Recently a colleague expressed interest in learning Japanese language and asked me for advice. I’ve been learning Japanese on my own for about 10 years ever since I married my wife, and have reached a point that, while certainly not fluent, I can still read Japanese without too much difficulty.
Japanese language seems difficult at first, but isn’t nearly as hard as it looks. It’s different, but it has its own internal logic that, once you get the hang of, isn’t really any harder than any other language. Japanese is different, not hard.
The first thing to wrap your head around is the hiragana writing system. Hiragana is oftentimes the first thing kids in Japan (or my own kids here) learn to read. Technically speaking hiragana is not an alphabet but a syllabary. This means that syllables in the Japanese language¹ are usually expressed as a single “letter” or symbol. か always reads as “ka” and め always reads as “me” and so on.
Typically they’re arranged in a simple grid like so:
Kids in Japan (as well as my kids here) learn this table by starting from upper-right, reading vertically.
Here, you can see that the letters are formed by some combination of a consonant (the top row), and a vowel sound. ま is “ma” or “m” + “a”, for example. The only exception is ん which is just the final “n” sound for other syllables. It is never used at the beginning of a word.
There’s even a row for no-consonants for “a”, “i”, “u”, “e” and “o”. You can see that overall there’s a logical pattern to the setup though there are a few exceptions. First “tu” becomes “tsu” and “ti” becomes “chi”, while “si” becomes “shi”. These are probably just natural sound evolutions.
Another thing to notice is that a few spots are blank. These often refer to sounds that are archaic and don’t exist anymore, or to sounds that just never existed.
Now, if we replace the table above with that actual hiragana…
So, reading a phrase like:
ni hon no na tsu wa atsui
This translates as “Japanese summers are hot” is as simple as reading each hiragana character and pronouncing its sound.
WYSIWYG: What you see is what you get!
Wait, what about は ? It’s supposed to read as “ha”, not “wa”! This is one of the rare exceptions to hiragana rules. When は is used to mark the subject, it’s read as “wa”. Otherwise, it’s “ha”. That’s the only such exception you have to remember. Interestingly, in modern Japanese, を (wo) is never used except as a marker for direct objects. Otherwise, you never see it.
In part two, we’ll cover some additional details to round out the lesson.
For now, try reading these words and places:
- みかん – satsuma orange
- すし – sushi
- よこはま – city in Japan
- なら – another city in Japan
- くつ – shoe (or shoes)
- ほとけ – a Buddha (not to be confused with the historical Buddha named “Shakyamuni”)
- くるま – car
Hiragana may seem daunting at first, but because it’s so consistent, it’s something that you learn once, but use often in Japanese.
¹ Which is easier than some other languages. Japanese has relatively fewer “sounds” than some languages which is part of the reason why it struggles to pronounce foreign words.
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