ chu ちゅ hyu ひゅ pyu ぴゅ
kyo きょ sho しょ cho ちょ hyo ひょ pyo ぴょ
gya ぎゃ ja じゃ nya にゃ bya びゃ mya みゃ
gya ぎゅ ju じゅ nyu にゅ byu びゅ my みゅ
gyo ぎょ jo じょ nyo にょ byo びょ myo みょ
rya りゃ ryu りゅ ryu りょ ja ぢゃ ju ぢゅ

Katakana

ga za da ba pa
gi ji ji bi pi
gu zu zu bu pu
ge ze de be pe
go zo do bo po
kya キャ sha シャ cha チャ hya ヒャ pya ピャ
kyu キュ shu シュ chu チュ hyu ヒュ pyu ピュ
kyo キョ sho ショ cho チョ hyo ヒョ pyo ピョ
gya ギャ ja ジャ nya ニャ bya ビャ mya ミャ
gya ギュ ju ジュ nyu ニュ byu ビュ my ミュ
gyo ギョ jo ジョ nyo ニョ byo ビョ myo ミョ
rya リャ ryu リュ ryu リョ ja ヂャ ju ヂュ

So there you have it! The characters are many and complicated for a beginner, but don’t stress! There are simple ways to memorize the symbols. For example, flash cards! Create your own, or you can purchase some inexpensive ones here.

Another great way to remember is to make up rhymes or pictures to go along with each kana;

Click on image to enlarge

kana memory game | via Shiki Book Japan

Pictorial help for learning kana

For simple phrases and lists of handy words to know, look under the “Learn Japanese” menu.

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