Hiragana and katakana are literally the ABCs of Japanese. They're the most basic types of Japanese characters and essential parts of the Japanese language. Learning these two types of characters is often the very first step to learning Japanese, too.
Being able to read hiragana and katakana is amazing because it's such an immediately practical skill. You see them everywhere in Japan. The scenery of Japan, or even your neighborhood Asian grocery store may start to look different once you know hiragana and katakana.
Luckily, they're fairly easy to master, too. No, you don't need a photographic memory or superpower to memorize all of them. All you need is the right method and tools to study effectively and efficiently.
There are 46 hiragana characters for hiragana and katakana respectively. Memorizing 92 characters with unfamiliar shapes might sound intimidating now, but trust me. People have learned them in a couple weeks, a few days, or even a few hours with these effective methods.
If you want to study hiragana and katakana fairly quickly, and never forget them, you've come to the right place. I'll talk about how you can do it, and introduce some of the best kana learning resources you can use for a successful kana learning experience.
- How To Learn Hiragana & Katakana
- The Best Resources for Learning Hiragana/Katakana
- For Extra Quiz Practice and Reviews
How To Learn Hiragana & Katakana
First, let me go through the three key points for successful kana learning.
1. Use memory hints aka "mnemonics"
Memory hints, aka mnemonics, are honestly the game changer in remembering foreign characters like hiragana, katakana, and even kanji. Using mnemonics, you can easily associate the shape of kana with the reading. Curious how mnemonics actually work? Here's an example to remember hiragana "ki" (き). This one is pretty simple. Just think of a key! 🔑
Remembering a bunch of unfamiliar shapes suddenly sounds doable, right? Mnemonics make things easy to remember, recall, and not forget. It really is a powerful tool for kana learning.
2. Prioritize "reading" over "writing"
Focus on reading first. Not writing. I know, it's not the traditional way children learn their characters. But, learning to read is more important as the most common form of "writing" nowadays is typing. (If you can read kana, you can type them.)
Being able to handwrite hiragana from memory is a great skill to have too, but it takes a lot more time to master and has fewer real-life benefits. I recommend you save it for later. Handwriting or tracing over the characters with your fingers can be a great way to spend time observing the shapes closely, but always keep in mind the "reading" priority rather than being able to handwrite from your memory. At least, for now.
3. Practice recalling
Once you become familiar with the kana, practice reading repeatedly. Make sure to review items you've learned and keep it up. And when you review, focus on your recall. The more effort you put into recalling something, the stronger memory your brain will end up building.
The Best Resources for Learning Hiragana/Katakana
So now that we've talked about the three key points for successful kana learning, you may be thinking, "What tools can I use to learn hiragana and katakana?"
I got you — I put together a list of some of the best kana learning resources. They, of course, have small differences, but they all feature mnemonics and reading practice, which are the key points for successful kana learning.
|Resource||Format||Pros & Cons|
|Tofugu's Learn Hiragana/Katakana Books||PDF books||
👍 Quality mnemonics
👍 Bonus handwriting exercises to help you associate the shape with the reading
👍 Other Tofugu kana learning resources are available
👎 No audio (though the web page versions do have audio)
|HIRAGANA/KATAKANA Memory Hint||iOS/Android Apps||
👎 Only offers multiple choice quizzes
👎 Glitchy — some features (like audio play) may not work
|Learn Languages with Dr. Moku||iOS/Android Apps||
👍 Animated mnemonic illustrations and audio reading aloud mnemonics
👎 In-app purchase is required for the full coverage of kana
|Hiragana/Katakana in 1 Hour - How to Write and Read Japanese||YouTube Video Lessons||
👎 Being a video lesson, it's hard to navigate and reference a specific kana
Now, let's take a closer look at each resource.
Tofugu's Learn Hiragana/Katakana Books
Before anything, let me talk about Tofugu's own products — our Learn Hiragana/Katakana Book series. This is a shameless plug as I am very proud of all the learners who successfully learned kana with our books and proved them to be effective. They're also available for free, so nothing to lose if you give them a try.
Tofugu's Learn Hiragana/Katakana Book series consists of two PDF workbooks, so you can print or use them on your device offline. The workbooks cover everything you need to know about hiragana and katakana. You'll learn how to pronounce, and how to remember each character with mnemonics and writing practice sheets. There are also reading practice exercises to help you review what you've just learned by filling in romaji. The quiz uses actual words made from the characters you've learned, creating a rewarding moment that hopefully makes you go "Woah, I can read Japanese words!" and motivates you to keep going.
