How to Write Japanese Letters

Woman wearing green academic dress holding black seniors-printed buntings.jpg

The Japanese language has three distinct writing systems: hiragana, katakana and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are the phonetic representations of individual letters. The Japanese use hiragana to write native words and katakana for words that originated in other languages. Kanji comes from China, and each kanji character represents an entire word. The complex nature of these writing systems makes them difficult for many foreigners to learn, but following a few fundamental steps can help you learn how to write the basic Japanese letters of the hiragana and katakana alphabet.

1 To begin writing Japanese letters

To begin writing Japanese letters, you'll need an example to follow. Purchase a poster of Japanese letters or find a similar document online that you can print out and keep nearby for reference. If you're studying the language, you may already have a Japanese study guide that includes the letters. Whatever your source, be sure to have both hiragana and katakana letters on hand.

Vocabulary Builder

2 Learn the stroke order for each letter

Learn the stroke order for each letter. The letters of the hiragana and katakana alphabet have a specific order that you need to follow. In general, you start with the horizontal lines from top to bottom, and then add the vertical lines from left to right.

3 Write each letter several times

Write each letter several times, as the repetition and practice will help you feel more confident. Begin by writing large letters---doing so makes adding and learning the details of each letter easier---and gradually reducing the size. There are many hiragana and katakana to learn---beginning with 46 basic syllable characters---so avoid becoming overwhelmed by not trying to master too many letters at a time.

4 Once you have the basic letters down

Once you have the basic letters down, it's time to improve your skills by forming simple words. Start with two-syllable words, such as "aki" (autumn) and "ebi" (shrimp), and gradually build up to more complex words.

5 Keep a journal

Keep a journal where you can practice your writing. If you write a daily journal in Japanese, you'll get plenty of experience writing the letters and committing them to memory. Eventually, you'll be able to form entire sentences.

6 Take your Japanese writing to the next level

Take your Japanese writing to the next level by learning to write kanji. These characters are much more difficult to write, but they're an important aspect of the language. Use a kanji study guide to learn the meaning and stroke order, just as you may have done with the hiragana and katakana, and start incorporating the words that you learn into your journal writing.

  • Some websites offer animated images of each of the Japanese letters. Visit these sites to see exactly how you are supposed to form the letters.

Maggie McCormick is a freelance writer. She lived in Japan for three years teaching preschool to young children and currently lives in Honolulu with her family. She received a B.A. in women's studies from Wellesley College.