There are many languages throughout the world with writing systems that are considered very difficult to master. These scripts are so complex that most people are discouraged from learning them even before they start. Perhaps the most difficult language in this regard is Japanese.
To a complete beginner, the Japanese script looks a lot like Chinese, though in reality it is even more complicated than that; Japanese, in fact, is a unique mix of two different script systems, divided up as follows:
- Two syllabaries, (or kana), known respectively as hiragana and katakana, each consisting of 46 symbols.
- One logophonetic script, known as kanji) which consists of a huge number of symbols borrowed from and inspired by Chinese characters.
These above facts alone, combined with the ample time and effort it takes to master these scripts, certainly contributes to the initial discouragement many beginner Japanese learners feel.
However, I believe that a big part of the intimidation and anxiety that Japanese learners feel towards these scripts has to do with the way in which the Japanese writing system is learned.
In particular, I know from experience that most students of Japanese are forced to rely on boring and mechanical learning activities, which betray an essential truth of learning Japanese writing—that it can be an amazingly fun, rich, and rewarding experience, if you know how to do it.
I once had a coaching client who enlisted my help in improving his Japanese reading and writing skills. In particular, he struggled to remember the Kanji characters.
This client loved the Japanese language, but was simply terrified at the idea of having to study all of those complicated characters. This fear was so strong, in fact, that he had even decided to not learn Kanji at all! Unfortunately, this prevented him from delving into the language as he wished he could.
In order to help him, I knew I would have to change two things: how he looked at kanji, and how he went about learning them. Specifically, I wanted him to see these characters as learning opportunities, and to train him to learn kanji in a more engaging and brain-friendly way.
It took us one single session to make those changes. In that session, I taught my client several of my best tips for learning Japanese through writing, and now I am happy to say that he loves kanji, and no longers considers them as obstacles to his Japanese progress.
In this article, I want to share those very same tips, so that you no longer fear the Japanese writing system, and can use it to your advantage to be a more effective learner and user of the Japanese language.
1. Learn Hiragana and Katakana First
The Japanese sound system consists of 46 basic sounds. These sounds are expressed in writing through the two hiragana and katakana syllabaries, each of which serves a different function within the written language.
These 46 sounds (and symbols) are the base for any other sound combination in the language, that is why it’s very important to learn them first.
Hiragana, in particular, is also used as an annotation tool, and is commonly written on top of kanji to indicate pronunciation. Take, for example, the kanji word 大学 (daigaku). In hiragana, it’s written as だ (da) い (i) が (ga) く(ku). These hiragana symbols will accompany the kanji character in texts for both beginner learners and native-speaking Japanese children, as they make it possible to read and pronounce unknown kanji easily.
If you find the idea of learning even the 92 total kana symbols intimidating, know that through the use of mnemonics and other visual aids, learning to read hiragana and katakana shouldn’t take you more than a few days, or, if you’re dedicated, even a few hours.
Our brain is more likely to remember images better than abstract data, so associating the shape of a hiragana or katakana symbol to a similar shape and its pronunciation to an English word will help you remember it faster and in a more efficient way.
There’s plenty of free resources available online. Just google for ‘hiragana mnemonics’. The image below is taken from one of them. Here, the hiragana symbol for お and its corresponding sound (o) are associated as follows:
2. Break Down Kanji into Their Simplest Parts
The kanji script is a complex system like any other, meaning that it consists of larger parts that can be broken down into smaller, simpler, and easier-to-understand pieces.
At the top level, one of the most intimidating aspects of kanji characters are their quantity. The highest estimates of the number of kanji characters in the Japanese language are somewhere around 50,000, or even more.
To be a functional reader of Japanese, you fortunately don’t need to know anywhere near that many. Even still, if you want to read a newspaper, you must know how to read at least 2,000 kanji or more.
Remember, however, that numbers of individual kanji are only relevant when looking at the system at the topmost level. If you actually break these kanji characters down into their constituent parts, you only need to learn about 214 basic elements (or “radicals”) to be able to write any kanji you need.
