An Introduction to the Japanese Language

  • One of the most difficult languages to learn is Japanese. Unlike English which has only twenty-six (26) letters, Japanese has three different sets of characters. Hiragana, Katakana and the dreaded Kanji.


    Hiragana is the basic of all the Japanese writing systems one must master to learn the language, consists of forty-six (46) characters originally based on Kanji. These characters represent every sound of the Japanese language, are syllabic with the basic vowels a, i, u, e, o except for the character that stands for ‘n’.
    Some of the characters look similar, especially to the foreign eye, with just a difference of a line or a curve (i.e. the characters さ-sa and き-ki, は-ha and ほ-ho, ぬ-nu and め-me). And if you miss to write two small strokes or a small circle, the sound will change completely (i.e. は-ha, ぱ-pa and ば-ba). Also be careful with は, read both as ha and wa.

    Once mastered, a learner can basically speak, read (provided there is Furigana) and write all Japanese words by using Hiragana. It is called Furigana if used to represent the sound of a kanji character. Take note, however, that “Hiragana Only” in writing is normally only used when a word has no kanji equivalent.


    The same with Hiragana, Katakana also has 46 characters representing the same set of syllabic sounds. They differ in shape with Katakana and are more angular and straight while Hiragana is more cursive.
    Foreigners must learn Katakana because this is the characters used to write their names in Japanese.
    Basically, Katakana is used for foreign and borrowed words. Few examples are as follows:
    レストラン – resutoran- restaurant
    サラリーマン-sarariman- salary man (office worker)
    マックドナルド- makudonarudo- Mc Donald

    However, even some Japanese words which are not foreign or borrowed, are purposely written in Katakana to stand out and catch the attention of readers or viewers. This mostly can be seen in TV programs and cartoons.

    With Japan slowly moving towards globalization, many words which originally have Japanese equivalent are being ‘katakanized’ so that the old generation of Japanese sometimes cannot even comprehend it.


    The most complicated and most challenging part of learning the Japanese language is learning Kanji. Originally from China, there are thousands of Kanji, too many that no one can tell how many Kanji are there in all (Normally around 3000 are used in daily life). Unlike Hiragana and Katakana, Kanji represents the meaning rather than sound. Take for example 木(ki) which means tree and 車(kuruma) which means car. What makes it more complicated is that it has two(sometimes more) kinds of reading, the Chinese reading ‘onyomi’ and Japanese reading ‘kunyomi’. To add to the difficulty, a single kanji can have more than two readings. Three, four, five or sometimes even six or worse, more than that. Not only the reading but also the meaning is multiple. Let’s take a look at the kanji 生. It means life, birth, raw, pure. It is read as sei, shou, nama, umareru, ikeru, ikasu… (but there is normally hiragana added to kanji if used as a verb, giving you a hint how to read it).

    Kanji is synonymous to hard work in studies. Why? Because every Japanese starts to become a hardworker by learning Kanji at a young age. From first grade elementary up to high school, Japanese students write many pages of Kanji as their homework almost everyday.

    The Verdict

    Learning a foreign language is never easy. It is always very challenging. It takes a lot of motivation, effort and time to master Its complexity. Only the courageous and humble can survive. Courageous enough to face the difficulty of learning and humble enough to accept the fact that very few, if not almost no one (even natives), can achieve perfection.

    It might be difficult at the start, and still might be difficult in the end, but once you tried learning Japanese and are eventually able to use the language at the best of your ability, hail to you! The sweet success and pride of learning one of the most difficult languages is yours to partake. Amen!