Which Japanese Alphabet Should You Learn First? A Beginner’s Guide

While there are 3 major alphabets in Japanese, Hiragana is the most standard and widely used alphabet that binds the grammar of Japanese together. If you are just starting to learn Japanese characters and are wondering where to begin, you should learn Hiragana first.

How to get started learning Hiragana

The first thing I would recommend you do right now is purchase a beginner Japanese textbook called Genki 1. Trust me, its worth your time and money.

GENKI I: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese (English and Japanese Edition)

This is the Japanese textbook I started with myself, and there are a number of specific reasons why I always recommend this to beginners, and why I would especially recommend Genki to people who want to learn how to read and write in Japanese. First of all, you have both Hiragana and Katakana alphabets laid out for you on pages 1 and 2.

These charts are easy to access, simple to understand, and more importantly, will save you time, which is a very precious commodity when you’re trying to learn a language with 1000’s of characters. Second, this textbook begins by offering you Japanese texts in English characters (Romaji in Japanese), and then gradually slips in extra Hiragana, Katakana, and eventually some simple Kanji into the texts. I think that the slow increase in difficulty this textbook offers helps to ween you off of using English characters as a crutch at a rate that I found challenging, but not discouraging.

Should I learn Hiragana and Katakana at the same time?

I believe that you should first learn hiragana, then speed-memorize katakana (because they possess a lot of similarities), and then slowly build up your knowledge of Kanji characters. This book also contains a really helpful section in the back that outlines around 100 of the most basic Kanji characters, their meanings, and the order in which to write them, so it supports that pace really well. At least it did for me.

Finally, the book is pretty funny in an unintentional way, and can provide you with a slice of Japanese culture that I haven’t seen portrayed as well in too many other textbooks.

You will learn a LOT from genki 1…

The book feels fundamentally Japanese, so I think its a great introduction to the language, culture, and overall experience of being in that kind of Japanese-influenced atmosphere.

I made another post about Japanese textbooks that I enjoyed using, if you are interested in learning more.

How many Hiragana characters are there?

There are 3 main alphabets in Japanese, those being Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana each contain 46 basic characters, or 71 including diacritics. They are the more simple ‘bread and butter’ texts that hold Japanese together. You can think of Hiragana and Katakana as brother and sister alphabets. In fact, historically speaking, the elegant and smooth curves of Hiragana were originally designed as a ‘female’ script, meaning that Hiragana at one time was literally an alphabet that was used primarily by women and was known as ‘women’s hand’ (女手) , while the rough and jagged edges of Katakana was used primarily by men. I say this because, in many ways, Hiragana and Katakana are pretty similar, so I recommend memorizing hiragana to an extent, and diving into Katakana immediately thereafter. Hiragana and Katakana are like two slightly different chiral versions of each other, so while you do technically need to memorize 142 separate characters, it’s more like memorizing slightly altered versions of the core 46 basic characters which some marks to denote variability in pronunciation. Essentially, it’s not quite as complicated as it initially looks. Let me walk you through it.

How to memorize the Hiragana and Katakana alphabets

While there is some merit to methods like using flashcard or organizational apps and software such as Anki, my advice is to write. Write, write, write. Write like your life depends on it. Did you see a new word or phrase in your handy new Genki 1 textbook that you happen to love and cherish so much? Great! Write it down. Write. Write until your hand is cramped. Write until people in Japanese stop saying ‘sugoi!’ every 5 seconds on Japanese TV, write until those pigs fly right over your little house that you, the reader, are snug-up inside of writing kanji.

Seriously, there’s scientific basis to back this, and the best way to really learn hiragana and katakana (or anything for that matter) is to be an active learner, rather than a passive learner. The best way you ensure that you are becoming that ideal active learner is to just get out a piece of paper, turn to page 1 and 2 of your shiny Genki textbook, and go practice writing some characters. This may just be me, but I actually found it pretty therapeutic doing this kind of rudimentary practice over music or even over a podcast. It gives you something to do at all times, and keeps your mind connected to the language.

Maybe it isn’t a glamorous answer, but I think this is the reality of what you need to do. This will become especially important once you start learning kanji, because there’s… a lot more of them.

How many Kanji are there?

There are over 50,000 Kanji. I know, I know, but don’t panic. Actually, in modern Japanese, the average person nowadays knows roughly around 3000 kanji, with the ultra-elite knowing perhaps up to 5000.

See! You only need to know 3000 kanji characters. No reason to worry! Ha…hahaha…haha. 

