I’ve often said that, as a language, Japanese is simple if approached the right way. It doesn’t need to be as difficult as it is often made out to be.
However, there is no getting around the fact that if you want to read and write Japanese, there are a LOT of characters to learn.
Even if you can save yourself from months or years of confusion by grasping the fundamental grammatical structure of Japanese with a single blog post, you can’t do this with characters or vocabulary.
You need to learn them, practice reading them individually, practice reading them in different combinations, and continue to use them repeatedly until they’re firmly embedded in your long-term memory.
Tools like Anki can help tremendously, but you still need to actually do it.
This raises a few questions…
- Do I really need to learn hiragana?
- What about katakana?
- Do I need to learn kanji too, and if so, how many is enough?
Then there’s the question of when…
- When should I start learning them?
- Is it better to dive straight in, or is it better to focus on learning other things first?
All valid questions, and particularly difficult to answer when you’re first starting out.
So, I’m going to try and answer these questions for you so you can make the best decision for yourself based on your personal goals.
In what order should I learn Japanese characters?
Firstly, if we’re going to try to work out whether or not to learn the different characters, it will help to know first of all what we’re dealing with.
Japanese has three main character sets – hiragana, katakana, and kanji. If you’re not entirely sure what each of these is for, I recommend reading this article that explains the different character types first.
Now, let’s assume that you are at least interested in learning to read some characters. In that case, your first questions would be…
Which ones, and in what order?
This is pretty easy.
Hiragana is, unquestionably, the place to start.
It’s the most “Japanese” form of writing, as it accounts for all of the unique sounds in Japanese, so all native Japanese words can be written in hiragana.
It’s also used for the major grammatical parts of the language, like particles (a key component of Japanese sentence structure) and verb endings, making it absolutely essential for reading anything written in Japanese.
Better yet, there are only 46 unique “shapes” to learn (there are 71 different characters, but 25 are just minor adaptations of some of the others), so it can be done fairly quickly.
It is also absolutely clear when you’ve learnt them all, making it a satisfying goal to aim for. This is different to vocabulary or kanji, for example, which you could keep on learning forever if you wanted.
Next, usually, you would want to learn katakana, for two main reasons:
- There are, like hiragana, only 46 main characters, so it doesn’t take too long.
- Words written in katakana (mostly loanwords) are usually only written in katakana, so if you can’t read katakana, you won’t be able to read any of those words at all.
Lastly, we have kanji, which typically comes last for a few reasons:
- There’s a heap of them. Japanese high school students are expected to know 2136 kanji by the time they graduate.
- They’re not phonetic, and most have more than one way to read them.
- Each kanji only has a limited number of words that use them, unlike hiragana and katakana which, combined, can be used to write any Japanese word.
So, in almost all cases, that’s your basic order:
Hiragana -> katakana -> kanji.
Now, having said that, you don’t have to do it exactly in this order. For example, there’s nothing wrong with learning some kanji right from the beginning. This order just makes the most sense, and will be the most efficient use of your time.
Which Japanese characters do I actually need to learn?
Now that we’ve established the order in which to learn the different Japanese character sets, the other big questions to answer are:
- Should you learn them at all?
- If so, when?
Let’s answer these questions for each character set.
Should I learn Hiragana?
This question has a fairly easy answer:
In almost all cases, yes.
The only situation where you wouldn’t want to learn hiragana is if you only have very basic or specific goals for learning Japanese, such as for travel, or if you only ever want to speak Japanese, not read and write.
However, even if you ultimately don’t care too much about reading and writing Japanese, learning hiragana is beneficial. Since it’s phonetic, it allows you to see every single sound, giving you a much clearer idea of how words are supposed to be pronounced.
Put simply, correct pronunciation can be the difference between being understood and not, and knowing hiragana helps with that.
For example, take the words for “bird” and “street”:
In romaji, even though it is clear that the “o” sound should be elongated in ”tōri”, you don’t get a true sense of this just by looking at it.
With hiragana, however, the “to + o” characters make up ⅔ of the word, and since each character in hiragana (and katakana) should generally be given the same amount of time, hiragana makes it much easier to properly appreciate the length that the “o” sound should be.
