If you are working in Japan or a Japanese company, doing business with Japanese people, or planning to, and wondering if it’s useful to learn hiragana and katakana, listen up!
Most Western foreigners start learning Japanese with romaji, literally “roman letters”.
This refers to the use of the Latin script to write the Japanese language. Some stop there.
Would you be surprised to learn that despite its popularity with foreigners learning Japanese, romaji is not commonly used by Japanese people and in Japan?
Romaji is usually used in situations where Japanese text is targeted at non-Japanese speakers who cannot read hiragana, katakana or kanji.
Examples include names in passports, and dictionaries and textbooks for foreign learners of the language.
Romaji is also the most common way to input Japanese into computers, and can be used to display Japanese on devices that do not support the display of Japanese characters.
Although almost all Japanese are able to read and write Japanese using romaji, it is extremely rare in Japan to use this method to write Japanese (except as an input tool on a computer).
Also, note that in Japan, romaji is more often used to refer to the Latin alphabet itself (as used in English and other European languages) than to any specific form of romanized Japanese.
In everyday communications, Japanese people use hiragana, katakana and kanji, and they are more comfortable reading them.
If you learn only romaji and stop there, you’d find lots of difficulty in understanding newspapers, street signs, bill boards, menus, etc.
And in the office, you won’t be able to understand emails, instant messages, name cards, documents, contracts, instructions, and even the infamous washlet toilet panels!
(By the way, Japanese love their paperwork, and you’d need to be able to read hiragana and katakana to fill in those pesky forms.)
So how difficult is it to learn hiragana and katakana?
Is it as difficult as most people make it out to be? Well, I have some good news for you.
Hiragana and katakana are alphabets each consisting of 46 basic characters. Each different sound corresponds to one character. You can learn hiragana and katakana in a fun way using games.
Since hiragana and katakana rely on phonetic sounds, it’s actually quite easy to read a Japanese word or phrase once you memorize the two alphabets. And you really only need to learn it once!
Let me share my experience. I first studied Japanese more than a decade ago at school and did not use the language much after graduation.
Even so, after such a long time, I have absolutely no problem reading hiragana and katakana today.
There’s another additional benefit to learning hiragana and katakana: it paves the way for learning kanji.
For foreign learners of Japanese (and Japanese children), difficult kanji characters in books and other publications are often accompanied by hiragana or katakana as a super script or side script.
These superscripts or side scripts are known as furigana and their purpose is to aid in the pronunciation and learning of new kanji vocabulary.
So once you master hiragana and katakana, learning kanji will be much easier.
Most Western foreigners start learning Japanese with romaji and some stop there.
But romaji is used only by/for non-Japanese speakers who cannot read hiragana, katakana and kanji. It is rarely used by Japanese or in Japan to write Japanese.
In everyday communications in Japan, people use hiragana, katakana and kanji.
If you stop at romaji, you’d have difficulties understanding signs and paperwork.
Learning hiragana and katakana is not difficult as they are phonetic alphabets. You only need to memorize them once.
Another benefit of learning hiragana and katakana is that it paves the way for learning kanji.
Good luck with learning hiragana and katakana, ganbatte!