Learning Japanese (how to get started)

Suggested procedures and resources to make it as easy as possible



Learning Japanese presents to major difficulties for English-speakers: different alphabet(s) and different sentence structure. This set of knols offers a suggested set of steps and some tips and tricks to make learning the new alphabets as easy as possible.

Overview of the Japanese language

Japanese is based on syllabies, primarily consonant/vowel pairs.

For example, a word for “fish” is  さかな (“sakana”),

composed of the syllabies, (“sa”) + (“ka”) + (“na”)

(pronounced “Saw kaw naw”).

Written Japanese uses a combination of three different sets of characters, plus a smattering of western characters. This is much like those puzzles that combine letters and pictures. Here is a video that introduces the writing system.

There are 96* primary syllaby pairs in both hiragana and katakana. You can think of them like lower case and upper case, with 2 differences. While some pairs look alike in both sets, most don’t. And in usage, custom dictates which to use for a certain word or word part.

Kanji are derived from Chinese characters. There are about 50,000, but Japanese newspapers limit themselves mostly to a standard set of 1,945 characters which Japanese students finish learning by the end of 9th grade.

Overview of the Plan

  1. Learn Hiragana and pronounciation. You should start with either hiragana OR katakana, hiragana is recommended. See the Links section below for my article on learning Hiragana. This is where I discuss the specific tools and tricks.
  2. Learn Katakana (Once you’ve learned hiragana, you build on it by adding the katakana equivalents).
  3. Learn the standard 2000 Kanji (start with the most common, use one of the western-oriented systems for learning).
  4. Learn vocabulary, starting with the a conversational vocabulary.
  5. Add grammar.
  6. Learn about the culture.

Note: You won’t finish each step before starting another, except possibly the first two.


  • Kana charts, one notebook sized, one poster sized
  • links to online games
  • downloaded games, tools
  • textbooks
  • newspapers


* This includes some characters which are the same as others, but have small modifiers to change the consonant sound: “ka” > “ga”, for example.