Japanese

How To Learn Katakana

Today I’m going to continue going over the Japanese writing system and show you how to learn katakana.

As you may have heard before, the Japanese writing system is divided into three parts. The first part is called hiragana, the second part is called katakana, and the third part is called kanji.

These first two parts are collectively known as the “kana” and they are both scripts that represent sound (just like the English alphabet does).

Katakana is pretty cool because it has exactly the same pronunciation as its counterpart hiragana, but it looks different and has a different function in writing.

A few of the katakana symbols actually look very similar to the hiragana ones that you (hopefully) already know, so they should be easy to learn.

Besides that, there are a few katakana that are unique and can’t be found anywhere else.

If you remember in my post on hiragana, I talked a little about three different learning methods that you can use and I explained a little about how each one worked.

These same methods can be used for katakana, so if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then be sure to go back and read that part before continuing on in this article.

How is Katakana Different?

Hiragana and katakana were created at the same time, but for different reasons.

We will get to the reasons in the next section, so now let’s just look at how the two are different from one another:

(1) Hiragana is more cursive in style and katakana is more angular.

(2) Hiragana is used as the basis of all Japanese writing (think grammar) and katakana has a few, specific uses.

(3) They both represent the exact same sounds, but katakana has a few extra ones for words that are non-native to Japanese.

(4) Hiragana were created by abbreviating certain kanji and writing them cursively, whereas katakana was created by selecting particular elements from kanji.

What is Katakana Used for?

Katakana kind of reminds me of capital letters in the English alphabet. They signify certain things from a grammatical standpoint, but they have no bearing at all for the spoken part of the language.

That being said, just what exactly is katakana used for?

The most common answer that you will find is that katakana is used for gairaigo (外来語) which means “loan/borrowed word.”

In fact, I wrote a post on 301 English loan words that are used in Japanese.

If you check out the list, you will probably recognize all of them! And all 301 of those foreign words are written in katakana.

But the uses of katakana don’t end there.

Sometimes it’s used for the names of plants and animals.

Sometimes you will see a Japanese person’s name written in katakana instead of kanji for various reasons.

In addition to that, it’s used for onomatopoeic expressions pretty often.

In case you’re not sure that those are, they are “sounds that represent a feeling or an action.” In English it might be “GULP!” to express that someone is shocked and perhaps a little scared.

Katakana is also used to write out telegrams, which is probably not very applicable to today’s uses…

Finally, sometimes it is just used to  GRAB ATTENTION!

Katakana is the “cool” way to write things down after all.

So to sum up katakana’s uses:

  1. Loan/Borrowed Words
  2. Names of plants and animals (sometimes)
  3. Onomatopoeia
  4. Telegrams
  5. Just to look cool
  6. Non-Japanese People’s Names

Learning the Basic 46 Katakana

Take a look at the complete chart of katakana below.

I’ve included everything, but for right now just focus on the basic 46 katakana on the left side of this chart. Those are the ones that you will want to master first, since the more complicated ones are just slight modifications of the basics.

Click on the picture below to open it up in a new tab and save it to your computer (or phone) for your personal use. I’m going to refer back to it in this post, so be sure to have it handy.

You can use the same method that I did to learn these katakana. Just take a row of five Kana at a time and write them out.

Remember that horizontal lines go from left to right →, and vertical ones go from top to bottom ↓.

Practice a couple of times from the chart, and then try to recall it from memory.

Once you feel that you’ve got a good grasp on a group, move on to the next.

Since katakana is pretty similar to hiragana, you will probably have an easier time learning them this second time around.

As for me, I think I memorized all of these katakana in about two days.

Here is also a useful chart that illustrates the correct stroke order. Feel free to click on it and print it out for practice.

It was created by user Pmx and can be found on the WikiCommons by clicking here. Just remember that this one is formatted in the traditional Japanese way of writing, which is to start in the top right corner and go down from there.

Katakana Stroke Order

As a side note, you will notice that there are two katakana characters on this second chart that were not on the first one.

They are ヰ (wi) and ヱ (we). These are outdated katakana so you don’t need to know them unless you’re reading old Japanese books.

Now let’s point out the specific Katakana that look just like their Hiragana counter parts.

These ones ought to be the easiest for you to remember.

Hiragana that look like Katakana

But on the flip side, the hiragana せ (se) looks similar to the katakana サ (sa), which are not the same syllable. So just be aware of that.

That’s the good part about learning katakana, there are quite a few that look just like the corresponding hiragana.

The bad side is that there are some katakana that look almost identical to one another and it can be a little tricky telling one from the other.

Here are the different katakana that look like each other. Take a look so that you can see the difference.

katakana that looks like other katakana

A lot of these will become easy for you to distinguish after some repeated use.

I would have to say that the only ones that occasionally give me trouble are the “シ shi / ツ tsu” combination and the “ソ so / ン n” combination. In those cases, you can usually figure out which one is correct by sounding out the word and trying to recognize it.

