|How to Read Japanese|
Japanese is a language that's a whole lot easier to learn than expected. But sadly for you, this is not a guide to learn the language. This guide only teaches you how to read two of the Japanese writing systems. In the future I might be kind enough to do it on the language but until then, it's good to know how to read Japanese.
There are four writing systems in Japan. Hiragana, Katakana, Romajii and Kanji. Hiragana is the original writing system that's all squiggly and curvy. Katakana is a mirror of Hiragana, except it looks blocky and can be written to write more sounds. Romajii is pretty much writing Japanese words with the English Alphabet. Kanji are symbols ripped off from the Chinese. Another system which isn't too big of a deal is Furigana. Furigana is pretty much a translation of Kanji written in Hiragana for those who're unfamiliar with Kanji.
Let's take a look at the name of one of my favorite mangaka in each writing system.
Kentaro Miura (Romajii)
けんたろ みうら (Hiragana)
ケンタロ ミウラ (Katakana)
三浦 建太郎 (Kanji)
Here is what furigana looks like from a magazine scan.
Before getting into any of the writing systems, it is vital to be familiar with the Japanese sound system. This sound system is the name of, and pronounciation of each character.
The basic sound goes like this: A, I, U, E, O.
A as in Bah humbug.
I as in the letter “E.”
U as in blue.
E as in Crystal Meth.
O as in Blow job.
Each set of characters follow the same basic sounds. For example: A, I, U, E, O. Ka, Ki, Ku, Ke, Ko. Ra, Ri, Ru, Re, Ro, and so on. There are some exceptions which will be pointed out when I get into the writing systems.
Hiragana and Katakana
I will only get into Hiragana and Katakana since they go hand in hand. Also there's just too much Kanji to cover and this is only supposed to be a guide. As already stated, Hiragana is the original writing system. It can be used when writing Japanese words, names, etc. Katakana is the same as Hirgana but only looks different. However Katakana can be used to make sounds that Hiragana can't. Katakana is mainly used for foreign words or names. It can also have the same basic use as Hiragana.
Here We Go
Since Hiragana and Katakana sounds the same, characters from both shall be listed side by side eachother. The first character will be Hiragana, followed by its Katakana counterpart.
A as in Bah humbug.
I as in the letter “E.”
U as in blue.
E as in Crystal Meth.
O as in Blow job..
Next we have the K's.
Ka as in Alakazam.
Ki as in monkey.
Ku as in racoon.
Ke as in Keg.
Ko as in co-star.
Now the S's.
Sa as in Sasha.
Shi as in she. The female pronoun.
Su as in I'm gonna sue you for everything you've got. Most of the time the u is silent when “su” is at the end of a word. For example desu would sound like, dess.
Se as in Sex.
So as in soda.
Ta as in ta
Chi as in cheek.
Tsu as in, I'm still gonna sue you for everything you've got.
Te as in Ten.
To as in you have a smelly toe.
Na as in Hannah.
Ni as in Knee.
Nu as in noon..
Ne as in neck.
No as in Hell No!
N as in the same sound the english letter N makes.
Ma as in mama.
Mi as in me.
Mu as in Moo. You know. The sound like a cow makes?
Me as in member.
Mo as in mohawk.
Ha as in Haha.
Hi as in pronoun he.
Fu as in foo.
Heh as in hepatitis.
Ho as in garden hoe.
Now the R's are a little special. Ever notice how the Japanese sound weird when saying L words in english? Well the R's are kinda like their L's. Instead of just making the R sound, you have to make a rolling R sound. Kinda like going Rlamen instead of saying just Ramen. For the sake of spelling, I will not include the l in the pornunciations. You already know you have to roll your tongue a bit with R words, so just imagine it there.
Ra as in Hurrah.
Ri as in report card.
Ru as in Kangaroo.
Re as in wreck.
Ro as in bro.
Accents or Hats or Whatever
Sadly for you, and me, since I'm writing this, there's more to it. The Japanese sound system has more sounds. But rather than have a completely new character for it, the Japanese got lazy and recycled old character and decided to give it a different sound based on its different hats. By hats I mean things that look like quotation marks or little O's.
Da as in Panda.
Ji as in genie.
Zu as in zoo.
De as in dent.
Do as in dough.
Za as in Kwanza.
Ji as in genie again.
Zu as on zoo.
Ze as in zest.
Zo as in protozoa.
Ba as in bah humbug again.
Be as in killer bee.
Bu as in boob.
Be as in Ben.
Bo as in Bowtie.
Pa as in papa.
Pi as in penis.
Pu as in poop.
Pe as in pen.
Po as in pony.
Ya as in ya, like the Russians say it.
Yu as in You.
Yo as in Yo-yo.
Wa as in Washington.
Additional Uses for Tsu and O
Sometimes with words written in Hiragana you will notice a smaller Tsu somewhere in the word. A smaller Tsu is pretty much indicating a double consonant followed by a character. For example:
The tsu in the above word is giving you an additional K in the city of Hokkaido.
As for the O, the O and how it's written indicates whether it makes a long O sound, like if you were having an epiphany or to read it the way it looks.
In Sesshoumaru, adding a U after an O makes a long epiphany-sounding O.
Adding two O, you read it exactly how it looks. Here you see the word Ookami. The Tsu and O rules apply to both Hiragana and Katakana.
One last rule, for Katakana only, is the longish dash. This longish dash works the opposite of Tsu. Like if you wanted to write Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, you just put the E character and a dash instead of a gagillion E. In the example, I have supaa, written.
Yas,' Yos' and Yus'
You're not done yet. Now you've got sounds with a character sounds and ends with a “ya.” For example, Bya would sound like “Beeya” in the name of a Bleach character, Byakuya. Pretty much everything here sounds the same except with a different starting sound. I'll also cover yus' and yos' here. Like the Ya, everything is the same where the sound will end in eeyuu but with a different beginning sound. For example Ryu is just pronounce as Reeyu. As for the yos', the ending sound will be pronounced as eeyo but with a different starting sound. For example, Kyo is pronounce as Keeyo. There will be some exceptions with certain characters and I shall point them out to you there.
Pronounced exactly as it looks.
Pronounced exactly as it looks. Shu as in Shoe.
Pronounced exactly as it looks. Sho as in showtime.
Pronounced exactly as it looks. Cha as in Nunchaku.
Pronounced exactly as it looks. Chu as in Pikachu.
Pronounced cho as in head honcho.
Pronounced exactly as it looks. Ja as in Jamba Juice.
Pronounced exactly as it looks. Ju as in Jewish.
Pronounced exactly as it looks. Jo as in sloppy joe.
Well, the sounds for these for the chi character sound the same as the Shi character just listed. Ja, Ju, Jo. Just replace shi with chi to get the same sound.
More Sounds for Katakana
With the Japanese sound system pretty limited, thankfully they have even more sounds by combining Katakana characters. If you have paid any attention there is no need to explain the pornunciations for these.
And there you have it. With enough patience and studying you should be able to read the basics in Japanese. Several things you can do to memorize the characters is to rewrite each character over and over on grid paper, flash cards, and trying to write words in Japanese. Another tip I have for learning pronounciation is to do a little karaoke with fansubs in the opening. They usually have the romajii along with the translations in the opening.
Here is a complete reference sheet.
Here is also a site with animated gifs that shows you how to write each character.
Japanese Writing Tutor
If I left anything out, more than likely you'll be able to figure out and learn it on your own with the information provided here. Feel free to ask me any questions by e-mail.
And on the following page you can test yourself to see if can read at all. No cheating.
Go Here to See if You Suck.
Updated December 2, 2007