Knowing hiragana also makes understanding certain parts of Japanese grammar more straightforward. For example, there are many adjectives that end in an elongated “i” sound, such as “oishī” (meaning “delicious”), and the conjugation of these adjectives is easier to see in hiragana. Take a look:
|Regular||oishī / oishii||おいしい|
|Past tense||oishi katta||おいしかった|
In Hiragana, this transformation is very clear – simply remove the last “i” sound (い) and replace it with either “kunai”, “katta”, or “ku”.
In Romaji, it’s a bit messier. We need to shorten the elongated “i” sound, then add the appropriate ending. It’s not particularly difficult, but it’s not as clear cut, and if you’re not familiar with how words are written in hiragana, it’s easy to make mistakes.
This is particularly true when you consider that many adjectives, such as “omoi” (heavy), end in a single “i” sound, not an elongated one, so there is no “i” sound at all before the other endings are added (“omokunai”, “omokatta”, “omoku”).
These details matter, and paying attention to them is much easier with hiragana.
So, as I said, unless you only have fairly basic or specific goals for learning Japanese, it is worth the effort to learn hiragana. It will help you do more than just read – it will help you with your pronunciation, grammar, and ability to distinguish similar but different words.
When should I start learning hiragana?
The answer to this is not as straightforward as you may think.
You might find this surprising, but I’d argue that for most people, starting with hiragana at the very beginning will actually hurt, not help, your overall Japanese learning.
Because new characters complicate things.
Reading hiragana with only beginner-level knowledge of it will be substantially slower than reading romaji.
This makes it a very inefficient way to learn. Consider this…
Let’s say you’re trying to read a sentence with the goal of understanding it, perhaps as part of learning a new grammar concept. If you have to stop and think about each character to read it, and then piece the characters together for each and every word while also identifying where one word ends and the next begins… that’s a lot of effort directed at something other than what you’re actually trying to do in that moment, which is to interpret the meaning of the sentence.
Trying to do too many new things at once is usually counterproductive.
As with any skill, your ability to read hiragana doesn’t change instantly from “can’t” to “can”. You start from zero and gradually get better the more you do it, so there’s a difference between being “able” to read hiragana, and being proficient.
Until you’ve mastered hiragana, you’re still in the process of learning it, even if you have reached the point where you can accurately read all of the characters without stopping to think.
That means that when you’re trying to learn a new phrase or grammar concept, it’s harder because you’re distracted. You can’t focus all your effort on the thing you’re trying to learn. Instead, a lot of that energy goes into simply reading.
It’s a bit like if you wanted to learn to juggle while riding a unicycle. You wouldn’t start by trying to do both at the same time. Instead, you would practice both separately until you were good enough to combine them.
You can get great at one skill first, then incorporate the other, or learn both to an adequate level individually before combining them – either can work. But if you jump on a unicycle and on day one start throwing balls in the air, you will get hurt.
Learning to read Japanese and also understand it is the same.
The good news is that learning hiragana well enough to use it when studying the rest of the language doesn’t take too long, and unlike learning to ride a unicycle, you’re not likely to hurt yourself while doing it.
For this reason, I often recommend people start learning basic vocabulary and grammar using romaji, and leave reading and writing until a bit later.
By removing the need to learn characters, you have one less obstacle to learning the spoken language and everything that goes with it – particularly vocabulary and grammar.
By doing this, you can learn a legitimately useful amount of spoken Japanese much faster, since you’re not having to battle with unfamiliar characters at the same time. Then, when you’re ready, you can take some time to get your hiragana reading skills up to scratch.
The effects of this on your ability to stay motivated, particularly in the early days, can be substantial.
You’ll just have to ignore the purists who think romaji is stupid. It may not be “real” Japanese, but it’s a useful tool that has its place in the learning process.
Should I learn Katakana?
Again, the answer to this is fairly easy.
In almost all cases, yes.
Particularly if you’ve made the effort to learn hiragana, then taking the next step to learn katakana is usually worth it.
Of course, this again depends on your goals.
If you’ve only learnt hiragana to gain a better appreciation of pronunciation and grammar concepts, as discussed above, then you could stop there. A focus on purely spoken Japanese won’t benefit as much from learning katakana as from hiragana.
