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How to Learn Japanese

Simon Reynolds
Writing right
This chapter will actually cover both reading and writing as they are obviously closely intertwined.
When learning to read and write Japanese you should learn in this order: katakana, hiragana and kanji.
By learning katakana you will be able to understand many English loan words. Katakana are simpler and
more angular than the hiragana.
Hiragana are necessary to start understanding Japanese and you can write Japanese entirely in hiragana if
you do not understand kanji. Hiragana have a more rounded and flowing shape.
Kanji are the hardest to master and should be left until you have fully mastered the kana. The sooner you
can move away from the crutch of romaji (Roman letters) the better.
Stroke order
Both kana and kanji have a designated stroke order (kakijun). It's quite tempting for an English speaker to
ignore correct stroke order, reasoning that it doesn't matter if the characters look OK and that learning the
characters is hard enough without worrying about stroke order. Don't give in to temptation! Stroke order is
very important and you are shooting yourself in the foot if you ignore it.
Correct stroke order will help make your handwriting legible and becomes quite intuitive after a while. The
basic rule is to start in the top left corner and finish in the bottom right hand corner. There are rules for
drawing boxes and other common shapes. Wikipedia has a nice explanation of stroke order here.
If you know the number of strokes in a kanji, you will be able to look it up in a dictionary without knowing the
pronunciation or the reading. To be able to count the strokes it is essential to have a solid grasp of correct
stroke order. If you don't know the stroke order for a character, check it in your dictionary or online. Once
again, stroke order is important so get into good habits from the start.
Learning the kana
It is possible to learn the kana (hiragana and katakana) through brute memory in a fortnight or so simply by
writing them out over and over again but I really don’t recommend doing this. As we have seen, the kana
have only one pronunciation each. They have no inherent meaning like kanji and are only used to represent
the sounds of Japanese.
Several publishers produce some rather good mnemonic cards for the kana and using these should save
you time as well as aiding your retention. Try Kana Flashcards. Free printable kana flashcards can be
downloaded from here, however, these cards do not come with mnemonics or stroke order. You can try
making your own; e.g. the character ki looks like a key, the character ma looks like a mast etc.
It's a good idea to follow the kana table and review each row before going on to the next one i.e. start with a,
i, u, e, o and go on to ka, ki, ku, ke, ko and so on. You could even try learning katakana and hiragana
simultaneously as some of the shapes are similar and some flashcards come with both on them. If this
confuses you, learn them separately.
Once you think you’ve mastered them try writing out the 2 sets. a, i, u, e, o, ka, ki, ku, ke, ko etc. Go back
and pay special attention to the ones you forget.
A nice trick I found was to write out the kana on the palm of my hand using my finger when I had a spare
moment. This can be done almost anywhere and is great for queues, train journeys, time when you should
really be working etc.
Installing Japanese fonts on your computer
Once you start learning to write Japanese, you may find it helpful to install a Japanese font onto your
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