Going to Japan can be intimidating – I speak from prior experience! You arrive in a country with an alien culture and an even more alien language system and you can find yourself floundering as a result. When I moved to Japan in 2007 I went with no language proficiency whatsoever and, for the first few weeks, I struggled, relying on my housemates at the time to explain things to me and bail me out of difficult situations. If you’re planning on going to Japan, even for a short period, it is definitely worth familiarising yourself with two of their alphabets – Katakana and Hiragana – as they will make your time there a little easier. At the very least it might stop you accidentally ordering crab flavoured ice cream!
If you find the time to learn only one of the characters sets then it should be Katakana. It is used to transcribe words from foreign languages to Japanese and using it can often help you translate certain words and terms into English. This can be especially helpful in specific restaurants as words such as chicken and tomato – despite having their own pronunciations and Kanji symbols – can be spelled using Katakana. This means that you can unscramble menus to have an idea of what you are getting as well as feeling a sense of satisfaction from ordering in a foreign tongue!
The table below can be used to help you pick up Katakana. Although it might look overwhelming at first, many of the symbols are variations of each other making it slightly easier to pick up – see the lookalikes section for further information.
Hiragana is used to spell out many common Japanese words. It is used for words that either have no Kanji alternative or, if a writer so chooses, Kanji can be optionally transcribed into Hiragana. This alphabet is used at train stations to identify the stop beneath the Kanji spelling if one is applicable. Although most train station also display English translations these days, some rural stops do not. Certain speciality restaurants can be identified using this alphabet as well such as ramen (らーめん) establishments. Bearing these points in mind, having some Hiragana knowledge is beneficial to any visitor to Japan.
Note that the line as demonstrated in らーめん denotes an elongation and emphasis of the previous symbol. Again, some of the symbols are variations of each other as highlighted in the lookalikes section.
Once you’ve studied the alphabet tables thoroughly you should look to test yourself to see how much you have picked up and highlight areas of weakness. A website I used for this purpose and found very helpful was RealKana which will randomly generate characters for you to identify. It’s really useful so be sure to give it a try if you’re serious about learning the lingo!
Kanji is a whole different ball game as the cliché goes. I can’t help you with that set of characters as I barely scratched the surface of that challenge throughout my numerous lengthy stays in the country. Getting to grips with Kanji is far more difficult as some of the characters are mindbogglingly complicated and take a great deal of study and hard work to memorise.
Still, you can certainly get by to some extent off the back of the two alphabets above and knowing them can definitely make your stay in the country a little less confusing and a little more rewarding. Good luck!