Japanese writing uses three types of characters. Kanji is the idiographic character set borrowed from the Chinese, but Kanji cannot represent particles because they are particular to the Japanese language. Consequently, there is another character set called “Hiragana,” which is syllabic rather than ideographic. Each Hiragana character represents one syllable, which is either a vowel, a consonant-vowel pair, or the consonant “n.” Why “n” is special is anyone’s guess and probably buried in thousands of years of Japanese history along with the legend of the Peach Baby.
In addition to Hiragana, Japanese also uses Katakana, a character set that stands for the same sounds as Hiragana but which is generally used for special purposes, such as foreign words or brand names. In this sense it is much like our use of italics. Katakana can be thought of as a simplified form of Hiragana. Indeed, equivalent Hiragana and Katakana characters are highly similar to one another, as illustrated by the following example:
On the left is the Hiragana character for “a” (pronounced like the “a” in “saw”), and on the right is the Katakana character for “a.” One can easily transform the Hiragana character into the Katakana character by simply erasing it and then drawing the Katakana character in its place.
If you are planning to go to
Why do you need to learn Katakana?
The answer is that, as
mentioned above, Katakana is the character set that the Japanese use to spell
foreign words. In contrast to the
foreign words of English which, as a result of poor planning, turn out to be in
such languages as French, Italian, German, Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit, most of
the Japanese foreign words turn out to be English. So if you know Katakana you can read all of
the words in
The method for learning the
characters is straightforward. You
simply get a table of the characters and their corresponding syllables, and
then you copy each character over and over again until they become committed to
memory. It may sound somewhat dull and
tedious, but it can be done in about 15 minutes a day over two weeks with
little trouble. Also, you will have
plenty of time to brush up on the trip to
To be honest, it does take some time to get used to the English-to-Japanese translations of English words. For example, you have to understand that there is no “L” in Japanese, so in most cases “L” will be translated as “R.” Also, with the exception of the “N,” every consonant must have a following vowel. Hence, the word “club” ends up translated as ku-ra-bu. But the translation is part of the fun. Without the need to translate, it would be like having the punch line explained to you every time you were told a joke.