Learning To Read Japanese

by David · 21 comments

The concept of learning to read (or speak) Japanese is daunting for most people. The idea intimidated me as well, however I live for challenges; the idea of conquering this gets my heart racing. In the short amount of time I’ve been learning Japanese I have made some interesting observations I want to share.

The Japanese (日本語,) use an idiographic writing system which deters many from learning the language. There are three different writing systems to learn, Hiragana (ひらがな, 平仮名), Katakana (カタカナ, 片仮名) and Kanji (漢字). This could seem daunting to someone only familiar with the Roman alphabet. Each different漢字 (see above) represents  a different idea or concept.

However, reading from symbols and pictures isn’t a foreign concept. It’s something that we do every day. Take a look at these symbols.


I would bet my last piece of sushi (I really like sushi) you recognise at least four of these symbols. Not only can you recognise them, you can extract meaning from them. How did you learn to read these symbols? Learning to read Japanese (or any script) isn’t much different.

Did you know there are more than 160 different road signs? How many more different symbols do you recognise? Think about how much symbolism is around us every day including shops, clothing brands, icons on your computer, website logos and so much more! It’s clear that we all have an innate ability to recognise symbols.

My mind-set is this:

If the japanese can learn why cant I.jpg

Sure, it’s going to take effort and dedication. What doesn’t?

Do you remember what it was like when you first learnt to read? The struggle? The frustration? If you’re going to learn to read ANY foreign language then you’re going to have to go through this again. You did it once so you can do it again. Don’t tell yourself you can’t do it. Tell yourself you don’t want to do it. Be honest with yourself.

I’ve started out by learning to read Hiragana and Katakana.

Kana progress chart1.jpgThe green ticks indicate the symbols I’ve mastered at this point. I’ve covered a whole lot more however, I’m not confidant enough to say that ‘know’ them. Knowing something to me is being able to recognize and reproduce it from memory. I can recognize all of these symbols but reproducing from memory is what I’m working on at the moment. I’ll keep you updated with my progress and I’ll write a post detailing the method I’m using to remember all of these symbols.

  • Very good blog dude. Some very essential food for thought, shined abit of light on my pitfalls, and solutions to getting out of them.

  • When I finish German I’d like to learn Japanese or Chinese, I find it very interesting! As always, very good post, I like what you write and how you write it. 😉

    • Thanks 🙂

      • Moneky D Luffy

        Japanese much easier than Chinese….
        Learn Japanese- it will be very useful if you are planing to visit Japan… (Just an Advice) U

  • I’ve just finished learning the Jouyou kanji (the ~2000 kanji which official government publications and newspapers (are supposed to) limit themselves to). My girlfriend made a chocolate cake which I decorated with the phrases: 二千字 漢字の王者 (2000 Characters Kanji King). The cake was delicious.

    To learn the kanji, I used James W. Heisig’s book Remembering the Kanji. I’d previously learned the Hiragana and Katakana in a fortnight using his similar book Remembering the Kana. What he does is breaks the kanji up into what he calls “primitive elements”, and makes up a story for each kanji, which mentions the primitive elements it’s made up from. I restricted myself to learning no more than 15 a day, which is an extremely low number, and easily doable – hey, I did it!

    The first chapter of RTK is available for free, and I can highly recommend it.

    You might also like Knuckles in China Land, which (despite the name) is a computer games for learning the kanji/kana. It’s pretty damn addictive!

    • How does it feel to have gotten through them all? It must feel great! in your experience so far are the 2000 kanji on the list sufficient?

      I use those same books, and I agree that they are absolutely great! I haven’t heard of the games but I will check them out for sure.

      Thanks for stopping by 🙂

      • Hey David,

        Yeah, it feels pretty good! It didn’t really sink in until I wrote the kanji on the cake. While admiring my icing-based handywork I realised that *I* could write kanji. *I* could do it too!

        I don’t really have enough experience yet to judge whether the list is sufficient or not, but there it’s not without good reason that there is a volume 3 of RTK. It would be naïve to think that you’re not going to regularly come into contact with kanji outside of the list (丼is really common, for example), but then, when you start reading, it’s going to be difficult anyway, even if you can recognise the kanji, so you’ve just got to go with it.

        I’m going to study volume 3 in the summer, and it’s probably not a terrible idea to do so, but you could just as easily learn these kanji on your own, through reading.

  • Wanting to Learn

    can you tell me How to count on Japanese 1-100 please im just a starter

    • A simple google search can help you with that.

    • Beginner

      1=ichi, 2=ni, 3=san, 4=yon, 5=go, 6=roku, 7=ishchi, 8=hachi, 9=kyuu, 10=juu.
      remember these and you can easily learn to count till 100 because the rest are just combinations of the above. For ex. 12= juu-ni (10 and 2), 25= ni-juu-go (2 and 10 and 5) and so on….

  • kevin9th

    Honestly I had thought about learning Kanji the same way but I was not quite confident. You sort of encouraged me. THANK YOU

  • Once you learn the Japanese *alphabets* then you still need to figure out what the works mean! Wondering if there is a way to learn to read Japanese, I don’t need to speak it, just read it.

  • Michelle

    I’m only 13 but I still want to try to learn Japanese! I’m soo excited! Iight now I’m doing research and I have a lot of material to deal with. I got the idea from a game called karuta (heard of it?) you need to memorize 100 poems all in Japanese. Then I realized I have to learn how to read Japanese. THEN I realized all about the kanji and hiragana and katakana. TIME FOR A MAJOR MENTAL WORKOUT. THANKS FOR THE POST AND THANKS TO THE COMMENTERS. ESPECIALLY BRYCE MILLER WHO GAVE ME THE IDEA OF GETTING “remember the kana”. THANKS FOR POSTING DAVID EVEN THIUGH IT’S BEEN LIKE 3 years!

    • Lord Escanor

      So how is it going?

  • kraemder

    Well this is an old post. I wonder if you gave up or persevered with Japanese. I’ve been going at Japanese for almost 3 years now. A few classes and a lot of self study. I hate the writing system like you wouldn’t believe although I’m better at reading it than most of my classmates in my classes since I study so much. And I keep wondering if I’ll really ever get good enough to read light novels fluently. If I had any sense I’d switch back to European languages.

  • kraemder

    Oh just commenting on some other posts. I went through Remember the Kanji book 1 and benefited a lot from it but being able to write a lot of kanji and recognize and give an English meaning is not the same as being able to read Japanese. You’re still thinking in English even if you’re looking at funny Chinese Characters. It seems you need to be able to speak Japanese in order to read Japanese. This isn’t really the cast for languages with an alphabet. I

  • pokeface119

    I didn’t know this was a Disqus site!

  • pokeface119

    I want to learn Japanese but i have no idea where to start 🙁

  • Brennan Schulz

    The reason why I want to learn how to read/write/speak is because eventually i want to move to Japan.

  • furo

    i like this blog and it is very interesting, for now i’ve learned Hiragana and is not difficult
    i think that very soon i would go to japan and is very amazing

  • China man

    Ching Ching chong chang

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