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The modern Japanese writing system is composed of three scripts:

  1. Hiragana - 48 syllables (kana) - see the pronunciation section. This script is used for grammatical words and endings and for words which be written in kanji.
  2. Katakana - 48 syllables used for writing foreign words, onomatopeia, etc.
  3. Kanji - characters borrowed Chinese. 1,136 of these are designated by the Japanese Ministry of Education as Jouyou Kanji ("characters in regular use").

Two of the hiragana syllables and two of the katakana syllables are no longer in use. Originally they represented the sounds wi and we, but they are now pronounced the same as i and e, and so are no longer needed.

The best way to learn to read is to learn to write. Watch YouTube videos of people drawing kana, for example:

These books are to be recommended:

Kana can be easy / by Kunihiko Ogawa. - Tokyo : Japan Times, 1992
This book has the advantage that it is full of mnemonics. 

Japanese kanji and kana / by Wolfgang Hadamitzky and Mark Spahn. - Tokyo : Tuttle Shokai, 2012

  • Each kana and kanji has a correct stroke order (usually up to down, left to right). It may not be the same as is used in Chinese for the same character.
  • Do not try to learn too many - aim at about three a day, but revise everything you already know.
  • Use every opportunity to write the kana and kanji you have learnt.
  • About 75% of kanji consist of a radical on the left indicating the general area of meaning (木 tree, 魚 fish, 石 stone, etc.) and a phonetic element on the right that gives you a rough idea of the Sino-Japanese reading (on'yomi). There is a basic system - make the most of it.


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