As a Japanese learner, if you focus on learning these radicals, then it will be much easier to eventually master reading and writing of the several thousand more complex characters that they create.
One good way to look at it is to compare radicals to the letters of the alphabet that we use in order to write English words.
Just as the word for “LANGUAGE” in English is made up of six different letters (L, A, N, G, U, and E), the kanji for 語 (go, ‘language’) is made up of three different components, namely the radical (言, ‘to speak), plus two more elements (五 ‘five’ and 口 ‘mouth’). So we could consider a “language” as “the ability to speak at least five words”.
Let’s consider another example. On its own, the kanji 電 means ‘electricity’. It consists of two elements: ⻗ (‘rain’) as the main radical, plus 电 (‘lightning’) as an additional component to convey the idea of “electricity”.
But kanji are rarely used on their own. You usually see them used in combination with other characters to form new, larger words.
This same kanji (電, den) is also used in many other kanji words, such as:
- 電車 (den, ‘electric’ + sha, ‘chariot’) = train
- 電報 (den, ‘electric’ + pō, data) = telegraph
- 電池 (den, ‘electric’ + chi, pond) = battery
By deconstructing a single kanji or a compound kanji word into its smaller components, you give yourself greater context and meaning with which to remember kanji symbols.
Speaking of remembering kanji words, let’s move on to my next tip!
3. Use Stories to Remember Kanji Words
Though I mentioned in the last section that the function of kanji radicals are similar to the function of the letters of the English alphabet, there is one key difference.
While letters like “a”, “b”, and “c” don’t hold any meaning of their own, kanji radicals possess meaning that is independent of the word or words they comprise.
This detail is extremely important, though is usually overlooked by most Japanese learners. It is the independent meaning of each radical that will help you both memorize kanji and later retrieve them from memory.
Since kanji radicals have meaning, one of the best ways to memorize a particular kanji character is to create a story based upon the combination of radicals that make up that particular symbol.
To do this, you just need to rely on your imagination and creativity and create the most memorable imagery possible.
For example, let’s say you want to commit the kanji 海 (umi, ocean) to your memory. What you’ll need to do is to simply take each of the three major components of the character (namely 氵 “water,” 𠂉 “man,” and 母 “mother”) and use your imagination to make these concepts interact in a clear sequence of events.
Here’s an example of what such a story would look like:
That’s it! The more unusual the story is, the easier it will be to remember it. With such a story around the kanji for “ocean,” you’ll have a hard time forgetting what the character means.
Creating stories like this may seem like a strange and complicated process at the beginning, but you’ll soon realize how much easier and faster it is to learn a kanji through stories rather than trying to learn it as a random arrangement of lines, dots, and dashes.
4. Type in Japanese from the Very Beginning
Learning to type is one of the most effective and efficient activities for acquiring the script of any foreign language, and this is no different for Japanese.
Though you might consider typing to be an advanced activity that you only undertake once you’re fluent in the language and its symbols, it is actually quite the opposite!
If used from the very beginning, typing helps you enormously in acquiring a foreign script because you learn to recognize the script while you practice actively writing it.
It’s easy to start typing right away, too. Nowadays, the keyboards for all major languages come pre-installed on your computer or phone. The only drawback is that for most languages (Japanese included) the keyboard layout does not correspond well to the keyboards common in the West.
Luckily, text-input technology has evolved very fast. Nowadays, you don’t even need to download or add any language functionality to your devices in order to be able to type in a foreign script.
This is made possible through tools like Google Input Tools.
Google Input Tools allows you to write entirely in Japanese by typing in English letters (or rōmaji) while keeping the same keyboard layout you are already comfortable with!
How is this possible?
When writing in rōmaji, the Google Input Tools software will automatically convert what you have typed into the Japanese script. It does this by processing what you’ve written and prompting you with a list of options in hiragana, katakana, or kanji that correspond most closely to the typed English letters.
