For any language, my first piece of advice is to learn the alphabet. Of course, there is no standard Japanese alphabet, as there is with Western languages. Also, unlike other Asian languages, with a few exceptions, there are no “tones”. So what are you supposed to do, give up?
Of course not. While there may not by any true Japanese alphabet in the traditional set, the Japanese language relies on character sets. Unlike Chinese, however, there is more than one character set, and unfortunately, there is no equivalent of Pinyin for the “Japanese alphabet."
The characters used to convey written Japanese are collectively referred to as Hiragana. You can think of this as roughly equivalent to a Japanese alphabet. Japanese also consists of two other character sets; these are Kanji and Katakana. The former (Kanji) are borrowed from Chinese, and the latter (Katakana) are used primarily to conveying foreign loan words. In this post, I’m going to get into the very basics of each of these character sets. So while there may not be a Japanese alphabet I the sense you were hoping, I still hope that this post is helpful for you.
Hiragana is a character-based writing system, but probably the closest thing you'll find to a Japanese alphabet. Although there have been a few attempts to develop a Latinized script (rōmaji), there is no widely used, standardized system, as there is with Pinyin for Chinese. The modern Hiragana character system concists of 46 base characters, including the following:
5 vowels (comprised of one character)
40 consonant-vowel unions (comprised of more than one characters)
1 consonant (comprised of one vowel)
A summary of Japanese Hiragana characters is provided below.
So at this point you might be saying, “Wait, I thought you said there is no true Japanese alphabet. Hiragana looks a lot like an alphabet to me.” Well, you’re right, but written Japanese consists of more than just Hiragana. There are also Kanji characters, which are borrowed from Chinese. Some argue that there are tens of thousands of Kanji characters, while others point out that many of these are just variations of another. At any rate, there are a little over 2,000 Kanji characters taught in Japanese schools. (Ok, there are 2,136, if you want to get technical about it.) I’m not going to get into all 2,000+ characters here, but the table below provides a summary of the 80 characters that are taught in the first grade. This is probably a good starting point for anyone who wants to learn Japanese.
Finally, as I said earlier in this post, when it comes to the Japanese alphabet, there is Katakana. Unlike the other character sets, I’m not going to give you a chart of Katakana. Why? Because Katakana is a lot like Hiragana. In fact, if you’re a beginning learner, you might look at both charts and think they are the same. This is because they are about 95% similar. I might get into this in a later post, but for the time being, all you need to know is that Katakana is very similar to Hiragana, except that it uses slightly different rules since it’s reserved for the conveyance of foreign words.
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