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Writing Japanese

Introduction

Let's take a random quote from the Japanese Wikipedia:
ジェットとはジェットエンジンその推力によって飛行する飛行機である
Nearly all Japanese writing uses three different scripts simultaneously...

• The curvy script (shown in blue) is called "Hiragana".
• The linear script (shown in red) is called "Katakana".
• The complex-looking characters (shown in green) are Chinese Characters.

Chinese Characters have their own characteristics that we will cover elsewhere. For now, we are only going to talk about Hiragana and Katakana.



Main Sounds

Let's draw a 10 × 5 grid, like this:


This grid will help us to place the 46 basic sounds of Japanese into an easily memorized pattern.

Japanese uses two different scripts to write out the same 46 sounds. Again, one is a curvy script called "Hiragana", and the other is a linear script called "Katakana".

You might wonder why there are two different scripts for the same sounds. This is because each script is often used for different types of words. For example, native Japanese words are usually written in Hiragana, while loanwords, foreign names, onomatopoeia, and exclamations are usually written in Katakana. Sometimes, one might also choose a particular script for the purpose of decoration or clarity, much like how cursive and print are used in English.

Below are two tables which show all of the basic characters within each of these scripts:

Hiragana Table
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

wa

ra

ya

ma

ha

na

ta

sa

ka

a
1

ri

mi

hi

ni

chi

shi

ki

i
2

wo

ru

yu

mu

fu

nu

tsu

su

ku

u
3

re

me

he

ne

te

se

ke

e
4

nn

ro

yo

mo

ho

no

to

so

ko

o
5

Katakana Table
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

wa

ra

ya

ma

ha

na

ta

sa

ka

a
1

ri

mi

hi

ni

chi

shi

ki

i
2

wo

ru

yu

mu

fu

nu

tsu

su

ku

u
3

re

me

he

ne

te

se

ke

e
4

nn

ro

yo

mo

ho

no

to

so

ko

o
5

Beneath each character are English letters which show what one would type in order to form that character on the computer. Most of them also give a hint as to the pronunciation of that character, the only exceptions being / which are typed as "wo", but are pronounced /o/. [Note: Even though there are already characters specifically for the vowel sound /o/, these two only serve a grammatical function. They mark the direct object of a sentence by coming immediately after it.]

Every character within the above tables links to a page which demonstrates how it is written (i.e.: its "standard stroke order"). It is important to stick to this stroke order because, not only does it help to keep one's handwriting quick and consistent, it also makes it easier to distinguish between very similar characters. For example:


Photo Credit: NihonShock Japanese Cheat Sheets

Patterns Within The Tables

Column 1 contains all of the vowel sounds, while nearly every character within the same row ends in the same vowel sound. The only exception to this pattern are the bottom two characters of the 10th column in each table.

Nearly every character that exists in the same column begins with the same consonant sound. The exceptions to this pattern are the bottom two characters of the 10th column and:

/ of column 3, which are pronounced /shi/ and not /si/
/ of column 4, which are pronounced /chi/ and not /ti/
/ of column 4, which are pronounced /tsu/ and not /tu/
/ of column 6, which are pronounced /fu/ and not /hu/

"ABC" Order

If we take all of the characters of row 1 and the bottom-most character of column 10, then we get the following sequence (shown in Hiragana):

, , , , , , , , , ,

This is equivalent to alphabetical order in English. Many vocabulary lists and dictionaries will arrange their entries according to this pattern, so it is worth committing to memory.



Extended Sounds

By adding two little lines (") to the upper-right of certain characters, we can produce different sounds. Here, we will refer to them as "extended sounds".


This pattern only applies to the characters within columns 2, 3, 4, and 6.

/k/ becomes /g/

/
ka
が / ガ
ga
/
ki
ぎ / ギ
gi
/
ku
ぐ / グ
gu
/
ke
げ / ゲ
ge
/
ko
ご / ゴ
go

/s/ becomes /z/

/
sa
ざ / ザ
za
/
shi
じ / ジ
ji
/
su
ず / ズ
zu
/
se
ぜ / ゼ
ze
/
so
ぞ / ゾ
zo
*Exception: /shi/ becomes /ji/ and not /zi/.

/t/ becomes /d/

/
ta
だ / ダ
da
/
chi
ぢ / ヂ
di
/
tsu
づ / ヅ
du
/
te
で / デ
de
/
to
ど / ド
do
*Exceptions: Even though two of the above characters are labeled as "di" and "du", this is just how they are typed. They are pronounced as /ji/ and /dzu/, respectively.

/h/ becomes /b/

/
ha
ば / バ
ba
/
hi
び / ビ
bi
/
fu
ぶ / ブ
bu
/
he
べ / ベ
be
/
ho
ぼ / ボ
bo

By adding a small circle (°) to the upper-right of the characters in column 6, we can also produce one more set of sounds.

