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28 / M / [JDramaCliqueLead...
Posted 2/3/08 , edited 3/11/08
History of Japanese letters

The Japanese language has three types of letters; hiragana, katakana and kanji. Originally we did not have letters. Priests sent to china encountered the Chinese character,kanji, around the third or fourth century. Kanji prevailed among the nobles around the sixth century in Japan. However, we could not express fine Japanese by kanji because of the syntactic differences between the Chinese language and the Japanese language. Thus we started to use kanji, which is an ideogram character, as a phonogram called Manyo-kana. As kanji became popular with common people, they started to simplify them for easier writing. This simplified form became hiragana. Kanji are made of straight lines and hiragana is made of curved lines. For this reason, hiragana was called the female letter and it was thought to be used mainly by women.

Katakana was originally used as a symbol to read sentences written by kanji. Many katakana were made from a part of the kanji.

How to use the three different characters:

We use all three of these characters; hiragana, katakana and kanji, however, each are used
in different ways. Katakana is used for foreign words or foreign names like koohii (coffee) or nyuuyooku (New York). The meaning words are written using kanji, and functional words like desu (to be) or particles and some Japanese words which are from ancient Japanese like oishii (tasty) are written only in hiragana. These three characters can be comibined in a sentence like below.

Japanese period and comma

We use a maru (period) at the end of sentences and ten (comma) for semantic seperation in a sentence such as after a time adverb or a clause. Traditionally we do not use the question mark "?" in an interrogative sentence. Unlike English there is no space between each word, because we use three different characters in a sentence to indicate if it is meaning word, a foreign word or a functional word.


Greetings! Ever wanted to learn Japanese? You can! Y' see, all you gotta do is whip out that college class listing and . . . *whack!* . . . or, you can look at the basic stuff I have below . . .

There are 3 main alphabets in Japanese (4, if you count romaji). The 3 are hiragana, katakana, and kanji.

Hiragana picHiragana is today used as the basis of the japanese language, and is as such used the most. It was actually created by the Ladies at the Imperial Court, around year 900. Hiragana is derived from Chinese characters (Kanji) ; the whole character is curved into a single line (or very few lines) and is used for it's pronunciation.

The men at about the same time had often to write those same Kanji in short hand, being scribes and often dedicated to poetry or religion. They simplified characters too, but unlike the Ladies, they only wrote a small part of the character (instead of curving the whole). Thus their kana look straighter and more blocky. They are called Katakana. Both Hiragana and Katakana have similar arrangements, however, katakana is used mostly for new and more modern terms in the Japanese language, like "menyuu" (menu) or "chiizu" (cheese). Katakana can also be used to create sounds not normally found in hiragana.

Kanji are often highly complex looking characters, which are Chinese in origin. While the characters are the same, the Chinese and the Japanese have different pronunciation for the same character.

Romaji is an attempt to translate Japanese using the Roman alphabet. There are several Romaji systems, one developed by japanese people, and a few others developed by western philologues. The differences are overall minor, but lead to heated discussion among anime fans (ever wondered why some people write Ryouga and other people Ryoga? ;))

Due to the different text fonts for each user and the fact that this cannot be heavily image based, the lessons will be in romaji (lucky . . .).

For more information on the written alphabets, please go here:

The system below is based on the arrangement used in the Hiragana alphabet..

First, the 5 major vowels:
A ("ah" like in "auto" )
I ("ee" long E sound, like the 2nd "i" in "Iliad")
U ("oo" like in "boot")
E ("eh" like in "empty")
O ("oh" like in "ocean")

The rest of the alphabet is a consonant followed by the vowels. There are 41 of these basic syllables ("k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w)) Another 23 can be made by adding 2 small dashes ("g, z, d, b"-marked by *) or by adding a small circle ("p" - marked by a **) just off of the upper right hand corner of the character. 33 more syllables can also be created, but they will not be discussed for right now.

The "i" and the "u" are sometimes dropped in terms of pronunciation when in between voiceless consanants (k, s,t, p, h) or sometimes at the end of the word. These shall be pointed out in the vocab where applicable.

Ka ("kah")
Ki ("kee")
Ku ("koo")
Ke ("keh")
Ko ("koh") G (K+*)

Ga ("gah")
Gi ("gee")
Gu ("goo")
Ge ("geh")
Go ("goh") S

Sa ("sah")
Shi ("shee")
Su ("soo")
Se ("seh")
So ("soh")
Z (S+*)

Za ("zah")
Ji ("jee")
Zu ("zoo")
Ze ("zeh")
Zo ("zoh") T

Ta ("tah")
Chi ("chee")
Tsu ("tsoo")
Te ("teh")
To ("toh") D (T+*)

Da ("dah")
Ji ("jee") (almost never used)
Zu ("zoo") (almost never used)
De ("deh")
Do ("doh")

Na ("nah")
Ni ("nee")
Nu ("noo")
Ne ("neh")
No ("noh") H

Ha ("hah")
Hi ("hee")
Fu ("foo")
He ("heh")
Ho ("hoh") B (H+*)

Ba ("bah")
Bi ("bee")
Bu ("boo")
Be ("beh")
Bo ("boh")
P (H+**)

Pa ("pah")
Pi ("pee")
Pu ("poo")
Pe ("peh")
Po ("poh") M

Ma ("mah")
Mi ("mee")
Mu ("moo")
Me ("meh")
Mo ("moh") Y

Ya ("yah")
Yu ("yoo")
Yo ("yoh")
R (the best I can do for the R sound in Japanese is an "rt" sound, the tongue touches the roof of the mouth)

Ra ("rtah")
Ri ("rtee")
Ru ("rtoo")
Re ("rteh")
Ro ("rtoh") W

Wa ("wah")
Wo (! "oh" this one is generally only used for grammatical purposes, though you may find it in names; when used in sentences, is simply written as "o")

Historically there were a Wi and a We, but they were dropped in the reform of the japanese language in 1946.

