Quick Writing Guide

The one thing I will not be covering in this series is the Japanese writing system. This is something that is left up to you, as learning Japanese writing is more a function of motivation and brute force than learning concepts. However, what I will do is go over the three Japanese writing systems briefly, and offer a few tips for learning them.

The three writing systems are:

(1) Hiragana. This is the “curly” phonetic alphabet. Each character corresponds to a specific sound, like “ha” or “mu” or “i,” and the characters are generally curved. These are the most basic of the Japanese characters, and you should learn these first. There are around 50 of these. Examples include: あえいおう.

(2) Katakana. This is the “straight” phonetic alphabet. Like Hiragana, each character corresponds to a specific sound. These characters are usually used for “loan words,” which are words that the Japanese adopted from foreign languages. For example, terebi, the word for television, would be written in Katakana: テレビ. There are around 50 of these. Examples include: アエイオウ.

(3) Kanji. This is essentially the traditional Chinese alphabet, and the one that takes motivation to learn. Kanji characters often have multiple pronunciations and multiple uses/meanings, and hence cannot be considered a phonetic alphabet. They are used for everything, from forming verbs to compound nouns to all of the stuff in between. There are a huge number of these, but you will need to learn approximately 2000 before you are considered Japanese literate. More specifically, these are the kanji you have to know to read at a high school level. Get going.

If you really do want to get much out the Japanese lessons I am posting on the site, you really do need to self-study writing on the side by yourself. Finish Hiragana first, and then learn Katakana, and make sure you know them well (Here are some flashcards.). Then, pace yourself and learn a bit of kanji every day, making sure to keep track of all the kanji you’ve learned in some kind of database or flashcard program. My recommended pace is 5 a day, but if you find yourself too busy you might turn that down to around 20 a week.

As for what kanji you should learn, the method is up to you. Many people would suggest you go in order from the first grade kanji all the way up to the high school kanji. For me, I prefer learning kanji that I’ve read – when I first started, I would write down 5 new kanji a day from whatever book/manga/etc. I was reading, and those would be the 5 I memorized that day. It’s up to you to find out what learning style works best for you.

When I say “learn kanji,” this includes the definitions and all the pronunciations of that Kanji. It often helps to look up a few words the kanji is used in. To help us with that, let’s go over the basics of kanji.

Kanji Basics

Many Kanji have two sets of pronunciations. It is important in learning kanji to know which is which, and how they both are used:

(1) The Japanese, or kun reading. The kun reading is most often used with hiragana to form simple verbs or adjectives. For example, the kanji 静 has a kun pronunciation of shizu, and can be used to form the adjective 静か, shizuka, which means quiet. If you see a kanji together with a hiragana character, chances are that kanji is being pronounced under its kun reading. Note that many kanji will have multiple kun pronunciations. The kanji 音, which means sound, has both ne and oto as its kun readings.

(2) The Chinese, or on reading. These are most often used to form compound words. The same kanji we explored the kun reading of, 静, has an on reading of either sei or jou. In the compound word 冷静, which means calm, this kanji is pronounced under its on reading, and this word is pronounced reisei (rei is the on reading of the kanji 冷).

So, to learn kanji, you must be sure to know both its kun and on readings. Some kanji only have one or the other, but many of the common kanji have both. When you learn the readings, be sure to also learn a few of the words the kanji can be used to form. This will give you a much better idea of the meaning of the kanji.

The last note I wanted to add is that Japanese writing has no spaces. For example, the Oreimo title is written in Japanese as

俺の妹がこんなに可愛いわけがない。

If we were to put a space in between each word, this would actually look like

俺 の 妹 が こんな に 可愛い わけ が ない

But, that doesn’t happen. So, when reading Japanese sentences, it is important to pay attention to where one word ends and the next word begins. Sometimes, words do bleed into each other a bit, and this is difficult, so just be careful.

That’s all I got for writing. Feel free to email me with any questions, but after this point, I will try to mention Japanese writing as little as possible.

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10 thoughts on “Quick Writing Guide

  1. Concerning the “has no spaces”, in a lot of mangas the text is written from top right to bottom right, then next column to the left, again to the bottom and so on, right?
    How about books?
    Same reading order as in english?

    • Also, (damn, can’t edit) do japanese people also type with the Japanese IME in windows, or do they directly insert hiragana assigned to keyboard keys?

      • Printed matter is almost always vertical, right to left, top to bottom, but online stuff is usually horizontal.

        With regards to the IME, I think most people use the IME, but there are keyboard setups that allow you to input hiragana directly. Even in Japan though, you can’t survive without knowing the English alphabet, so everyone is at least familiar with the standard qwerty keyboard.

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