Learn Kana by Memorizing 38 Words!

The Japanese writing system is complicated. If you're a student of Japanese or just a fan of anime or other aspects of Japanese culture, you've probably noticed this by now. Japan's original writing system was borrowed from Chinese, which uses a separate character for each word (more or less). These borrowed Chinese characters are called kanji and still make up the bulk of Japanese writing.

However, because the Japanese language is very different from Chinese, a second set of characters had to be developed to represent speech sounds directly, without any inherent meaning attached. Rather than developing these new characters from scratch, ancient scribes chose to simplify existing kanji. The following chart shows how this was done for katakana, something like our uppercase alphabet.

The Katakana Syllabary

Katakana is used mostly for foreign words imported into Japanese (excluding those that came from Chinese and already have kanji associated with them). It can also be used for emphasis in much the same way we use italics or capital letters.

Hiragana is yet another set of characters used to represent sounds in Japanese. It is considered more basic than katakana and roughly corresponds to our lowercase alphabet. It was developed from the same set of kanji as katakana, but instead of using just a few strokes from a given character, hiragana is a sort of cursive representation of the whole thing. Therefore, these two sets of kana run parallel to each other and often bear some surface similarity to each other. This is a lot like the Roman alphabet, actually. Upper- and lowercase versions of `C` are almost identical, but uppercase `A` looks nothing like lowercase `a`.

The Hiragana Syllabary

One substantial difference between our alphabet and Japanese kana you may have noticed is that in the Japanese system, each symbol tends to represent an entire syllable, not just a single consonant or vowel. This means many more symbols are necessary (though not quite as many as you might think since the Japanese sound system is much simpler than that of English). Putting aside diacritical marks and compound kana for now, we have about 91 basic characters to memorize: 45 katakana (46 if you count the horizontal line used to mark long vowels) and 46 hiragana. (The symbol for `wo` is really only used in hiragana as an object marker, and it's generally pronounced exactly the same as `o`. The kana for `wi` and `we` are archaic and not really used anymore.)

The following table shows how consonants (on the left) can be combined with vowels (at the top) to form syllables in Japanese. Remember that the letters used to represent the Japanese vowels have about the same values they'd have in Spanish or Italian, roughly `ah`, `ee`, `oo`, `eh`, and `oh`. Since the Japanese sound system is so simple, vowels often have an influence on the pronunciation of nearby consonants (and vice-versa). In the table below, what looks like it should be `si` actually sounds more like `shi`, `ti` is more like `chi`, `tu` is more like `tsu`, and `hu` is more like `fu`. Hold your mouse over any Japanese character below for a pop-up hint on pronunciation/Romanization.


Now that you can see what needs to be learned, I'll clue you in on how to learn it. Here's a hint: flashcards with a character on one side and a pronunciation on the other aren't such a good idea. That's because short-term memory involves shallow processing (based on visual and/or aural input), but long-term memory requires a deeper sort of processing based on meaning. In short, if you really want to remember something, it has to mean something. That's why, in my opinion at least, the absolute best way to learn to read phonetic characters is by learning real vocabulary items that use them.

I've distilled the whole Japanese kana system down into two short lists, 38 words total. How you decide to memorize them is up to you, but step 1 in learning to read Japanese is committing each and every one of these words to memory. Remember, you can hold your mouse over a given character to see its pronunciation. Enjoy!


  • = euro
  • = coffee
  • = air conditioning
  • = animation
  • = seminar
  • = hair care
  • = wire
  • = know-how
  • = (breaded) cutlet
  • = canoe
  • = Christmas
  • = Toyota
  • = software
  • = receipt
  • = lemon
  • = lion
  • = hotel
  • = kimchi
  • = thumbnail (image)


  • = room
  • = store, shop
  • = flower
  • = fish
  • = home, inside
  • = (train) station
  • = clothes, kimono
  • = dog
  • = restroom, toilet
  • = Be careful.
  • = dream
  • = bird
  • = ship, boat
  • = I, me
  • = Nice to meet you.
  • = daytime
  • = that (near you)
  • = Japan
  • = son

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At September 24, 2009 11:51 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...
Thank you very much for a very helpful list. Just starting out and this is great!
At May 11, 2010 12:09 AM , Blogger info said...
The history of the evolution of katakana was facinating! thank you for that insight!

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