/h/ becomes /p/

/
ha
ぱ / パ
pa
/
hi
ぴ / ピ
pi
/
fu
ぷ / プ
pu
/
he
ぺ / ペ
pe
/
ho
ぽ / ポ
po

All of these sound changes are important to remember!



Combined Sounds

By writing smaller versions of the characters in column 8 after those in row 2, we can combine their sounds.


Small Versions










/k/ through /r/

/
kya
/
kyu
/
kyo
/
sha
/
shu
/
sho
/
cha
/
chu
/
cho
/
nya
/
nyu
/
nyo
/
hya
/
hyu
/
hyo
/
mya
/
myu
/
myo
/
rya
/
ryu
/
ryo
This pattern applies to a few of the extended sounds as well.

/k/ becomes /g/
ぎゃ / ギャ
gya
ぎゅ / ギュ
gyu
ぎょ / ギョ
gyo
/s/ becomes /j/
じゃ / ジャ
ja
じゅ / ジュ
ju
じょ / ジョ
jo
*Exception: /s/ normally becomes /z/, but since we are using /shi/ it becomes /ji/.

/h/ becomes /b/
びゃ / ビャ
bya
びゅ / ビュ
byu
びょ / ビョ
byo
/h/ becomes /p/
ぴゃ / ピャ
pya
ぴゅ / ピュ
pyu
ぴょ / ピョ
pyo
All of these sound changes are also important to remember!



Other Variations (Dipthongs, Long Vowels, & Double Consonants)

In addition to all of the previously mentioned sounds, one can also make "dipthongs" (pairs of vowels), "double vowels" (where the vowel sound is lengthened), or "double consonants" (a sort of stop or lengthening of a consonant sound in the middle of a word). They are represented in text in the following ways:

Dipthongs

Dipthongs are just two of the vowel characters right after one another. For example:

あい (ai), うえ (ue), いえ (ie), あお (ao), etc.

Long Vowels

Double Vowels are any other character followed directly by a vowel. It either could be the same vowel of the previous character, or can sometimes be a う if that character ends in ~お. For example:

ばあ (baa), きょう (kyou), ぶう (buu), etc.

In Katakana, double vowels are usually expressed by adding a line instead. For example:

カー (kaa), パー (paa), チョー (chou), etc.

Double Consonants

Double Consonants have a small "tsu" (つ in Hiragana or ツ in Katakana) between each character. For example:

~ッケ (~kke), ~っし (~sshi), ~って (~tte), etc.



New Method

Loanwords sometimes contain sounds that do not exist in Japanese. Katakana has special combinations to represent these extra sounds. They are referred to as "New Method" Katakana, and are made in a variety of different ways:

• by adding two lines (") to a vowel
• by combining two vowels
• by adding a smaller character (usually a vowel) to some other character

All of the letters within parentheses are what you type to produce those characters on a computer. In general, typing "x" before a character will give you a smaller version of it. Whenever pronunciation differs from what is typed, that pronunciation is contained in slashes next to it.

Please note that these characters are not used all that often, but are included here in the event that you encounter them within your studies.

/y/-based sounds

イェ (ixe) /ye/

/w/-based sounds

ウィ (wi)
ウェ (we)
ウォ (uxo) /wo/

/k/ and /g/-based sounds

キェ (kixe) /kye/
ギェ (gixe) /gye/

クァ (kuxa) /kwa/
クィ (kuxi) /kwi/
クェ (kuxe) /kwe/
クォ (kuxo) /kwo/

/sh/-based sounds

シェ (she)

/ch/-based sounds

チェ (che)

/t/ and /d/-based sounds

ツァ (tsa)
ツェ (tse)
ツォ (tso)

ティ (texi) /ti/
ディ (dexi) /di/
デュ (dexyu) /dyu/

トゥ (toxu) /tu/
トュ (toxyu) /tu/
ドゥ (doxu) /du/
ドュ (doxyu) /du/

/h/-based sounds

ヒェ (hye)

/f/-based sounds

ファ (fa)
フィ (fi)
フュ (fyu)
フェ (fe)
フォ (fo)

/v/-based sounds

ヴァ (va)
ヴィ (vi)
ヴ (vu)
ヴェ (ve)
ヴォ (vo)



English Alphabet

Individual English letters can sometimes take on a Japanese pronunciation (such as within acronyms). New Method characters are marked with an asterisk*.

A - エー

B - ビー

C - シー

D - ディー*

E - イー

F - エフ

G - ジー

H - エッチ

I - アイ

J - ジェー*

K - ケー

L - エル

M - エム

N - エヌ

O - オー

P - ピー

Q - キュー

R - アール

S - エス

T - ティー*

U - ユー

V - ヴィー*

W - ダブリュー

X - エックス

Y - ワーイ

Z - ゼット