“How do you read those Japanese symbols? How do you understand what they mean?”
These are questions that people have asked me a lot.
Before I studied Japanese, I had that same thought. “Can I really learn to read Japanese?”
I thought to myself: Where and how do I even begin to understand the language? It looks like a jumbled mess.
For those of you who have minimal experience in the Japanese language, what do you see when you see this?
Does it just look like squiggles and random symbols? I know it did for me when I first began my studies!
The Japanese language is certainly unique, and famously complex too. But don’t fret! That’s how it looks to most of us when we first start out! Despite seeming really complex, the Japanese writing system is actually very logical, making it super easy to learn.
In this guide, I will break down the steps on how to read Japanese so that you too, no longer see a squiggly mess, but rather; the enchanting beauty that lies within the foundation of the Japanese language!
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Table of Contents
How to read the Japanese Alphabet
The Japanese language consists of three alphabets or scripts.
You might be thinking, “three!?” But don’t worry! Actually only one of them requires a significant amount of time (compared to the others) to learn.
Here are the three scripts:
If you want to be able to read Japanese, I highly recommend making learning hiragana a top priority.
Reading Japanese Romaji
Before we jump into hiragana, I wanted to explain briefly about romaji. Romaji literally means Roman Characters, the very same characters we use for the English alphabet. Although Japanese does contain romaji, you will only really see romaji in important circumstances to help those who can’t understand Japanese text. You can often find city names displayed in romaji on signs.
This is a picture I took during my 700-mile cycle across Japan. I aimed for Shirakawago (from Nagoya) in one day.
Despite the endless struggle up multiple mountains, somehow I actually made it. You can see the Japanese text on the sign.
Below the Japanese text, you can see the corresponding romaji (the English name). Other than a few minor exceptions, the Japanese language does not use romaji very often at all, and if you want to be able to read Japanese, you should definitely start with hiragana! Let’s begin!:)
What is Hiragana?
Hiragana is the core of the Japanese language.
It is a phonetic script, consisting of 46 characters.
Each character of the hiragana script represents a syllable sound.
You will be able to pronounce any word in the Japanese language once you’ve learned each one.
All of these syllables represent every sound within the Japanese language. This means that once you have learned all 46 of the Hiragana characters, you’ll be able to read and say anything in Japanese.
How to read Japanese Hiragana
Let me show you an example. Two of the 46 characters are す and き.
す is pronounced: su (as in the su in super).
き is pronounced: ki (as in the word: key).
By putting them together and you get: すき, (pronounced su key) or in romaji: suki
すき (suki) means: like.
Just like in English, Japanese also has vowels.
All of the hiragana characters will have a vowel in them. Except for the vowels themselves and a few exceptions, you can pronounce all of the characters in Japanese the same way as you would pronounce two Latin letters.
The second letter is always a vowel and the first one is always a consonant.
For example, just now we looked at す (su).
The romaji and pronunciation for the hiragana す is a consonant [s] followed by a vowel, [u].
Just as you might have guessed, you could change the [u] for an [a], and you get [sa] (pronounced the same as [sa] in sat).
The Japanese alphabet doesn’t cover all of the consonants we have in English though. There is no [lu] for instance. We’ll talk about this a little more later.
That’s all there is to it, every sound in the Japanese language is like this, and once you’ve remembered each one, it’s just a matter of remembering the vocabulary! Hiragana is also used in the majority of Japanese grammar too.
A full sentence in Japanese would consist of multiple hiragana characters together. Something like this: にほんがすき. (which means “I like Japan”) In Japanese, there are no spaces between words!
How to learn Japanese Hiragana
So, that’s great, but how can you learn them?
Firstly, take a look at these.
This is our Japanese Core Hiragana Core card for the character す (su). We have created a study resource called: Hiragana Core to help you learn hiragana. All of the resources that I make for our site are resources that I wish that I had when I first began learning Japanese. So I hope you’ll find them useful!
The best way for you to learn the hiragana, rather than just remember them is through mnemonics.
By using mnemonics you can build a visual connection to each individual hiragana character.
For the す (su) character, we created a connection by linking it to the [su] in superman as the pronunciation is the same. These techniques will allow your brain to recall the hiragana much more effectively and efficiently, burning them into your long-term memory.