There also is a nasal syllable :

N ("nn" or "nhn") (this if just for saying the character)

That will do for the characters, for now.

Basically, each japanese syllable is pronunced separately, and only seldom has an influence over it's "neighbors". Those cases will be indicated as we come across them.

Here are some extra pronunciation guidelines:
Double vowel:
The pronunciation of double vowels is very important. Not pronouncing them correctly can result in a different word entirely. For example,
obaasan = "grandmother," while obasan = "aunt"

This part is tricky : in double vowels, the pronunciations of the first vowel flows into the second one, but they are still considered two different syllables. Exceptions are the elongating double vowels, aa, ii, uu, ee, ei, oo and ou.

Aa ("ahhh") (just elongate it or extend the sound)
Ai (long "I" sound) (for pronunciation, long I will be signified by "aI")
Ae ("ah-eh")
Ao ("ah-oh")
Au ("au" or like the word "ow")
Ii ("eeee") (elongated )
Ui ("ooee")
Uu ("oooo" (elongated)
Ee ("ehhh" (elongated) (rarely seen, "Ei" is more common)
Ei ("ehhh" (elongated) (sometimes seen written in romaji as "ee," but it's confusing that way)
Oi ("oi" like in "oil")
Ou ("ohhh") (elongated) (sometimes seen as oo, but like "ee," is confusing; in translation, it is sometimes dropped, but you don't _quite_ get the
right pronunciation that way)

(about ou : dropping the "u" in the transliteration is also a problem because basically, if you don't already know the word, you then can't pronunce
it correctly.)

Given the large amount of information given from the above alphabet, the vocab and sentences section for this lesson will be kept rather short. Try sounding the words below out loud.

watashi ("wah-tah-shee") = "I/me"

anou ("ah-nohhh") = "um . . ." (used to get someone's attention)

hai ("haI") = "yes" (can also be used for "here" -- like during role call)

ee ("ehhh") = "yes" (relaxed and conversational, typically used among friends) (note elongation, one of the few words that uses "ee" instead of "ei")

iie ("eeee-eh") = "no" (note elongation)

gakusei ("ga-ksei") = "student" (the u in ku is dropped)

desu ("dehs"; sometimes sounds like "dez") = "is/are/am" (the "u" in "su" is dropped)

wa ("wah") = it's a particle, indicates the subject
nihon ("nee-hohn") = "Japan"

amerika ("ah-meh-rti-kah") = "America"

oosutoraria ("Ohhh-sto-rta-rtee-ah) = "Australia" (note elongation and that the u in su is dropped)

_____-go ("_____-goh") = "_____ language"

nihongo ("nee-hohn-goh") = "Japanese (language)"

eigo" ("ehhh-goh") = "English (language)" (note elongation)

[country]-jin ("[country]-jeen") = "[country] person"

nihonjin ("nee-hon-jeen") = "Japanese (person)"

Amerikajin ("ah-meh-rti-kah-jeen") = "American (person)"
_____-san ("_____-sahn") = "Mr./Ms./Mrs. ______" (never use -san when referring to yourself)

Hajimemashite (hah-jee-meh-mah-shteh) = "How are you?" (used often in introductions; note the "i" in "shi" is dropped)

Arigatou ("ah-rtee-gah-tohhh") = "Thank you" (note elongation)

Sayounara ("sah-yohhh-na-rta") = "Good bye" (note elongation)

Sumimasen ("soo-mee-mah-sehn) = "Excuse me."

desu is used most typically in the following format:
X wa Y desu = "X is/are/am Y"

watashi wa [name] desu.
("wah-tah-shee-wah-[name]-dehs") = "I am [name]." ex: Watashi wa Shinji desu.

watashi wa amerikajin desu = "I am an American."

watashi wa gakusei desu = "I am a student."

With the exception of the first sentence (for obvious reasons), "watashi" can be replaced with [name]-san, or any particular subject noun.

Ex: suu-san wa gakusei desu = "Sue is a student."


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28 / M / [JDramaCliqueLead...
Posted 2/4/08 , edited 2/4/08
To find a copy of the hiragana and katakana charts please look at the uploaded photo's section.
Posted 2/23/08 , edited 2/24/08
Yes, less strokes than Chinese characters.
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24 / F
Posted 2/28/08 , edited 2/28/08
wow its so hard to memorize all these can we rmb it faster? r there a way we can rmb it rite away? heard ppl sayin they hv some tips in learning these...
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28 / M / [JDramaCliqueLead...
Posted 2/28/08 , edited 2/29/08
Just keep practicing over and over again ^.^
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30 / F / Philippines
Posted 2/29/08 , edited 2/29/08
shitsumon ga arimasu... are all chinese characters equivalent to some kanji character?
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28 / M / [JDramaCliqueLead...
Posted 3/27/08 , edited 3/28/08
I am not to sure myself either... but it's definitely possible. This is something I need to look into.
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29 / F / right here
Posted 2/13/09 , edited 2/14/09
I was wondering if you guys know where I could go to find out the meaning of each katakana or hirogana

I mean I've heard that "a" stands/means something when it's used by itself....and like ka stands for mosquito or something? anyways if that made sense and you know what I'm talking about..can you help me? thanks!!!!
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