Japanese is written using a combination of "kanji" and "kana" characters. Kanji are Chinese symbols, and are used to represent words or ideas - either on their own, or in groups. "Kana" are more like the alphabet used by English speakers, in that they represent sounds, not concepts.
Just as the alphabet is made up of upper and lower case, kana is split into hiragana and katakana. Katakana is mainly used for words of foreign origin (though it does have other uses too):
Hiragana is used for everything else, including "native" Japanese words and grammatical particles. It can even be used as an alternative to kanji if a writer (or their intended audience) doesn't know the kanji symbol(s) used to represent a word; books for young children will often use kana in place of "advanced" kanji for this reason.
A third way to represent kana characters is "romaji", i.e. "roman" characters. There are a few different ways to transliterate Japanese kana characters into romaji; we'll be using the Hepburn system because it's the most popular method in use today, but language nerds might be interested to know about alternative conversion systems such as Kunrei-shiki.
Most syllables in Japanese follow a "consonant + vowel" format, except for the vowels themselves and the special-case "n" syllable. Syllables are organised into groups of five based on the consonant sound, as shown in the table below:
あ Hiragana ア Katakana
You'll notice that there are a few instances which don't quite fit in with the general pattern:
This is simply how those syllables are pronounced when spoken aloud, hence why the Hepburn system converts them slightly differently from how you may expect. Note that some alternative transliteration systems do convert these characters to fit in with the expected pattern, but (as mentioned above) this is rather less common than the Hepburn method.
There are also noticeable gaps where you'd expect yi, ye, and wu to be. These sounds don't really exist in Japanese, so there aren't any kana characters to represent them (well, "ye" does kind-of exist - see the notes further down). Additionally, the "wi" and "we" characters are officially obsolete, and so are no longer generally used; they're included for completeness, but feel free to ignore them if you'd rather not memorize more than you need to.
In addition to the basic "unvoiced" sounds described above, modified versions of the k/s/t/h kana are used for "voiced" syllables. These "voiced" kana look almost identical to their unvoiced equivalents except for the addition of two small strokes in the top-right corner called a dakuten. There are also "half-voiced" variants of the five "h-" kana, which use a small circle (known as a handakuten) in place of the usual dakuten mark - see below:
あ Hiragana ア Katakana
In a lot of cases, the voiced kana sound similar to the unvoiced counterpart; "ka" becomes "ga", "sa" becomes "za", and "ta" becomes "da". However, this is not always true - you'll notice that "ha" becomes "ba" or "pa", despite their sounds not being quite as similar as the other examples. Additionally, you'll notice that there are a few inconsistencies, just as there are with the basic unvoiced kana:
The ぢ/ヂ and づ/ヅ characters are significantly less common than the じ/ジ and ず/ズ ones, though they aren't obsolete in the same sense that ゐ/ヰ and ゑ/ヱ are.
The various "-i" kana can be combined with a small "y-" character to create a "compound" in which the "i" disappears. For example, combining "ki" with "ya" creates "kya". A complete list is shown below:
あ Hiragana ア Katakana
Note that a slightly smaller "y-" character is used. A "normal" size ya/yu/yo would not combine with the previous character, since it's a distinct kana in its own right; compare "miya" (みや or ミヤ) with "mya" (みゃ or ミャ).
You might have noticed that the "shi" and "chi" combinations differ slightly, in that they form sha/shu/sho and cha/chu/cho rather than shya/shyu/shyo etc. This is simply because the "y" is superfluous, so (using Hepburn rules) it is usually omitted.
Note: The "wi" characters (ゐ or ヰ) are never combined with ya/yu/yo in modern Japanese - their obsolescence makes them rare enough on their own. See this post on StackExchange if you would like to know more.
The voiced variants of the various "-i" kana can be combined with ya/yu/yo in exactly the same way as their unvoiced counterparts, as illustrated here:
あ Hiragana ア Katakana
As with shi and chi, the "ji" compounds are slightly unusual in that they are usually written as ja/ju/jo rather than jya/jyu/jyo, for the same reason: The "y" isn't really necessary ("ja" and "jya" sound identical), so it's removed. Having said that, it's not exactly wrong to keep the "y", so you may occasionally see jya/jyu/jyo used in romaji text.
As with ぢ/ヂ and じ/ジ, the ぢゃ/ぢゅ/ぢょ (or ヂャ/ヂュ/ヂョ) compounds are less frequently seen than じゃ/じゅ/じょ (or ジャ/ジュ/ジョ) are.
If you've read through the above sections, then you should now have a general grasp of how hiragana and katakana work. The following sections cover things such as pronunciations or "missing" sounds in greater detail.
