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Japanese writing system for beginners

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27 Dec 2003
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There are many people who would like to learn Japanese but don't know where to begin. I know they would like to start by learning simple phrases such as "Hello," "How are you?", "It's a nice day, isn't it?", "What is your name", etc., but I want everyone to put aside the learning of such phrases for now, and instead begin by learning the basic Japanese writing system.

Here is a YouTube video which gives a general overview of the Japanese language. Please watch this video, then feel free to post any observations and questions you have in a post below.

Here is a video with a general overview of the Japanese writing system. This video gives a good introduction into the three types of Japanese script, hiragana, katakana, and kanji.

When we write in Japanese, we use a mix of hiragana, katakana, and kanji. To a beginning student, this can be confusing and daunting. Fortunately, here is a video which explains how the three types of script work together quite well.

This video introduces the first five hiragana characters. Follow along as Tomo Sensei shows you how to write each one of these hiragana characters. Pause the video after each hiragana character, write the character ten times, then go on to the next hiragana character.


みなさん、こんにちは。 Minasan, konnichi wa. Hello, everyone.
とも せんせい です。 Tomo Sensei desu. I am Tomo, your teacher.
さあ、はじめましょう。 Saa, hajimemashou. Well then let's begin.
いち、に、さん。 Ichi, ni, san. One, two, three.
もう いっかい かいてみましょう。 Mou ikkai kaitemimashou. Let's try to write it one more time.
みなさん、どう でした か? Minasan, dou deshita ka? Everyone, how did go?
たくさん かいて、おぼえましょう。 Takusan kaite, oboemashou. Let's write it many times and remember it.
けいぞく は ちから に なり。 Keizoku wa chikara nari. Practice makes perfect.
つぎ の れっそん で おあいましょう。 Tsugi no resson de oaimashou. Let's meet in the next lesson.

If the video will not play, click on the Watch on YouTube link in the window directly below and watch it on YouTube.com.

Differences between あ and お

I want to point out some mistakes that I often see beginners make. First, make sure the end of the long, curly stroke in the あ character ends up pointing to the left. If it points straight down, or even to the right, it is wrong. Second, the center section of the あ character consists of two strokes but the center section of the お character only consists of one stroke. Third, notice that the お character has a short, diagonal stroke in the upper right hand corner whereas the あ character does not. (See first image.)

Notice how the horizontal and vertical strokes in the あ character are not truly horizontal and vertical, the horizontal stroke bends slightly up (from left to right) and the vertical stroke bends slightly to the right (from top to bottom). (See second image.)

Hooks on the い character

Here is an image of い in various fonts. Notice how there is a hook at the bottom of the first stroke in all of the examples. (Notice how the first two examples have quite exaggerated hooks.) (See third image.)


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Students can download a page of hiragana characters that can be used to practice tracing the characters. It is very important that students trace hiragana, in order to get a good feel for the proportions in which each hiragana should be written. Download this page from happylilac.net and trace over each hiragana character.

Take a look at this video by a YouTuber who calls herself Cyber Bunny. (You can tell from her smile that she is very genki.) In this video, she uses a workbook, traces, and then writes out all of the hiragana characters on each page. Take the time, spend the 15 minutes, and watch the video from 5:31 to the end. Follow along as she writes out all of the hiragana characters, then write out the hiragana characters yourself. In addition, the workbook she is using is published by the Daiso Publishing Company. If you can, buy the workbook, follow along, and fill out each page as she fills them out. There is one thing, however, I would like to point out from Cyber Bunny's video. At 5:45 she writes the first hiragana character, あ with a 'flat spot' on the character at the 'seven o'clock' position. (She does the same thing with the お character at 6:56.) Do not do that, just make it one nice, continuous, rounded swoop. (See image below.) Such a 'flat spot' is necessary when writing with a Japanese writing brush, but it is not necessary — and in my opinion, downright unaesthetic — when writing あ and お with a pen or pencil. (Even the font for this post, used to write あ and お, does not have 'flat spots'.)

WARNING. Cyber Bunny and Tomo Sensei disagree on the stroke order for the か character. (Tomo Sensei's stroke order is correct.) Watch Tomo Sensei's video in my next post.



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This video introduces the next five hiragana characters, ka ki ku ke ko. Follow along as Tomo Sensei shows you how to write each of these characters. Pause the video after each character, write the character ten times, then go on to the next character.

Please notice that hiragana characters will sometimes contain a 'drag stroke'. This is created when the writer does not pick their pen or brush up off the paper when moving from one stroke to the next. Instead, they just 'drag' it along on the paper until they get to the next stroke. (Writing with drag strokes is faster and easier than picking the pen up off the paper after every stroke.) It is common to see き characters both with and without drag strokes. (See image below.) As a matter of fact, Tomo Sensei uses both types of き characters in this video.



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The next five hiragana characters are sa shi su se so. (The second hiragana character is shi, not si, because the 'si' sound is not a native Japanese sound, whereas 'shi' is.) All of these characters start with the letter S so this is called the S column (さぎょ) (sa gyo). It is called the S column, not the S line, because hiragana characters were originally written in columns from top to bottom (and still are, in many cases). Tomo Sensei, in his video, lists his hiragana in the traditional way, in top-to-bottom columns.

Be careful not to confuse sa and ki. (See image one below.)

The character そ (so) can be written two different ways. (See image two below.) In the example on the right, the first two strokes (of the example on the left) are now connected. We usually write そ as in the example on the right, but the example on the left is also sometimes seen.



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