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Hiragana, Katakana & Kanji: Understanding the Japanese Alphabets

Hey! It’s Lauren here, the Language Mindset UK-based blogger and fellow language lover. Hope you enjoy the post!

Did you know that Japanese has not one, not two, but THREE writing systems?

They’re known as kanji, hiragana, and katakana, and together, they make up the Japanese language. 

Very few languages have multiple writing systems, so it may come as a surprise to Japanese learners. But it all starts to make sense when you understand the role each one plays in communication. 

So, let’s take a look at these three writing systems and the role they play. 

dog face surprised with Japanese alphabets
なに "what?" Pepper can't believe his ears! 😲


Hiragana is one of two ‘kana’ alphabets, which acts as the Japanese phonetic script. It’s formed of 46 characters which represent the primary sounds of the language. These characters are also used to represent words that are native to Japan - i.e. not loaned from abroad. 

The good news is that hiragana is considered relatively easy to learn compared to other writing systems. That’s because of its phonetic nature and simpler character forms. 

What is hiragana used for?

Hiragana’s main purpose is grammatical. Not only does it represent the fundamental sounds of the Japanese language, but it’s also used to indicate word endings, verb conjugations, and sentence particles.

Hiragana is the first writing system children learn in Japanese education. So, you’ll find it in children's books, educational materials, and exercises that introduce them to reading and writing in the language. Therefore, it’s very important for young learners of Japanese outside of the country too. 

Want colorful printable hiragana charts? Click here to purchase


Katakana is the second alphabet under the ‘kana’ system, which is also formed of 46 characters. These characters are different from hiragana; however, they’re used to represent the same sounds. 

Learning katakana is essential for anyone studying Japanese as it expands their ability to read and comprehend a wide range of materials, from modern literature, to news articles.

What is katakana used for?

Unlike hiragana, which is used for Japanese words, katakana is used for foreign loan words, emphasis, scientific terms and Japanese companies. It’s often used to emphasise or highlight certain words in a sentence, and it's commonly seen in product names and advertisements for this reason.


Kanji is Japan’s oldest writing system. It originates from traditional Chinese, which is why it looks noticeably different to Hiragana and Katakana, which are native Japanese alphabets. 

The adoption of kanji in Japan dates back to before the 5th century when the Japanese language lacked a writing system. The purpose of introducing kanji into the language was to make it easier to communicate with neighbouring cultures.

The biggest difference between kanji and the ‘kana’ alphabets is that each character represents a single unit of meaning that combines with others to form words. 

Here's an example with Pepper, the dog from our chapter book, The Word Thief!

Chapter book all in Japanese for kids!

Red is Katakan for Pepper, a foreign name, blue for hiragana, and green for the kanji character for dog.

Katakana also shows a cultural aspect in which words are borrowed and not originally part of Japanese culture. Cool, right?

Can you guess which delicious American dessert this is from the Katana?


aisu kurīmu


You can read more about how this works in this blog post. 

What is kanji used for?

Because Kanji was adapted from Chinese, you cannot write Japanese entirely in Kanji. The only way to form a complete, grammatically correct sentence is to combine it with the other alphabets. 

Kanji are mainly used for writing nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs. But, unlike Chinese, Japanese verbs must be conjugated, which means that Kanji are often used in conjunction with hiragana and katakana. 

Don’t worry, it’s easier than it sounds when you learn the alphabets!

Which alphabet should you learn first?

Learning three alphabets might sound like a lot of work, but it’s important to be able to understand the language in various contexts. We infused all three alphabets into them while easing the kanji in, little by little. Since we teach language through stories, we immerse in hiragana, katakana, and kanji while also using romaji! Eventually, we can wean the kiddos off relying on Romaji.

Romaji is the romanization or transliteration of Japanese characters (kanji, hiragana, and katakana) into the Latin alphabet. It allows non-Japanese speakers to read and pronounce Japanese words using familiar Latin letters. Perfect for beginners to help while learning the new alphabet!

It's generally recommended to start with hiragana first before moving on to katakana and then kanji. Hiragana is your base.

That’s because hiragana represents the sounds of the language and allows you to read and write native Japanese words and understand basic grammar structures.

It's essential for building a strong foundation in the language! In the Word Thief chapter book, we've selected the most frequent kanji to start.

Foreign loan words are used a lot in Japanese, so the next step is to learn katakana so kiddos can expand their vocabulary. And here’s a bonus - since katakana characters are derived from hiragana, it’s easier to learn once they’ve studied hiragana.

Finally, kanji are more complex than hiragana and katakana because each kanji character can have multiple readings and meanings. It’s best to learn kanji after getting familiar with hiragana and katakana. These aren’t super important in the early stages, especially for kids, as they’re mainly used in things such as newspapers, books, and official documents.

Learn Japanese with the Language Mindset

Our flagship program, StoryDraw, makes it easy for kids to learn the Japanese alphabet by teaching them through the engaging adventures of our beloved characters. Learn more about our weekly live language clubs or get in touch to enrol them today!

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