Here’s an image of what this looks like in action:
You can use Google Input Tools right away to help you practice typing in Japanese. You can do this by either typing out your own text, or re-typing Japanese texts that you have found elsewhere.
If you are a beginner learner of Japanese, we strongly recommend you start by typing out dialogues that you can find in any beginner-level Japanese textbook.
This activity will help you:
- Reinforce good spelling habits (for vocabulary words you already know)
- Strengthen the bond between sound and script for any new vocabulary items
- Review the words and phrases you have already learned
- Enjoy successfully typing in Japanese from the start of your learning
5. Combine Typing with Handwriting
Though often overlooked, writing by hand can be an immensely useful practice when learning a language like Japanese, which features a non-Latin script.
While typing involves selecting letters by pressing individual keys on your keyboard, handwriting allows you to actually form the strokes and dots that make up kanji characters all on your own.
This complex interplay of physical and mental processes necessary to handwrite will allow you to engage your brain on a deeper level, and form lasting memories of characters and their meanings.
To write correctly in Japanese, you will first need to learn how each symbol is drawn, a sequence of steps known as the stroke order.
Learning these steps will probably seem complicated to you at first, but the truth is that the hand-eye coordination required to follow those steps will be a further aid in your ability to memorize the hiragana, katakana, and kanji symbols.
Here’s the stroke order for the kanji 男 (otoko), which mean “man” or “male” in Japanese. You can find this and other stroke-order diagrams at the excellent Jisho.org.
- Further reinforce the bond between sound and script
- Pay more attention to each symbol and its shape (especially for kanji)
- Help your brain memorize what you’ve learned at a deeper level
If you do this every day, even for just a few minutes, typing and handwriting in Japanese will gradually become second nature to you. It might take some time and effort at the beginning, but once you start to see your progress and gradually build upon it day after day, you will feel a great sense of pride and accomplishment as a result of all of your hard work.
So, let’s recap. We’ve just taken a look at five different tips and practices that will help you learn how to write in Japanese.
I’ve asked you to:
- Focus on learning hiragana and katakana from the start
- Break down kanji into their smaller radicals to build understanding
- Create short, memorable stories that connect the meaning of kanji with the meanings of their radicals
- Learn to type in Japanese early on
- Practice handwriting Japanese kana and kanji regularly
With these tips in mind, you can start writing in Japanese today, even if you’re an absolute beginner. Why don’t you give it a try?
Of course, these five tips just represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mastering the Japanese script. You can go far with what’s written here, but there also exist higher-level strategies that will help you gain an even quicker grasp of the Japanese writing system.
If you like what I’ve written here, and want to learn more about these more powerful techniques, then I recommend you check out my brand-new LinguaCore course, called Learning Languages with a New Alphabet.
The course contains my best methods and techniques for learning to write in any language with a non-Latin script, including Greek, Hebrew, Korean, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, and, of course, Japanese (among others). If you’re learning any of those languages, I highly recommend that you take a look.
If you’re learning Japanese, you’re in even more luck!
As I’ve been a Japanese coach for many years now, I have also developed a very special expansion module to the Learning Languages with a New Alphabet course that is dedicated exclusively to mastering the Japanese script.
This expansion module contains videos, action steps, and special training techniques that will help you be an even better reader and writer of the Japanese language.
You can click HERE to check it out!
LUCA TOMA is a certified online Japanese language coach who previously worked as a language instructor at various universities in Japan and Europe. Though he currently resides in his home country of Italy, he has previously lived in Japan for more than 10 years and reached a near-native proficiency in the language.
He now helps motivated learners of Japanese overcome stumbling blocks through Neurolanguage Coaching®, a new method for language learning where teaching, neuroscience and coaching principles merge into a totally tailor-made coaching service that helps you achieve faster and more efficient results.
You can find out more about this approach on his website: JapaneseCoaching.net