Basic Japanese: Hiragana & Katakana – What you need to know about Japan’s two alphabets!

Basic Japanese: Hiragana & Katakana – What you need to know about Japan’s two alphabets!

One of the first few things you’d notice about the Japanese language when you start learning it is the various alphabets. I mean, who wouldn’t? In English, we only have one. In Japanese, there are two! Not to mention kanji! Those who know this and still are motivated to learn are the strong-hearted ones!

Whether or not you already know the alphabets, have you ever questioned why there are two of them? I guess you have, if not, you wouldn’t be here! We’re here to clear your doubts and answer some of your questions regarding the matter. Read on for clarifications on hiragana, katakana, and their usages!

What is hiragana? 

Hiragana (ひらがな) is one of the two phonetic lettering system in the Japanese language. The word actually translates to mean “ordinary” or “simple”. Originally, hiragana was called 女手 (おんなで), and women were the main group of people using it. 

Back in the late Nara to early Heian period, around the 8th century, the ancient writing system 万葉仮名 (まんようがな) was used for unofficial texts, written in the cursive style of 草書体 (そうしょうたい). The women in the imperial courts developed hiragana because it was easier to use compared to the Chinese characters. Back in the day, only men were allowed to be educated in reading and writing kanji. These kanji are more picture-words than phonetic, which is why hiragana is created as it’s easier to read and write. Over time, men started using it too.

Officially, the Chinese characters were still used, and hiragana was used among non-governmental organizations and commoners, in poems and short stories. From the 16th century onwards, hiragana started to be called 平仮名 (ひらがな) – the kanji used 平 actually takes the meaning of “simplicity” or”general use”.

What is katakana?

The other Japanese alphabet, katakana (片仮名 or カタカナ), also originated from the 万葉仮名 (まんようがな) writing system. Instead of women creating the alphabet, the Buddhist monks were the ones that came to use this alphabet. It wasn’t also used separately from Chinese characters, but together with them. 

The Buddhist monks created katakana to be able to read difficult Buddhist scriptures. It’s used as a form of annotation as a supplement to kanji characters. Over time, katakana was used for official documents and for scholars. 

Katakana was often used by men, so it was sometimes referred to as 男手 (おとこで) to contrast with hiragana, as it was often used by women. 

The 片 kanji in the name of hiragana means “pieces” as the writing system took parts of the Chinese characters to make them. It was also implied that katakana was going to be only temporary, as it was a supplement of the Chinese characters, but now remained to write words of foreign origin. While there were a few variations of katakana, it was standardised in the 1900s. 

Why are there two alphabets in the Japanese language?

Now we’re going on to the big question: why is there still a need for two alphabets in the Japanese language? You might’ve guessed it already from the backstory of each writing system. The two alphabets were created for different purposes. Hiragana was used as a common language and separate from official writing. Katakana was a supplement to official writing. 

Sometimes, both writing systems were used. A text in 897 called 周易抄 (しゅうえき) used both hiragana and katakana – hiragana was used for annotation to do with meaning and more often used for poetry and letters, and katakana was used by scholars to aid with kanji. 

Nowadays, hiragana is used for grammatical purposes like particles. It’s also sometimes still used for phonetic reasons to sound out really difficult kanji characters. Onomatopoeias are written in hiragana too. 

Katakana, as we mentioned earlier, is used to represent new words that were imported from foreign languages. Even though they have the same sounds as hiragana, because there’s no kanji characters for foreign words, they’re written in katakana instead. 

What about kanji?

We speak a lot of kanji throughout the article, it raises the question: why is it still used in the Japanese language? Kanji is the oldest writing system from China. It’s a picture-based system that’s made up from logograms. That means they are characters that represent whole words.

Kanji is the first writing system used in Japan, introduced in the 4th to 5th century. Japan had a spoken language, but not a writing system to go along with it. The Japanese then took the kanji writing system and matched each character word with the same pronunciation in their spoken language. 

Sometimes, the original lChinese pronunciation is still used today, which is why we have onyomi (音読み), the Chinese way, and kunyomi (訓読み), the Japanese way, now. 

For example, the kanji for “mountain” is 山. In Japanese, this is pronounced as “やま”, but the Chinese pronunciation is “さん”. Both pronunciations are still used today, which is why Mt. Fuji is called both “Fuji-Yama” and “Fuji’san”.

Nowadays, all three writing systems are used together. Sometimes, you can see all of them in a single sentence. This is for readability reasons. Kanji characters create natural breaks in a sentence because they’re easier for the reader to separate nouns and verbs. A full sentence in hiragana is like an English sentence without spacing. Katakana is for foreign loan words, and it’s similar to our italics in English. 

Use all three writing systems in Japanese!

There’s always a way to simplify them even more, but the Japanese people are pretty content with using all three writing systems. And who are we to tell them not to? When in Rome, as they say. After all, once you get the hang of it, reading Japanese in their two alphabets plus kanji is not difficult at all!

Basic Japanese: What You Need to Know!

Basic Japanese: What You Need to Know!

When learning a new language, starting out can be the hardest part. The Japanese language is no exception. It can be quite difficult to take that first step. But don’t worry, basic Japanese isn’t that hard to conquer! There is so much information on the net, it can be overwhelming. We’re here to break it down for you. There are only 3 parts that you need to know about basic Japanese: learning basic phrases, learning the Japanese alphabet, and learning basic Japanese grammar!