Next, let’s take a look at the card for き (ki).
On this Japanese Core card, we have the character き (ki).
As I mentioned earlier, the hiragana き (ki) is pronounced the same as the English word for [key]. It even looks the same as one!
“How can I learn how to read Japanese quickly?” is a question I often see. My biggest advice would be to incorporate this study technique. By using this method you can enjoy studying the hiragana characters, as well as retaining the reading of each one, very quickly.
We have a full resource on the Japanese Core Hiragana Quest in development, be sure to check this page here.
By referring to our hiragana chart you can see all 46 characters and how to pronounce them.
More Hiragana Reading and Study techniques
Practice reading hiragana through tests and games!
Until it is completed, I recommend using this site to test your ability to recall the characters.
I used this Japanese hiragana test to test myself over and over again when I was learning hiragana. See how fast you can eventually crack 100 score without getting a single one wrong!
You could also try Dr Lingua’s Drag and Drop Kana Bento.
It adds a little more flavour to your hiragana learning with graphics of a Japanese lunch box (bento).
You simply drag each hiragana to it’s corresponding English (romaji) counterpart. This one also has an integrated timer making it easier to record your timings.
It also comes with a feature allowing you to test your hiragana recall ability vs your katakana recall ability. We’ll be talking about katakana later on in this guide. Definitely give it shot!
Learning how to read Hiragana through videos
I also recommend giving this video a watch to boost your hiragana studies. This video was produced by the guys at Japanesepod101, and they use a similar technique to the ones we use here. I love the creativeness in the visual associations they’ve made to help you learn the hiragana.
You can also try Japanese Ammo with Misa’s video. She adds a lot more vocabulary to her teachings of the hiragana characters. This makes it useful if you’re looking to pick up some vocab on the way too!
Japanese Language Resources
One of the best ways to learn a language in my opinion is without a doubt by taking online classes. But not just any online class, you have to find one that’s right for you. It’s so important to find a tutor who can support you, recognise your weaknesses, strengths and deliver you a fulfilling language learning experience.
That is why I recommend Preply or Italki. I have written a full review on Preply here, so if you’re interested in affordable 1-on-1 online classes you can take from the comfort of your own home, take a look! I cover the entire platform, the good and not-so-good, as well as provide my honest opinion on using Preply.
The Difference between Hiragana and Katakana
Katakana is the next of the three scripts in Japanese.
Katakana, like hiragana, is a phonetic script that consists of 46 characters.
In fact, the katakana characters have the exact same pronunciation as their hiragana counterparts. This means you don’t need to learn any new sounds. Rather, katakana is just another symbol that represents the same sounds of each hiragana.
For example, the hiragana す(su), which we learned earlier, actually has a second way to write it.
In katakana, it becomes ス (su). These two characters have the exact same pronunciation.
They just look slightly different. In general, hiragana characters will be more rounded and smooth, cursive almost. Whereas the katakana counterpart of each hiragana will be much sharper around the edges.
Now I bet you’re wondering the same thing as I did when I first learned about katakana’s existence.
Why on earth do they have two alphabets if they’re the exact same bar writing style?
What is Katakana?
The Japanese language has borrowed words. These borrowed words are words that have been taken from other languages, such as English, German, and even Russian.
These borrowed words are katakana. We actually have them in English too, words such as karaoke are examples of words that have been borrowed from Japanese.
There are actually a fair amount of words that the Japanese language has borrowed. Being an English speaker is definitely an advantage to help you learn them.
As spoken Japanese does not mirror the exact same sounds we have in English, some words can’t be said the same.
For example, there are no single letter phonetic characters in the Japanese alphabet that aren’t vowels, bar ん(n).
Take the word [gym] for instance, in Japanese it becomes ジム, (jimu) pronounced jim moo.
Because most of the characters in Japanese are pronounced as two Latin letters, borrowed (katakana) words will often have an additional sound to be pronounced, one that doesn’t exist in the original Latin word.
For example, in English when we say the word [gym], we finish on the [m] sound, because the single letter [m] is a letter in our alphabet.
