Japanese – Where to Start

“I’ve always wanted to learn Japanese but I don’t know where to start.”

When starting to learn Japanese I will always recommend learning hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ) straight away. Why? Because it is invaluable if you go to Japan (for reading and speaking), and most study guides will use these. They are the most basic foundation of the Japanese language. They are two of the Japanese alphabets and although there are 46 characters in each of these, it is not that difficult or scary to learn them! It can be done relatively quickly!

When I started learning Japanese I had 1 hour once a week one-on-one with a Japanese teacher, and it took me about a year to learn hiragana and katakana (while also learning basic words a sentences). I really wish that I had done them within 2-4weeks by studying by myself (which you can easily do).

Hiragana Chart
The magical thing about Japanese is that it is phonetic. These alphabets revolve almost entirely around “a” “e” “u” “e” “o” sounds. This makes it so easy to learn! No only that but katakana is exactly the same sounds as hiragana. The difference is that katakana is used for foreign words like sandwich サンドイッチ “sandoichi”, and hiragana is used for Japanese words like three さん “san”. They both use the same “san” sound but the characters are different (さん and サン). This means you only need to learn 2 characters for each sounds, and it’s easy to tell which words you use them in because one is only used for ‘Japanised’ foreign words.

It is easier to learn hiragana first before katakana. And most methods will teach you this way.

And there are many ways you can teach yourself these alphabets. Here are a few, but you can always search yourself on google for an option that works best for you:

Text Books:


  • Japanese Kana by Hand – Free app for android that teaches you through writing the characters.
  • Kana (Hiragana and Katakana) by Tengu – Uses lessons, flashcards and quizzes along with sound bites (for pronunciation) and stroke order diagrams.
  • Dr.Moku – Which is a playful visual method of learning the kanas and even kanji. Has programs for PC, Apple and Android but does costs about £0.95
  • Memrise – Has a huge selection of user generated lessons for learning the kanas and Japanese in general. It’s great at pacing you and helping you memorise your target lesson.


My recommendation: Use a textbook. How you learn best depends on you but I much prefer being able to step away from the computer, sit down and write out, working through a text book for 30mins a day. The kana book is great because it comes with a CD to practice the sounds as well as lots of exercises with Japanese words you can do. (I would say try to write out your answers on a spare piece of paper so you can go through the book again and again and again).


Practice when you’re not studying.

This is easier than you might think. When I was studying I would practice my writing and trying to remember the characters and words in lessons or on the bus by writing them down randomly on a scrap of paper and making a note of the ones I can’t remember. It didn’t really feel studying because it felt like playing around.

Practice words, not just symbols.

Practising words will get symbols in your head faster and will start to build up your basic vocabulary.

See the J-Talk Online Memrise Hiragana and Memrise Katakana courses here to learn the kanas through the use of basic vocabulary. With over 100 hiragana based vocab and 50 katakana based vocabulary! 

Learning hiragana comic
(I love this comic I found on Tae Tim’s Guide to Grammar so much that I had to use it)

If you have/had your own method for studying the kanas what was it?

How did you find learning them?

Any tips you can give other?

Any programs you recommend that I might have missed?

Edit 16/2/14: Memrise suggestion and course added. I was looking at good memrise courses for learning hiragana and couldn’t find any that I liked, that actually helped the learner USE what they were learning. So I made my own and used anime society volunteers as guinea pigs to improve the course.

Everything Helps to Keeps JTalkOnline Going!
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[…] said it before and I’ll say it again, learn hiragana and katana. These are the basic alphabets in Japanese. […]