Well, the thing is, I’m not going to lie to you. It is a LOT of work to memorize enough kanji to even be able to read at the level of junior high student. But…you won’t need to memorize 3000 new Kanji from scratch. Learning Kanji is really a process of first memorizing a much smaller number of root Kanji from scratch, and then combining these roots in specific ways to achieve more complex meaning.  Here are some examples:

this means ‘man’ in Japanese and is made up of two characters

田  (rice field) + 力 (power)  = 男

So you can see the very basics of how radicals may form to create more complex words. At some point however, this becomes less about memorizing the meaning of individual radicals, and more about solidifying these shapes into your mind. You may be able to pick apart a character like 男, but what about when you get to some more complicated concepts. For example…

無意識 (unconscious mind)

At this point it would be better to just memorize the common pairing of radicals, instead of each individual peace. 無 means none, empty, 意 means intent, attention, 識 means awareness, knowledge. Combined they create “Muishiki” 無意識 meaning unconsciousness. By the way, if you remove the 無 it becomes 意識 “ishiki” which means just consciousness. Once you get to a certain point in your Japanese ability, you will be able to start forming more complex groups of out smaller kanji, and then more complex phrases out of those more complex groups. It becomes exponentially easier and more complicated as you progress in your ability.

So why do you even need 3 alphabets?

The 3 alphabets in Japanese each serve a different grammatical and linguistic function, but they also feel fundamentally different from each other.

There is a great video by Japanese YouTuber That Japanese Man Yuta where he gets into the specific different nuances between Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. The main topic of the video is about why Kanji is necessary to Japanese, but he also talks about the different nuances Hiragana and Katakana have as well.

To simplify things, here is a really simplified guide on how the different alphabets feel to a Japanese speaker.

If you were to write a text only in Hiragana, it would look childish or innocent.

If you were to write a text only in Katakana, it would look more robotic or ‘calculated’

If you were to write a text only in Kanji, it would look more official or academic.

Things get really interesting when you start messing with this balance

It can be tempting to think things like ‘well, English only uses 26 characters. Why didn’t they just design Japanese like that? English is a more efficient language! But just like how English can achieve a unique nuance through different fonts (something comparatively lacking in Japanese because of the number of characters), or even through a writing style like cursive, The complexity of the Japanese language gives way to unique styles of communication that can’t be achieved in English. By mastering the nuances of these alphabets, you can open up your mind to new ways of thinking, and new perspectives on communication that you had never considered before. Another extremely valuable function of Kanji is to distinguish between the meaning of two different words on paper that have the same pronunciation. For example imagine I gave the following sentence fragment out of context…

“He is going to run again next month”

I could be talking about a marathon, or I could be talking about an election. Since “run” has the same spelling in regard to both of these meanings, there is no way to distinguish the overall meaning of this sentence without more context. If I were to write these two meanings in natural Japanese using Kanji, however, it would look like this.

彼は来月また選挙に出馬する = He will run again for office next month.

彼は来月また走る = He will run (as in participating in a marthon, etc.) again next month.

I have put the Kanji for ‘run’ in both situations in bold. So, you can see how Kanji not only changes the nuance of the sentence, it also serves this function.

As far as Hiragana and Katakana’s functions, for the sake of simplicity you can think of Hiragana as the ‘glue’ that holds the grammar of Japanese sentences together, and Katakana as a alphabet that is used primarily for foreign words, loan words from other languages, or new trends in Japan. I think Katakana is used somewhat similarly to English italics. Katakana can be used to draw attention to something, or to make it seem more novel or mysterious.

Now that you have some context, hopefully that all serves as some motivation. Let’s look at some more examples…

In the above CM (everyone in Japan calls commercials or ads “CM’s”), we have Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. The Katakana in this marketing slogan is being used in a pretty interesting way. I wrote the below.

飲んでカラダをバリアする。

It means something like “drink this and create a healthy barrier for your body.” They included an explanation at the bottom, so I think even the person who made this CM knew that it made little sense (lol).

They choose to write the word “Karada” カラダ (body) which would normally be written in Kanji, in Katakana to emphasize the word. It’s unusual to see it written in Katakana, so it really draws the reader’s eye in. They also used the English loan-word “barrier”, and since Katakana s used to write foreign concepts and loan words, it was written in Katakana.

You can see in this SONY CM as well that the word for music “ongaku” (オンガク) was written in Katakana to emphasize the word, even though it would typically be written using Kanji as 音楽。As you can see, this is a common marketing technique. I actually worked in marketing for a year in Japan, and once of the things I enjoyed about the job was observing the kind of linguistic strategies people would incorporate into their copy.

There are many cases where words commonly written in Hiragana will be written in Kanji, and vice-versa as well. These changes all influence the nuance of the sentence slightly, and give you so many new possibilities to change the way you write each sentence. It’s really cool! So you should definitely go study Japanese so you can understand more of what I’m talking about.

So here’s my plug; If you’re interested in learning more about the unique nuances in Japanese words, I suggest you check out my YouTube series below. I think you will enjoy it.

Also, for another article I wrote about the complexity of Japanese linguistics and culture, you can check out this related article at the link below.

Kirikaeru, The Switch, And Identity Within The Context Of Japan.

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