However, if you ultimately want to be able to read Japanese, then you absolutely need to learn katakana.
Katakana is used for all loanwords (ie. words imported from other languages), of which there are a ton used in everyday Japanese. Even the word “rāmen” is typically written in katakana – that’s how prevalent it is. It’s also used a lot in advertising and other forms of signage, making it virtually essential for navigating everyday life in Japan.
When should I start learning katakana?
This part is easy too. If you’re going to learn it…
Start learning katakana after you’ve become thoroughly proficient at reading hiragana.
Hiragana is much more central to the language, so you certainly want to learn that first, and learn it properly. Only then should you move onto katakana.
What does “thoroughly proficient” mean? Basically, it’s when you rarely have to think for more than a split second when trying to read anything written in hiragana.
It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to completely master hiragana first. You just want to be good enough at it that you don’t constantly get stuck trying to read it.
Should I learn Kanji?
Whether or not you learn kanji really comes down to how far you want to take your Japanese skills.
Put simply, if you’ve decided to learn to read Japanese, it’s a bit of an all-or-nothing endeavour. If you’ve learnt hiragana and katakana, you’ve probably already decided that you want to learn at least some kanji too.
In some ways, learning hiragana and katakana without learning kanji is a bit pointless, as it limits you greatly in how much real-world Japanese you can read.
On the other hand, hiragana and katakana can be enough to survive if you only have basic needs. As always, it depends on your goals.
When should I start learning kanji?
Learning kanji will, invariably, take a considerable amount of time. The reality is that you will spend the majority of your Japanese learning journey trying to keep up with all of the kanji you encounter, so it helps to get started early.
That said, when you’re just getting started, learning a few kanji won’t really help you much in the real world. You’ll get more bang for your buck by focusing on grammar and vocabulary, so just like it can be a good idea to delay learning hiragana for a while, the same is true for kanji.
Basically, there is no perfect time.
Waiting until you’re proficient in hiragana and katakana is a good approach, but it can be fun to start learning a few right from the beginning too. For some people, learning kanji is extremely rewarding and motivating, so if that’s you, dive straight in.
At the end of the day, motivation is probably the most important factor when learning a language… or anything else for that matter. If learning loads of kanji makes you feel good, do it. If it feels like running in quicksand, hold off and focus on other aspects for a while instead.
One additional question that applies to kanji specifically is…
How many kanji do I need to learn?
I sound like a broken record at this point, but again, this entirely depends on your goals.
If you want to be able to read everything you might ever come across, you would theoretically need to learn all of the Jōyō Kanji – 2136 unique characters.
However, the 80/20 principle certainly applies here. That is, you will be able to read ~80% of everyday written Japanese with just the most common ~20%. It’s very much a game of diminishing returns.
That’s very rough, of course, but this analysis by Dmitry Shpika shows it’s not actually too far off. The most common 100 kanji account for roughly 40% of all characters seen across a range of media. To get to 80%, you need about 500 (or about 23% of the Jōyō Kanji).
The main takeaway here is this:
You don’t need to learn every kanji to gain a useful level of reading ability.
It’s typically a long, ongoing process, and each additional kanji is, on average, less useful than the previous one. Rather than having a set target, I personally think how you approach learning kanji is more important. That, however, is a separate matter entirely that I’ll talk about another time.
We’ve covered a lot of specific details about why you should or shouldn’t learn hiragana, katakana and kanji – here’s a quick summary:
Should you learn hiragana, katakana and kanji?
In almost all cases, yes.
Only if your goals are very basic or specific should you expect to get by only reading/writing romaji. It’s also helpful for improving pronunciation.
What order should you learn them in?
Easy. Hiragana first, then katakana, then kanji.
Mix it up a bit if you want, but focus on mastering hiragana in particular before getting too deep into the others.
When should you learn them?
This is trickier. You can start straight away, but you’ll learn basic grammar and vocabulary faster if you wait a little.
Combining Bambi-like reading skills with other aspects of the language is slow, frustrating and counterproductive, so it’s usually not the best idea to dive head-first into everything all at once.
Whenever you start, learn hiragana and katakana separately from the other aspects of the language, then merge them into your other study efforts only when you are reasonably proficient, unicycle-juggler style.