Keep on reading for a comprehensive guide on how to jump into learning basic Japanese!

Learn Basic Phrases

The first step you have to do is to learn the basic phrases. Even those who aren’t learning Japanese know the basic “konnichiwa” (こんにちは) and “sayonara” (さようなら). But there are tons of other basic phrases that are used on a daily basis.

To get you started, we’ve listed out a few of the ones that are daily usages in Japan. 

Onegaishimasu (お願いします)

This Japanese phrase is one of the most useful one. In our podcast series, Season 1 Episode 1, we introduced this phrase as one of the most essential Japanese phrases to know. It’s so flexible and can be used in any situation.

“Onegaishimasu” can be translated to “please” and it’s used when making a request. For example, if you’re at a konbini (コンビニ) and the cashier asks if you would like a plastic bag, you can respond with “hai, onegaishimasu” (はい、お願いします). This means “yes, please”.

Arigatou gozaimasu (ありがとうございます)

This next phrase is one you definitely will use every day. “Arigatou gozaimasu” (ありがとうございます) translates to “thank you very much”. Just like in English, it’s such a common phrase to say to service staff when you’re out and about shopping, ordering food or paying for something. 

You can also shorten this phrase to just “arigatou” (ありがとう), which is equivalent to the English short form, “thanks”. 

There’s also another word that can be translated to “thanks”, and that’s “doumo” (どうも).

Sumimasen (すみません)

You might find yourself caught on a busy train and want to get out, or trying to get the attention of the waiter. In English, we would use the phrase “excuse me”. That’s “sumimasen” (すみません) in Japanese. You can use this just as you would in English. This is a pretty handy phrase to know, since you’ll definitely be using it during your time in Japan.

“Sumimasen” can also be used to apologise, but a better word for “sorry” is “gomennasai” (ごめんなさい).

Sou desu (そうです)

Up your Japanese language game by learning “sou desu” (そうです). This means “yes” or “that’s right”. While you can use “hai” (はい), this is a more conversational and colloquial language. While talking to people who you’re familiar with, you can drop the “desu” (です) and just say “sou” (そう).

Chigaimasu (違います)

We might find ourselves in a situation where something’s different from what you expected. You might have a waiter serving you a different dish from what you ordered. In this kind of situation, you can use the phrase “chigaimasu” (違います), which means “it’s different”. This comes from the verb word “chigau” (違う), which means “to vary” or “to differ”. You can also use this phrase to talk about things that are different, like varying opinions.

Another phrase that’s similar to this is “machigatteimasu” (間違っています). This means “this is wrong”. 

Daijoubu (大丈夫)

Another phrase that we introduced in the first episode of our podcast series is “daijoubu” (大丈夫). This phrase is quite versatile and can be used in a lot of various situations. One is to say no by saying “it’s okay”. If you don’t want a plastic bag when you’re at the supermarket, you can use “daijoubu”.

This phrase can also mean “I’m okay”, as a response of “are you okay?” If you want to know more in detail about this extremely versatile phrase, check our podcast episode!

~ wa doko desu ka? (〜はどこですか?)

This phrase is one we find the most useful. Especially if you’re not good with directions or not familiar with the place, you might find yourself lost. Or if you’re just looking for the toilet in a restaurant. Approach a staff member and ask “where is the toilet” by saying “toire wa doko desu ka” (トイレはどこですか?). The phrase “wa doko desu ka” translates to “where is”. Just add the place you’re looking for before the phrase!

Learn Japanese Alphabet

One of the first few steps you need to take to master basic Japanese is to learn the Japanese alphabet. While there’s romaji (ロマジ), which is writing out Japanese words in the Roman alphabet, it won’t benefit you in the long run. We highly recommend learning all three: hiragana (ひらがな), katakana (カタカナ) and kanji (漢字).

Hiragana has 46 syllabic written characters and they’re used to form sentences, along with kanji characters. Katakana also has 46 syllabic written characters but they are used to write out words from other languages. Kanji are Chinese characters that symbolise the meaning of things in just one character.

Many might struggle with kanji, but it’s best to at least recognise common characters like “入口” to mean entrance and “出口” to mean exit. Another important pair is “女” for women and “男” for men. This will get rid of any confusion with the toilet doors! 

Learn Basic Japanese Grammar

Last but not least, learn the basic Japanese grammar. Think about the reason why you’re learning Japanese. Do you want to be able to survive day-to-day interactions, communicate with locals or for work? But regardless of the reason, you have to start somewhere.

The most basic Japanese grammar point is the sentence structure, which is usually subject-object-verb. For example, to say “I eat ramen”, it has to switch to “I ramen eat”. In Japanese, that’s “watashi ha ramen wo tabemasu” (私はラーメンを食べます). 

The particle ha (は) indicates subject and the particle wo (を) indicates object. 

If there’s no action in your sentence, drop the verb. For example, to say “this is a book”, it’s said as “kore ha hon desu” (これは本です).

Simple, right?

Let’s Master Basic Japanese!

As you can see, basic Japanese isn’t so hard once you actually get into learning it! If you follow our three steps to starting basic Japanese, you’ll have a solid foundation to build the more advanced Japanese learning on. Get studying, and good luck!