How I learned Hiragana and Katakana

It’s not as hard as it looks. When I first came to Japan almost 2 years ago I didn’t know anything and Japanese culture never interested me that. Wow, have things changed! Asia is great, and Japan is pretty sweet. Everybody learns differently and some may learn faster or slower than other people, but here’s my experience. When I first started to study I learned Hiragana in about 2 weeks, then Katakana in 1 week following. Here’s how I did it.


And there you have it! I basically used two tools. Then I started reading everything I saw in Japan even though I didn’t know what it meant. It’s good practice. As a side note, I did only 10 hiragana from the red “Let’s learn Hiragana” book.

When you study katakana, I think the hardest is シ “shi” vs ツ”tsu” and ソ”so” vs ン”n” so you’ll have to come up with the best way for you to remember these. Good luck!


38 thoughts on “How I learned Hiragana and Katakana

  1. That’s pretty cool that you were able to stick to your schedule like that for learning Hiragana and Katakana. Have you decided to or have you started to learn Kanji as well?

  2. Thanks Chris. I studied Kanji using a workbook I bought for 100 Yen at a flea market. And then I have a program on my ipod touch that let’s me study using flashcards. But I’ve been concentrating more on talking and not on Kanji. I’ll make a post about it soon though.

  3. Steve, after about 2 years of being here in Japan how is your spoken Japanese coming along?

    An ex-client of mine was a legend..originally from the US, he had lived in Japan for over 40 years, had gone through 2 Japanese and had 2 daughters to his ex-wives, and had his own company here fully staffed by Japanese people. Despite that he could only manage about 10 words tops! I had to applaud him for his efforts in ‘not learning’ – you’d think after 40 years it would seep in via osmosis 😉

  4. Haydn – 40 years? Wow! I don’t speak Japanese for my job or at home. After nearly 2 years my spoken Japanese isn’t great but I can communicate with almost anybody no problem. I usually use a mix of Japanese and English. I decided to focus on vocabulary so I could better grasp what people were saying and my vocabulary is growing each day, but I’m really bad at particles so I must sound like a crazy person at times.

  5. Steve, I am impressed that you carve out time to study. I started out with all the best intentions but after I learned Katakana from the bar menus that was the extent of my reading.

    I believe that focusing on vocab is definitely the single best thing to learn – while grammar is the cement, the vocab are the building blocks. I am fortunate to know a truckload of words in Japanese (some that even most Japanese people don’t know…don’t ask what they are;-) and if I listen carefully to someone talk if I know enough of the words in the sentence I can guess the rest. I learned grammar by listening to how they cemented the words together.

    Do you see yourself staying in Japan long term?

  6. Long term in Japan? This I don’t know yet. Japan is great, but I think America is great, and I have a few places I want to visit in the rest of the world. Only time will tell!

  7. Hi Steve, love your blog! My husband and I are moving to Japan in August and so I am thinking about starting one of these. Your skype suggestion is a good one. We’ll be on base for a month or so before we find housing and I need to have access to the Internet and phone ASAP to continue working while there. We are very excited but I can’t believe it’s actually happening!

  8. Thanks! Good luck on getting internet access. My first place took me a week to get internet, the 2nd place took me about 6 weeks. Worst case scenario is you can go to Cybac or Popeye Media Cafe and buy a 3-5 hour package. Good luck with the move!

  9. Yep – it is a big wide world out there and you have a window of opportunity before you and your wife have kids I guess. Although I have taken my 2 little girls to live in a few different countries with me it is not the easiest thing I have done in my life.

  10. This is awesome! I’ve been putting off learning the written languages, and thinking it’s more important to learn how to speak it using the romaji, but now I’m going to put some focus on hiragana. I’ll give myself two months for both hiragana and katakana. That Kanji still seems daunting though. The ~2000 characters to learn seems so far away.

    Based on your experience, how often do you have to read Kanji vs kana? And of the two kanas, which serves a greater purpose? Hiragana or Katakana? Is one used more than the other?

  11. the easiest way to tell the difference between the katakana for shi and tsu is to look at the stroke orders of the dashes. for shi it goes from left to right while for tsu it goes from top to bottom. same thing applies to so and n for so the stroke for the dash goes from top to bottom while for n it goes from left to right

  12. I know what you mean about シ,ツ,ソ and ン.
    I’ve been speaking Japanese for almost 20 years now, and there are times when I *STILL* have trouble writing them.

