Basic Japanese Writing

Japanese write with a mixture of four different systems.

  • Romanji: The normal western alphabet, also known as Latin characters.
  • Kanji: The complex Japanese characters that derive from Chinese characters.
  • Hiragana: A syllabic based set of characters which generally have soft curves and were sometimes refered to as "women's script because of then, used for writing native Japanese words, and grammatical words or endings.
  • Katakana: A syllabic based set of characters, characterised by angular shapes, used for writing Japanese words of foreign origin, abusive words or for emphasis.

In real Japanese documents Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana and Romaji are mixed together, but to start learning Japanese learning the phonetic or syllabic scripts of Hiragana and Katakana is the place to start.

Kana (かな)

Hiragana and Katakana both incorporate the pronunciations of their syllables. Together these writing systems are known as "Kana".

There is a standard layout of the kana characters in a grid that is the Japanese equivalent of alphabetic order.

As well as the basic characters, there are accented versions of some of the kana that differ in pronunciation from the unaccented forms.

Some sounds in Japanese are called crushed sounds. Crushed sounds are written by using a compound of an ordinary kana followed by another small kana character. These compound characters only come from a limited set of kana, but there are also combinations of accented and compound kana.

It is essential to master the kana characters before trying to learn the kanji, as kana are the only consistent way of writing the pronunciations of the kanji.

Basic Kana Grid

This lays out the standard ordering of hiragana and katakana character pairs with roman letters used to indicate pronunciation.


Hiragana characters are the more rounded characters that are shown in the upper cell. "Let's Learn Hiragana: First Book of Japanese Writing" is a good text book to get started with reading and writing Hiragana.


Katakana characters are the more angular characters that are shown in the lower cells. "Let's Learn Katakana: Second Book of Basic Japanese Writing" is an excellent book to start learning to read and write Katakana.

Basic Kana
Vowel A I U E O
K Ka Ki Ku Ke Ko
S Sa Shi Su Se So
T Ta Chi Tsu Te To
N Na Ni Nu Ne No
H Ha Hi Fu He Ho
M Ma Mi Mu Me Mo
Y Ya Yu Yo
R Ra Ri Ru Re Ro
W Wa Wo

Accented Kana

G Ga Gi Gu Ge Go
Z Za Ji Zu Ze Zo
D Da Ji Zu De Do
B Ba Bi Bu Be Bo
P Pa Pi Pu Pe Po

Compound Kana

These combinations create the crushed sounds in Japanese. They all start with the Kana forms that end in an "i" sound and are followed by small Ya, Yu or Yo characters.

Ky Kya きゃ Kyu きゅ Kyo きょ
キャ キュ キョ
Sh Sha しゃ Shu しゅ Sho しょ
シャ シュ ショ
Ch Cha ちゃ Chu ちゅ Cho ちょ
チャ チュ チョ
Ny Nya にゃ Nyu にゅ Nyo にょ
ニャ ニュ ニョ
Hy Hya ひゃ Hyu ひゅ Hyo ひょ
ヒャ ヒュ ヒョ
My Mya みゃ Myu みゅ Myo みょ
ミャ ミュ ミョ
Ry Rya りゃ Ryu りゅ Ryo りょ
リャ リュ リョ

Accented Compound Kana

Gy Gya ぎゃ Gyu ぎゅ Gyo ぎょ
ギャ ギュ ギョ
J Jya じゃ Jyu じゅ Jyo じょ
ジャ ジュ ジョ
By Bya びゃ Byu びゅ Byo びょ
ビャ ビュ ビョ
Py Pya ぴゃ Pyu ぴゅ Pyo ぴょ
ピャ ピュ ピョ

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