In Japanese, they don’t have these single letter characters, so naturally, the ending will be pronounced differently. in this case, [gym] becomes [jimu] ending on the [u] sound.
How to read Japanese L and R
Also, there are no distinct L or R sounds in Japanese.
The word [table “” not found /]
, is an example of a borrowed word in the Japanese language. [Table] becomes, teburu. pronounced tay, (as in taylor), bu, (as in Boo!), and ru (But because there is no L or R in Japanese, it becomes a mix between the loo, in loose, and the roo, in room).
This is the case for the entire R+vowel line in Japanese. Have a quick listen!
Just as there is no sound quite like this in English, there is no R sound in Japanese. So words with R’s in them are quite difficult for Japanese people to pronounce without practice. Take the word [rainbow] for instance, it would become [lainbow].
These borrowed words are written in katakana, rather than hiragana, which lets you know that these aren’t original Japanese words. It’s actually quite good fun trying to decipher the meaning of katakana.
Sometimes you can get the meaning straight away, and other times, it might take you a minute. I remember in class spending quite a while trying to work out what Fueisubukku was. (フェイスブック）
Have a look for yourself, and see if you can recognise any words!
Why learn to read Japanese katakana
This is why it’s so important to not skip learning katakana. By learning katakana, you will be able to understand the correct pronunciation of words in Japanese.
This makes you sound way more natural in your speech, and it also means that Japanese people will be able to understand you.
It’s also very useful to learn katakana, as you will find when you go to Japan, a lot of menu items will be written in katakana. You will be able to read them and decipher from the sounds of the katakana what the English word might be.
Say you wanted to order a big mac burger at McDonalds. You could go into the restaurant, and as you can read katakana, you could skip the pointing at the images charade and tell the waiter you’d like a ビッグマックバーガー(biggumakku ba-ga-). The word “burger” is in katakana on the menu too.
That’s all you need to do to be able to read a basic menu in Japan!
So, we’ve established that katakana are borrowed words, and hiragana make up the core of the Japanese alphabet and language.
Grammar, and all other words that aren’t borrowed words, is constructed in hiragana. Hiragana can also be combined with other hiragana to make Kanji, but we’ll get onto that section a little later.
How to read Japanese Katakana
Once you’ve got hiragana down, and are fairly confident in it, I recommend making your next step learning katakana.
Another one of the main reasons I recommend learning hiragana first, then katakana is because many of the hiragana and katakana characters’ appearance is relatively similar.
Already being able to recognise hiragana helps a lot when you’re learning katakana as you can make visual connections with them.
Take a look at these.
Earlier, we saw the hiragana character き (ki). Its katakana counterpart is actually very similar. Here is it! キ (ki) The strokes are much more straight, and firm. I think that katakana is actually much simpler than hiragana, and if you already have hiragana under your belt, you’ll be able to understand katakana and be able to read Japanese in no time!
Let’s take a look at another.
These two characters, か, and カ are pronounced as ka (as in the [ca] in cat). Can you guess which one is the hiragana and which one is the katakana character?
Going with what we learned previously, we know that katakana is less cursive, and are more straight in their strokes. With this knowledge in hand, this makes we can deduce that か is the hiragana and カ is the katakana!
As you can see, they are quite similar, making them super easy to learn!
More Katakana reading and study techniques
Reading Japanese practice: Katakana tests and Games
For the ultimate hiragana to katakana test, I recommend Dr Lingua’s Drag and Drop Kana Bento.
Here you can set the game mode where you have to match each hiragana and its corresponding katakana counterpart together. This is a fantastic way to challenge yourself on both your hiragana and katakana ability.
If you are considering studying Japanese at university, I highly suggest you master hiragana and katakana before your classes begin.
It helps out a ton when you can jump right into the content, and you can start making notes in Japanese immediately from the get-go. (as opposed to romaji).
If you’ve already got hiragana and katakana down, you’re ready to start reading actual Japanese texts with no Latin at all.
The Difference Between the Katakana so (ソ), n (ン), tsu (ツ), shi (シ)
A quick shout to the [so] and [n] katakana for looking so alike, and giving me the best embarrassing memories. I’d say they are almost as bad as シ (shi) and ツ (tsu). But these ones have a special place in my heart.