Since all syllables (except "n") are based around the five vowel sounds, it's important to understand how to pronounce those vowels correctly. The following table serves as a rough pronunciation guide for native English speakers:
|Sound (Short)||Sound (Long)||Example (Short)||Example (Long)|
|a||ah as in
|i||ih as in
||ee as in
|u||oo as in
|e||eh as in
|o||ogh as in
||owe as in
Now, This Time
|n||nh as in
Note that the special "n" syllable is unrelated to the na/ni/nu/ne/no kana. It should be considered to be a separate sound; んあ is not the same as な.
It's possible to "double" the consonant part of a syllable by adding a small "tsu" (っ or ッ) before it:
For words of foreign origin, it's possible to extend the duration of a vowel by adding ー after a katakana character. Native words generally add an extra vowel kana instead, so "yuuki" (bravery) is written as ゆうき rather than ゆーき.
It's important to note that extended consonants/vowels change the meaning of a word, just as the English words "loop" and "lop" are differentiated by a single extra "o" character. For example, ビル ("biru") means "building", but ビール ("biiru") means "beer".
らりるれろ (or ラリルレロ) are used for both ra/ri/ru/re/ro and la/li/lu/le/lo; Japanese makes no distinction between "R" and "L" sounds.
More accurately, らりるれろ and ラリルレロ produce sounds half-way between what English speakers would call "R" or "L", so it's not true (in the strictest sense) to say that "R and L are the same letter in Japanese" - it's more like "neither R nor L exist in Japanese, but らりるれろ and ラリルレロ are pretty close approximations for the sound of either one".
There are no explicit characters for fa/fi/fe/fo. Instead, the basic "fu" (ふ or フ) sound is modified by adding a small vowel character as shown below:
Thus, "loanwords" (i.e words of foreign origin) can be approximated like so:
The letter "v" is generally replaced with "b" in Japanese loanwords:
However, in some cases "v" may be represented as a "voiced" katakana "u" (ヴ), with a small vowel following it as per fa/fi/fu/fo:
There is a hiragana counterpart (ゔ), but it's essentially useless since there aren't any native Japanese words that require it.
Trivia: Katakana characters for va/vi/ve/vo do exist, but aren't used. They look like "voiced" versions of the wa/wi/we/wo characters:
These are really obscure (browsers probably won't display them without Unifont installed), so don't be surprised if you never see them mentioned anywhere except this page.
As with "v" above, a "th" sound doesn't exist in Japanese. Instead, loanwords usually replace "th" with either "s" or "z" to approximate the sound:
The "wa" kana (わ/ワ) are pretty much the only real "w" characters in Japanese. The "wo" kana (を/ヲ) are actually pronounced more like "o", and are rather less common than the usual お/オ kana.
The "wi" (ゐ/ヰ) and "we" (ゑ/ヱ) kana are obsolete and are almost never used. If they are used, it's generally for "effect" rather than pronunciation; they sound identical to "i" (い/イ) and "e" (え/エ) in modern Japanese. For example, ヱヴァンゲリヲン would be transliterated as "Evangelion", not "Wevangelion" (also, notice that ヲ is used instead of オ for the "o" sound - as with ゑ, the "w" isn't actually pronounced).
Instead, w- sounds (other than "wa") tend to be represented as a "u" followed by a small vowel:
For example, "wetsuit" would be written as ウェットスーツ ("ue|tto|suu|tsu")
You may have noticed that "ya", "yu", and "yo" are represented by や, ゆ, and よ (or ヤ, ユ, and ヨ) but there are no "yi" or "ye" characters. A "ye" sound can be represented by a katakana "i" followed by small "e" character - for example, "yellow" would be written as イェロー ("ie|roo").
All syllables except for ん (or ン) end with a vowel sound. As such, it's common for words to have vowels added on to the end when they're imported from other languages. For example, "test" becomes テスト ("te|su|to").
Another unusual thing about ん is that it cannot be the first syllable of a word - most likely because it's a "closed" syllable.
The particles "wa" and "e" are written using the kana for "ha" and "he" instead:
So, how can you tell whether は should be pronounced "ha" or "wa" in any given sentence? The answer is "context" - if it's clearly part of a word, then it's "ha", but if it's obviously meant to be a particle, then it's "wa" instead:
|私はアメリカ人です。||Watashi wa Amerika-jin desu.||I am American.|
|はきものが好きだ。||Hakimono ga suki da.||I like footwear.|
The same applies to へ; look at how it's being used in relation to other nearby characters in the sentence, and you should be able to figure things out.