Also, let me just take a moment to give you a specific tip on the Katakana ヲ (wo) because everybody teaches it, but it almost never gets used in the real word.

The reason is because ヲ is the Katakana version of を which is only used to mark the object of the sentence. But as it turns out, を is the correct one to use 99% of the time!

So the question is, “when is it appropriate to use ヲ as the direct-object particle?” And the answer is one thing: in telegrams.

Learning the Modified 61 Katakana

There’s not really much to say for this part. Just like hiragana, the modified katakana are simply the voiced versions of the basic ones.

Try this experiment to see what I mean:

  1. Lay the palm of your hand on the front of your throat
  2. Make this consonant sound: “ssssssssss”
  3. Now make this consonant sound: “zzzzzzzzzz”

Did you notice that your vocal cords vibrated when you make the “zzz” sound, but not when you made the “sss” sound?

All of the basic 46 katakana that you learned first use “unvoiced consonants” like the “sss” sound, and when you add two abbreviated dashes to the upper right part of the basic katakana, it turns them into the “voiced consonant” version just like the “zzz” sound.

  • カ turns into ガ (KA into GA)
  • セ turns into ゼ (SE into ZE)
  • ヒ turns into ビ (HI into BI)

And so on and so forth.

Check out the Katakana chart I gave you above to see how each basic version turns into the Dakuon version with just two little dashes.

Also, the “H” section is special because it can also turn into Handakuon (that’s the “P” group) by adding a tiny circle instead of the two strokes.

Finally, there is the You-on group which is on the far right section of the chart. These ones are created by combining one of the “I” groups (KI, SHI, CHI, HI, etc) with one of the three “Y” Kanas (YA, YU, or YO).

  • KI + YU = KYU (キ + ユ = キュ)
  • SHI + YO = SHO (シ + ヨ = ショ)
  • PI + YA = PYA (ピ + ヤ = ピャ)

I like to think of this last group like math.

You just add two kanas together to create a new one. And from the way that they sound individually, the new combination kana makes sense.

The Special, Unique Katakana

All of these katakana that we’ve gone over so far have a mirror version in the hiragana script, but there are some special katakana that were invented specifically for loan words from other languages like English.

Now that you know about changing katakana by adding dashes, or combining it with other katakana, you can take that same knowledge to create and use these new, unique katakana.

These new katakana are in the bottom right corner of the chart I provided earlier. Take a little time now to check them out. I’ve also got a couple of example words that use them below:

フォローする (forō suru) means “to follow” like when you follow someone on Twitter.

パーティー (pātī) means “party” like when you are going to attend a party at someone’s house.

Did you notice something new about these one?

That’s right! It is that long dash (ー) that represents an elongated vowel. This is only used in katakana, not hiragana.

Further Resources

Just like in the hiragana post, I wanted to give you some further resources that you could check out if you want a little more help remembering katakana.

(1) Check out the book Let’s Learn Katakana on Amazon.

(2) Want some flash cards to help learn? Try out Tinycards.

(3) Interested in trying out mnemonics to learn? Tofugu has a pretty cool post on it.

What’s Next?

At this point you’ve learned the first two Japanese writing systems!

That’s pretty cool and you can read a great deal of Japanese material with just these two.

But unfortunately it’s not enough to be considered literate in Japanese. You will have to learn the third writing system as well: kanji!

Kanji are really cool, and at the same time really scary. That’s because there are over 50,000 of them!

Holy cow!!!

But the good news is that you don’t need to know all of them. There are about 2,000 that are considered “the essential ones.”

That is the next step: learning kanji. Most people can learn both hiragana and katakana within a week or two, but the journey to mastering kanji can take a lot longer.

What do you think about the idea of a language having three different writing systems? Let me know your thoughts with a comment below!

4 Comments

  • Chester

    Katakana is basically the “West”, America, Britain, Europe. Japanese use katakana tk describe “Hamburgeru” and “Baseboru”

    While Kanji is basically China. Learning Kanji is learning chinese characters.

    Native Japanese (Hiragana), is squeezed between Japan’s two major historical influences (China and the west).

  • Arta

    This seems to be really sophisticated. How long time did it take for you to learn Katakana? A week as you mention or faster? And you mention Kanji – that it takes much longer time to learn that – how long time does it take? Can you say you are fluent in Kanji?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Arta, it only took me about a day or two to learn all of the Katakana syllables. It helped that I already knew all of Hiragana since there are a lot of similarities in how some of them look, and the rules you use to form the modified ones are basically the same for both.

      As for Kanji, it does take a lot longer since there is so much more of them and each one can represent several different sounds and meanings. Although I have heard about people that learned the 2,000 required to be literate in as little as a couple of months.

      I wouldn’t say that I’m fluent in Kanji yet, as even the Japanese have to know closer to 3,000 kanji in order to go to college and do advanced schooling. But I know enough to read most manga that I have.

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