    (As to the people saying that they know people who have lived in Japan XX years and still can’t speak Japanese, I can definitely relate. It’s like some sort of weird badge of pride for a lot of foreigners to live here in Japan and never learn the language. I can’t get my head around that kind of thinking. :/

    As for studying, I personally find the best way to learn Japanese is just pure repetition (and using the words you learn!). Have flashcards on you at all time, and any time you have a free moment, pop those babies out and start studying. Waiting in line at the supermarket? FLASHCARDS. Stopped at a traffic light? FLASHCARDS! Boring meeting? FLASHCARDS! (ok, maybe not that last one)

    Also, it always helps to have a good study site help you along. *grin*

  13. I know an American in my city who has lived in Japan for 20 years, has a Japanese wife, and runs a bar yet can not speak Japanese to save his life! Its horrible!

    Kudos to you for studying! Keep up the work and practice!

  14. kanji = hanzi (汉字)
    learn the language of the country that japan stole its culture from, chinese.

    btw, friends who went to japan said a vending machine outside their apartment sold kids’ anime and hentai…. from the same machine.

    glad to see so many fellow japanophiles on the net =)

  15. yea I found it easy to learn the hiragana and katakana when I got to Japan. It took only a week. I mean it was everywhere in your face. I just had to put myself in the position of a 5 yr old and just read everything I see outloud XD My friends were giving me a hard time over it but I learned it faster than they did. They were still struggling with it after 5 months. Anyway the kanji is tough, but the more you learn the easier it gets and there isn’t any real urgency to master all of the kanjis. Its best to go at a pace you’re most fit for… Slow or fast your pick 😉

    Anyway its cool you live in Fukuoka. I use to live in Beppu. I’m probably moving back to Japan once I finish up University in the US. I am thinking Fukuoka. mainly because all of the APU alumni usually end up there and its close to Beppu(my party city!!!!) If you get a chance to goto Beppu. You might wanna check out 68 😀

    I actually enjoyed my time in APU.. I did get a bit negative, but it was mostly because of the dorm life(and me inevievitably moving out the dorms and couch surfing across beppu)

    Anyway the best way to learn the kana’s is to basically write them down, and when you’re out and about read every single sign to yourself. This also works with KAnji characters, and if the kanji has furigana you can learn the pronounciations also.

    Also what helped me with reading and writing. Was that I read a lot of books.. Book Off was really awesome I mean 100 yen novels. I wish books in the US where that cheap(probably can find them but its tough). Some can be really boring especially if its about Baseball(sorry but yes baseball is a very mundane sport to me). I just finished reading a book about Miles the jazz musician. Its pretty good.. Some Manga helps if you can’t just handle all of the text with no photos. I wouldn’t say be reptitive with learning the kanjis(like you would with a class). I would say first do a foundation level course, and then branch out like that and just diversify. You didn’t learn your first language by taking a class. I think learning a language is through practice, and having no fear of failure. Which sadly a classroom fails to do as you can fail a class. Also I notice with language courses especially with Americans is that it gets treated as a competition to show off how good you already are. Now if you’re great at it and you are in the class. IF I was the TA I would have you removed from the course and recommend you to take a higher level course. CAn’t waste ppl’s time like that. Anyway I am American. Japanese is my 3rd foreign language. My 1st foreign language being Turkish and 2nd being Spanish. MY 4th is currently in the works (Korean).

  16. Hey, thanks for posting this! I’m really glad I found it 🙂

    My friend and I are considering college in Japan (all 4 years), and we were looking for a good way to learn Japanese. Now I’m gonna tell her we should try doing what you did.

    Just a quick question… My friend and I know maybe only a few words in Japanese. If we get into the schools, obviously we plan to study hard before we leave, but I doubt our Japanese will still be understandable or even usable the first months to year that we’re there. How do people there react is you go up to them and ask something in English? Will they be upset or just walk away from you? We aren’t going to be in Tokyo, we’re considering APU in Beppu, where I’ve heard not everyone will understand English outside of the schoolgrounds.

    Any advice for first time Americans in Japan? 🙂

  17. OH>. so glad you posted this, I’ve been here for 10 years, Husband is a J guy, but we speak English at home, I work in an English environment and didn’t, still don’t have interest in the culture that much but I love Japan.

