Why Your Japanese Sucks

It’s not Romaji That’s Evil—-It’s Hiragana

I have a new co-worker, who just so happens to be white. It’s very exciting, finally speaking with a real foreigner. I really gotta practice the English more. I think she’s from some place like Kansas, probably because she reminds me of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, albeit minus the little dog and red shoes. Maybe it’s the pigtails, and the fact that her aunt is named Em. Or is that M? Whatever. On Thursday, apropos of nothing, she turned to me and announced,

“I’m heading over to Japanese class tonight.”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s great.” Foreigners are always heading over to Japanese class. “How’s that going anyway?”

“Wonderful,” she replied, “we’re learning hiragana.”

“Ooh, hiragana. How about kanji?”

“That’s a bit much now,” she said. “I’m just glad to be getting off romaji.”

And suddenly I saw into the future. I can do that sometimes, although usually it requires about six beers. I saw a world of self-driving cars, hairless cats, and fat-free cheesecake. Oh, we’re in for much good stuff. Then I saw the horrible reality—-Dorothy would learn hiragana, about thirty kanji, and suddenly think she was reading and writing Japanese. So I decided to tell her the awful truth: hiragana is no better than romaji. In fact, it’s worse.

“Well, that’s wonderful,” I echoed. Ah, pussed out again. Seeroi, jeez.

The Japanese Writing System

Everybody knows that Japanese has three writing systems. Well, everybody who’s anybody. But even that’s only half correct. Educated Japanese folks actually learn an astonishing five alphabets. That’s practically double. Just round up. Anyway, they are:

1. Romaji, like the word: karate
2. Hiragana, the same word written as: からて
3. Katakana, the same word, written as: カラテ
4. Kanji, again, same word, written as: 空手
6. Phonetics, one more time, only now helpfully written so that no one could possibly pronounce it: kəˈrädē

People bag on romaji a lot, but it’s actually pretty fantastic. It’s the reason the world knows words like sushi, tofu, and samurai. Without it, Tom Cruise would never have become a Meiji-era warrior, and then where would we be? Not wearing kimonos, that’s for sure. The problem is, romaji doesn’t feel Japanese. Too many ABCs, probably.

So enter hiragana, which meets our needs perfectly. It’s satisfyingly slightly-hard to learn, and once you’ve got it, you can write every word in a lovely foreign-looking script. ひらがなひらがなひらがな。Now that feels Japanese.

Please Tell me Romaji is Evil

Now, I don’t mean to say that there aren’t problems with romaji. Granted, it does a terrible job of extending vowel sounds, making the word 大きい look like it’s pronounced “ooki” instead of closer to “oh-key.” And sure, it leads to other pronunciation inaccuracies, like when 無理 comes out as “muri,” when the sound is subtly different. But still, it’s not impossible to learn proper Japanese pronunciation with romaji. I’m pretty sure Japanese people don’t see the word “Tokyo” and all say “Tokey-O.”

Hiragana is Evil

The real culprit is hiragana, which has deceived generations of Westerners into thinking they were using Japanese.

Now, again, I don’t mean to say that hiragana isn’t Japanese. It is—-just like romaji is. And it’s certainly essential for constructing sentences and conjugating verbs. The problem isn’t that it’s used, but rather that it’s criminally over-used. It’s used instead of kanji, as though it were somehow “good enough.” Hey, it doesn’t look like English, right? So it must be Japanese. And in small doses, it is. But using it entirely, in place of kanji, isn’t Japanese at all, and will effectively hinder you in learning Japanese.

And there’s your future. You learn those two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, and then breathe a deep sigh. Ahhhh, now you’re finally using “Japanese,” and not that demon romaji. So then you learn 30 kanji, then another 10, and another 10, until after a couple of years you’re up to like 100 kanji. Wooooow. (By the way, that’s just “wow” with the “o” extended, and in no way rhymes with “moo.”) But hiragana suffers from the same exact problem as romaji. They both prevent you from seeing the relationship between words.

It doesn’t really matter if you write “wheel” and “ring” as しゃりん and わ or sharin and wa. They both fail to show the common element, which is apparent in the kanji: 車輪 and 輪. That relationship is essential for vocabulary building, reading, and understanding the language beyond a kindergarten level.