I’m sure if you’ve already begun your katakana studies, or if not, you’re about to find out, about the beautiful nightmare these four characters can be. I mean, maybe they look not so bad when they’re next to each other like this: シソツン. Maybe they do actually, I take that back.
But when you see one on its own like this: ツ. it tries to trick you for a second, making you stop and just double-check you’ve remembered this character correctly. (This has happened to me multiple times during Japanese university tests, or even in normal Japanese texts).
I want to break down the difference between these characters, to help you be able to recognise the difference in them a little more clearly. After all, you’re going to need to be able to tell the difference straight away in order to be able to read Japanese swiftly.
Let me enlarge them for you a bit.
Let’s start by breaking them down and analysing them as pairs, rather than as a group of four.
So we have ツシ and ンソ
Each katakana in the first group has an additional stroke, making them somewhat easily differentiable from the second group. We’ll take the first group and look at them some more.
What is the difference between the Katakana ツ[tsu] and シ [shi]?
ツシ are [tsu] and [shi] respectively. They both have three strokes, and three letters in their romaji spelling. That’s how you can remember them, three strokes=three letters.
The way I like to look at these katakana is to imagine that a gust of wind is blowing them downwards, or to the side.
A method you can use to try and help you remember the characters is to think about the direction the wind is blowing the characters.
In the case of シ [shi], the wind is being blown from the west. And the word in Japanese for west happens to be 西 [nishi], which has [shi] in it!
Also, you can see the wind blowing the character eastward. You guessed it! The word for the east in Japanese also contains [shi].
That word is 東 [higashi]. It’s almost like they’ve done this on purpose! From these findings, we can deduce that the second one is ツ [tsu], making it super easy to remember!
What is the difference between the Katakana ソ[so] and ン[n]?
Next up we have ソ [so] and ン [n]. I mentioned earlier that it’s thanks to these characters that I have some embarrassing memories I’ll never forget.
At an exchange party between Japanese students and English students at my university, we all wore name badges.
We wrote our English name, and our katakana name on our name badges ourselves. In Japanese Latin names are written in katakana by the way. Despite not being confident in katakana yet, I gave it my best shot in writing my name.
Now, my name happens to end in an [n], which I ended up writing in katakana as: アーロソ, which in English would be Aaroso.
I didn’t realise the whole time that I had completely butchered my name. I have also made the mistake of writing ソ instead of ン on job application forms, and of course, I had to rewrite the entire thing.
Since then, I no longer make these mistakes with the ソ[so] and ン[n] characters.
To help you, I’ve come up with a knack to remember them.
We can use English to help us remember these characters this time! In the case of ソ [so] we draw a line from the small stroke, to the closest end of the long troke.
You will find that when you do this, the closest end will always be southward, and as the word [south] begins with[so] we can deduce that this one is ソ [so]!
Similarly, if we do the same with ン [n] and draw a line from the small stroke to the closest end of the long-stroke, you will find that the closest end will always be northward. And as coincidence has it, the word [north], begins with [n]!
I hope that helps you better understand the difference between ツ、シ、ソ、ン.
What is Japanese Kanji
Now we’re onto the big one; kanji.
Put simply, kanji are Chinese characters. They were brought to Japan from China, many years ago. Some of them are very slightly different from the actual Chinese characters, but they are mostly similar.
愛 this is a kanji. It means [love].
Kanji are the things that you’ve probably read about being the most difficult part of learning Japanese.
I mean, at first glance, they do look complex, they’re a mess of squiggles. There are thousands among thousands of these things, and their numbers just keep increasing totalling up to 50000. But don’t worry! I’m going to show you how you can come to 愛 kanji.
The Japanese government has done us a huge favour and has given us a list of the top 2136 most used kanji in Japanese. These kanji are called the joyo kanji.
So, if you want to be able to read most Japanese texts, you’re going to have to know the 2136 joyo kanji.
Of course, children’s books won’t use as many kanji as something like a newspaper. But it’s kind of understood by everyone who is studying Japanese, that to read a newspaper, you need to know the kanji.
The difference between Japanese Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana
Unlike hiragana and katakana, each kanji has its own (multiple) meaning(s). Some kanji may have more meanings than others.