    I was frustrated having to have people negotiate things for me, etc, and need the language as a tool.. but it took my longer than you though, not sure why, my husband had suggested I not get tired up with knowing each Character second hand, just keep moving on, add words, etc..

    I took my JPLT, did well but now I’m forgetting and it didn’t help with conversation, just memorization. I have to find some sort of interest I think?

  18. This is great encouragement for everyone who thought it would be almost impossible to learn this language.
    Thanks for the tips.
    You can get a fairly good software for the DS called MyJapanese Coach.
    I used that and it helped me pickiong up words quickly.

  19. This is roughly how I did it too. I used to brush up as well, to get me faster at reading them. That worked pretty well.


  20. Thank you for this! My husband and I are in the process of learning Japanese for our RTW trip and, while the verbal is coming along with Rosetta Stone, your suggestions are great for reading and writing.

  21. I once asked an 60 year old lady where the post office was in Japanese, that’s what I thought. But I said mailbox (one for your house?) instead of post office. She slowly backed up, got on her bike, and slowly road away. That made me chuckle!

    To answer your question, the best way I’ve found to communicate is to smile, speak slowly, say what I want in English, then repeat it with a few Japanese words added in, then repeat it a 3rd time with more Japanese added in or full Japanese. People are pretty warm to this technique. I found if I just say the main words with no English, or speak full sentences in poor Japanese language, people seem to have some anxiety and the situation isn’t that pleasant.

  22. I just came across your site, and I love it! I’m in (American) high school and I really want to live in Japan when I’m older. I’ve wanted to learn how to speak the language since I was like 10, but I haven’t been a crazy Japanophile until recently. For resources I use MyJapaneseCoach for the DS, Japanese for Dummies (book), I try to watch Japanese television for at least an hour a day (lol the commercials), and I watch as much of my favorite anime in Japanese as much as I can! I find Japanese a bit easier to learn than Spanish, but maybe that’s just because I actually want to learn Japanese. 😀

    Are you ever seen as “that crazy foreigner”? I just think it’s crazy how you just moved there with barely a grasp on the language! I just hope I can maybe teach myself the basics for a few years before I decide to take an extended stay there!

    Take care,

  23. The commercials are pretty funny! I wouldn’t say I’ve been seen as the crazy foreigner but from time to time strangers take interest in me because I’m a foreigner and different. People like it when you’re happy all of the time which can be a challenge if you’re having a bad day, but I always try to keep smiling. I think speaking is more important than reading/writing Kanji. And knowing Hiragana and Katakana helps me with pronunciation. Thanks for the suggestions about MyJapaneseCoach and the Japanese for Dummies book. Good luck with your learning!

  24. I used the “Let’s Learn Hiragana” and “Let’s Learn Katakana” (red and blue books – as you mentioned the former one above) and learned both sets of kana in a weekend each. Of course, they became more cemented over time, but I thought those two books worked extremely well (for me anyway).

    I definitely agree about the difficult katakana… those were confusing for awhile! 😀

  25. The red and blue book are definitely a must-have in my opinion. It’s true that all the information you need to learn is available on the internet to learn both Hiragana and Katakana. However it goes twice as fast with the books, it explains everything and gives enough exercises to master both syllables.

    However for me it started here, what to learn kanji or the grammar and especially the different functions of all the particles. It depends on what you want to learn first, spoken or written language. I started with the basic grammar functions, alongside with getting known with more kanji characters. I am doing a bit of a mix these days, and I am getting gradually better known with the language. It might be a pain in the start, because I had the feeling after learning both kana syllables: ”What do I actually know now besides how to write it?”. However on later stages you will notice how important they are. (especially Hiragana, since Katakana is quite limited in it’s uses, however I have a feeling it’s getting used more and more).

    However I fully agree on the カタカナ;ツ、シ、ソ、ン。Those are onfusing at start, I even messed up later on. 😛

  26. “When you study katakana, I think the hardest is シ “shi” vs ツ”tsu” and ソ”so” vs ン”n” so you’ll have to come up with the best way for you to remember these.”

    I completely agree with you here. I am learning very casually. Mainly because I study investment finance and don’t have much time. It took about a year for Hiragana and I am now working Katakana. One good idea is to watch as much TV and Dorama as you can. It is a great language…

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