More than anything, the ultimate focus of our content is the quality of mnemonics. We've been updating and improving our mnemonics ever since we first published them, and that's what makes our kana content special. For example, to explain the pronunciation of each kana, we use an English word that uses the same or very similar sound so that you know exactly how to pronounce it. And, when possible, we use the English keyword for mnemonics too. For example, the hiragana い sounds just like "e" as in "eel." And to help you associate the sound and the shape of the characters, we use the same keyword "eel," and say い looks like two eels hanging out. Another common mnemonic for い is that it looks like the number eleven as in 11 (which, it totally does!) but we choose "eels" for the more accurate pronunciation. We believe that learning kana is also about learning the sounds of the Japanese language and the basics of Japanese pronunciation, so we hope those keywords help you remember the correct pronunciation.
We also keep our mnemonic art simple in a way that makes it easy to see the original shape of the character. Not many mnemonics out there have this quality, and it's sometimes hard to recognize the original shape in the mnemonic art.
If you are looking for a one-stop solution for kana learning, you won't be disappointed with Tofugu's Learn Hiragana/Katakana Books.
For those who want to be able to listen to the pronunciation of each kana…
So there you have it. We actually have more kana learning tools in various formats and for different purposes, so check out the list below to find something that suits your preference and needs. You can mix and match too — they're all free!
- Web Pages
They come with audio so you can hear how each character is pronounced.
- YouTube Video Lessons
- Mnemonic Charts
A quick reference chart of our mnemonics.
HIRAGANA/KATAKANA Memory Hint
|Format||Mobile Apps (iOS/Android)|
Learn Languages with Dr. Moku (Hiragana & Katakana)
|Format||Mobile Apps (iOS/Android)|
|Product Link||Dr. Moku|
Learn ALL Hiragana/Katakana in 1 Hour - How to Write and Read Japanese (JapanesePod101.com)
|Format||Mobile Apps (iOS/Android)|
For Extra Quiz Practice and Reviews
The resources that I've talked about so far are all one-stop solutions that help you remember kana with mnemonics and review and practice through quizzes. As I've mentioned, kana is everywhere. Once you start studying other aspects of the Japanese language, you'll see them constantly. So in a way, you'll be naturally reinforcing your kana knowledge moving forward. That said, you'll want to first practice a lot and make sure you solidify your kana knowledge.
You can get some practice in with the resources above, but I also wanted to introduce you to a couple other tools specifically designed to quiz your kana knowledge for extra practice. One standout feature is that they let you actually type in romaji for the kana readings instead of just offering you multiple choice answers. This means they are a better assessment of your true kana knowledge, and can help you identify what kana you might be struggling to remember.
Tofugu's Learn Kana Quiz
This is another shameless plug (okay okay, I promise this will be the last).
Tofugu's Learn Kana Quiz is a web app originally designed to be a quiz tool to help you solidify the kana knowledge from our kana products, such as the workbooks and web pages I introduced earlier. However, it would be a great companion for really any kind of kana-learning resource as what it does is allow you to practice whatever kana you want, as many times as you want. It also helps you to identify the characters you still have a hard time with.
The way it works is simple. On the main page, you get to choose the kana you want to practice by column (a set of three to five characters). You can check all hiragana or all katakana with a single button too, if you're already familiar with all the kana listed.
During the quiz, you'll be prompted with a set of the selected hiragana characters and asked to type in the readings for each one. You can choose to skip items so you can save the ones you have a hard time recalling and circle back on those later. We believe the act of recalling is important, so unlike any other quiz tools, we actually won't tell you the correct answer even when you get things wrong. (We intentionally make it hard to cheat, and it's all for you!) However, you can try answering the same item until you type in the right answer so you can test your recall over and over.
Then, when you finish a session, the results show you how many failed attempts you had with the characters you couldn't answer correctly at the first go. This will help you identify what kana characters are not still sticking in your memory so you can do something about them — revisiting the mnemonics, inventing new mnemonics, or tracing the characters — whatever you gotta do to finally remember them!
|Product Link||Tofugu's Learn Kana Quiz|
|Format||Mobile Apps (iOS/Android)|
|Product Link||Real Kana|
So this is it! Hope you found something that you want to give a try in this article. Again, being able to read kana is a big first step, and it's not as hard as you think. I hope the methods and resources that I talked about will give you a great head start on your Japanese learning journey! Happy Kana Learning!