Let me teach you three now. 一、二、三 are the kanji for one, two, and three respectively. Unfortunately the kanji for four changes from just increasing the numbers of lines, to 四 instead. But hey, now you only have 2133 more to go!
This doesn’t mean that every word will have its individual kanji though, some words will be made up of multiple kanji.
After you know the meaning of each kanji, it becomes quite easy to make educational guesses on the meanings of words even though you don’t know how to read them.
The kanji for [person] is 人, and the kanji for [two] is 二. Put them together and you have 二人, literally meaning [two people].
That’s all there is to it in regards to getting the meaning of words down. It’s the reading and writing that make it more tricky, but it’s worth doing.
How to read Japanese Kanji?
Remember the hiragana earlier? Kanji are made of one or more hiragana that constitute the reading of a kanji.
Let’s take the kanji 愛 for example. The reading for this kanji is あい [ai] (pronounced [I]). This is why it is important to learn the hiragana first, so you read kanji later.
You could just write Japanese all in hiragana, but there are two reasons why Japan doesn’t do this. Take a look at these two sentences.
The first sentence uses all hiragana, and the second uses kanji for the hiragana.
I have highlighted the hiragana reading for the kanji in both sentences. As the Japanese language doesn’t use spaces between words, the first sentence is much more difficult to read.
The second reason is homonyms. A sequence of hiragana together can actually have two completely different meanings, which is why kanji is used to allow for clear differentiation.
Let’s take a look at the kanji for [kanji] for example.
漢字, in its hiragana form, would be かんじ [kanji]
The kanji for [feeling] in Japanese is:
感じ, and in its hiragana form かんじ [kanji]
The two have different kanji but the same hiragana. This is why having kanji can be very useful in helping readers work out the meaning is of a word.
Kunyomi vs Onyomi
Kanji often have two different types of readings too. These are the Kun-reading, and the on-reading, or the kunyomi. and the onyomi.
When learning kanji, and how to read Japanese, you’re going to have to remember the two readings of every kanji. Which one you have to use, depends on the word, and the context. It comes naturally to you as you learn the Japanese language, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much!
How to read Japanese Onyomi
As we mentioned earlier, Chinese characters were brought over to Japan a long time ago.
When they were introduced to Japan, the Japanese began to adopt the characters into their language. Originally they tried to keep the pronunciation the same, but there are plenty of differences in pronunciation between the Japanese and Chinese languages, so that didn’t quite work.
So, Japan adopted Chinese characters and altered their pronunciation. These characters are Onyomi.
This is not to say that all of the Chinese characters that were brought over into the Japanese language had their pronunciation changed though.
Some actually remain the same. For example, let’s take the Japanese kanji for the number three.
As I mentioned earlier, it consists of three horizontal lines. 三, pronounced さん (san). All of the Japanese kanji for numbers are the same as Chinese kanji for numbers, and out of all of them, only 三 remains the same in terms of pronunciation.
A lot of the time, Onyomi will be used in more complex words, where multiple kanji are attached together to form a single word, and often have an increased formality associated with them. Lots of them are used in writing, or when speaking formally.
Reading Japanese: Onyomi Examples
This isn’t always the case though. For instance, kanji for the days of the week use onyomi.
Did you know that the Japanese days of the week in English are associated with elements? For example, Sunday is actually the day of the sun, and Monday is the day of the moon. Well, the Japanese language actually has this too with its days of the week.
Credit goes to Percivalias for this image.
Thursday is the day of the tree, and the word for tree in Japanese is 木, in its hiragana form き. (ki, pronounced [key]).
However, because it is read in its onyomi when it is read as a day of the week, it becomes, もく, (moku, pronounced mo as in [mono] and ku as in the coo in [cucoo].
As you can see, all of the days of the week have multiple kanji together that form each word for each day of the week.
This is why when you search a Japanese word up in the dictionary, (we recommend Jisho for your online Japanese dictionary) it will show a katakana reading and a hiragana reading.
As we discussed earlier, katakana are borrowed words from other languages.
The same goes for the readings. All of the onyomi for every kanji will are often in katakana because they are borrowed readings from China!
It’s important to note though, that this is only the case for dictionaries. If you want to write an onyomi word without writing it in kanji, you’d write it in hiragana.
How to read Japanese Kunyomi
This leaves us with Kunyomi, the original Japanese pronunciation for words.
Some kanji will have multiple kunyomi too. Although it can seem overwhelming, you’ll find that a lot of words use similar patterns.
For example, the Japanese kanji for a person is 人. When this kanji is by itself it’s pronounced as ひと [hito], pronounced as (he toe). But when you put it together with other kanji, its reading changes.
For example, if you want to say [Japanese person], you would put the kanji for [Japan] which is 「日本」 before the kanji for [person]「人」, making it [日本人]. This also changes the reading from kunyomi to onyomi, making it pronounced as じん [jin].
Many Japanese adjectives and verbs are kunyomi. Sometimes additional hiragana accompany kanji and complete a word. Whereas, onyomi will not have any accompanying hiragana necessary to complete word. These hiragana are okurigana.
Maybe you noticed earlier during the initial kanji explanation, the kanji for the word [feeling] (which happens to be pronounced and read the same way as the kanji for [kanji], despite having different kanji) had an accompanying hiragana.
The word for [feeling] in Japanese is 感じ (kanji). The じ (ji) hiragana is pronounced as the letter [G].
The word for hot is another example of an accompanying hiragana. 暑い、(pronounced atsui).
These accompanying hiragana are okurigana.
How to learn to read Japanese Kanji
Luckily, there is a system in place to help us learn to read kanji. They are Radicals.
Radicals are small parts that make up a kanji. By learning the radicals, you can break down even the most complicated-looking kanji, and eventually, kanji stop looking like squiggles and like a bunch of radicals squished together instead.
There are 214 of them, and some of them are actually standalone kanji. Although all radicals aren’t kanji, I highly suggest learning them straight away if you want to be able to read Japanese. If you know the radicals, learning the kanji becomes significantly easier, as you can begin to understand the construction of each kanji. You can find them, here.
How to read Japanese by learning the Radicals
Kanji and radicals are actually very clever. They work together extremely well. Let me show you. The kanji (and radical) for a tree is 木. Can you see it? It kind of looks like a tree doesn’t it?
The magic with radicals is that they can make sense, and help you to learn kanji if you let them. Let me show you another example. You have this tree radical, but what would happen if you put two together like this. 林.
Well, two trees make it a grove. But, we can actually go one step further and make it three trees: 森. Any idea what three trees together might mean?
You guessed it! It’s a forest! So we have, 木、林、森, meaning tree, grove, and forest respectively.
This is why taking the time to learn radicals are so important if you chuck in a little bit of creativity in the learning process if you can pick up multiple kanji just from knowing one radical, makes learning the radicals super attractive!
Let’s take another look at the kanji for love 愛 あい [ai] (pronounced [I]).
We can also break this one down using radicals too. Take a look!
We have the radical for heart 心, and the radical for accept 受. The act of accepting someone’s heart is the same as accepting their love, so naturally, by putting them together, we can make [love]! (no pun intended)
Have a look at some radicals, learn a few, and you’ll notice this will definitely help you with your kanji studies. You’ll be reading Japanese in no time!
So, how do you read Japanese?
Well, sometimes Japanese is written vertically, so you read it from top to bottom. On top of that, authentic Japanese books follow are read right to left, as opposed to the left to right system we’re used to here in the west.
Sometimes you read Japanese both vertically and horizontally at the same time. An excellent example of this is a newspaper.
It allows more information to fit onto the page, making use of as much white space as possible.
Websites and mobile phones display the text horizontally, however, reading from left to right. That’s it for the different layouts.
The number of different layouts might feel a little discouraging, but I promise you, it’s not that bad!
Other than that, reading Japanese is a matter of learning the hiragana, katakana, and kanji respectively. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be reading Japanese no problem!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide! If you need any help, feel free to message me or write us a comment below!
Japanese Reading Practice
Now that you know how to read Japanese, how about learning how to say some expressions and phrases right off the bat?
Ready to start reading some Japanese? I have developed a Japanese Reading Practice eLearning Interactive PDF resource free for you. My goodness, that certainly was a mouthful! You can read all about it, and get free lifetime access here!