Lie to me, Baby

So why is Japanese taught with so much hiragana? Frankly, it’s a joint deception on the part of Japanese teachers and students, and with good reason. A decade ago, if my sensei had insisted I learn two thousand kanji, I would have laughed, cried, dropped the class, and then set her Nissan on fire. I’m kind of juvenile like that. So we continued with our mutually comfortable 95% hiragana, which was actually no better than romaji. Picture how surprised I was when, after years of studying Japanese, I finally discovered that ken and inu were both the same word for dog: 犬. Sorry, did I say “surprised?” I meant “pissed,” as in Dog? Dog? How come nobody told me this? But nobody’s gonna tell you, because that’d come dangerously close to using kanji.

So by delaying serious kanji study by, in many cases, years, students are handicapped in reading, which is essential for language acquisition. Talk to people and you just find yourself repeating the same conversations over and over; it’s really through reading that we learn and grow. I mean, something other than this site, of course. Anyway, I’m pretty sure that’s why schools use books, instead of just chatting eight hours a day. Although maybe Japanese Socrates would disagree. If so, he’d better say it to me directly, since an email would be kind of ironic.

Racism in Japanese Schools? How’s That Possible?

If you look at the way many Asians study Japanese, you can see the difference. And I’m not just talking about Chinese, but people from places like the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Thailand. Schools that market to Asians are hard-core, and dive right in to reading with kanji, because everyone knows, Asians can study harder. They’re naturally good at math too. Is it racism if Japanese teachers go easy on white and black people? Or it just selling folks what they want to buy? Who’d sign up for a hard school, when you could go to a fun school? Let’s learn Japanese the fun and easy way! Just ignore the backbone of the language. Silly Asians, with their fancy books and pens.

Advice for Learning Japanese

So honestly, if you want to learn enough conversational Japanese to get by, just stick with romaji. Ignore any advice that says you should learn hiragana and katakana, because if you’re not going to learn kanji, it’s largely a waste of time. You can memorize a couple hundred phrases without the additional hassle of two new alphabets, and that’s plenty enough to lead the normal life of a foreigner in Japan.

But if you want to actually learn Japanese, then it’s time to recognize the lie. All those notebooks and flashcards filled with hiragana aren’t doing you any good, any more than drinking this six pack is going to give me six-pack abs. Although, granted, it’s a lot more fun than going to the gym, which would be something hard. And no white person wants to do that. Hey, pass the Doritos.

109 Replies to “Why Your Japanese Sucks”

    1. Ye shall know the truth and the truth will make you, uh, horrified. I think that’s how that goes. Anyway, yeah, maybe a bit over the top, but let’s just say it’s important not to get stuck on hiragana. Apparently I could have said the whole thing in one sentence.

        1. Yeah, there’s something about words. Too few and nobody’s happy. Too many and same thing. Writing’s like trying to please the three bears.

  1. You know, it’s funny. When I started my Japanese studies and I had learned the kana, I remember thinking how nice it would be if Japanese just used kana instead of all those kanji. It would make learning the language so much easier, or so I thought. Now that I have a decent amount of kanji under my belt (1100, yea!), I hate reading things in all hiragana. I’ve been using some JLPT N5 practice resources and they are all written with mostly hiragana. I actually find it more difficult to read. I never thought I’d believe that it’s easier to read Japanese with kanji, but it’s true, like you said.

    BTW, did you watch the January sumo tournament? Hakuho made sumo history with the most yushos, surpassing Taiho’s record.

    1. I saw some of the tournament on TV. Hakuho—what a truly talented wrestler. He really possesses a skill that others don’t.

      Back on point, yeah, I think everybody feels that way when they start out, but man, pure hiragana is painfully hard to read. I saw some of Dorothy’s materials: げつようび いまだせんせいは ぎんこう に いきました. That’s not Japanese at all, like no Japanese person would ever write it like that. As difficult as kanji is, in the end, it’s miles easier than hiragana.

  2. I agree with this so much it hurts! Ok, so it doesn’t hurt, but I do agree.
    If you want to learn Japanese don’t half arse it.
    中途半端 shouldn’t even be in your dictionary. Or at least your 英和辞書.

    One word that I hear Japanese learners use incorrectly a lot is 偽善者 for this exact reason.
    Why do they misuse it?
    Because they use an English to Japanese dictionary to look up the word hypocrite and decided they had learnt the word.

    What they didn’t know was that the kanji mean 偽(fake)善(good)者(person) because all they see is ぎぜんしゃ.
    This is fine when they mean a person who is being ‘fake good’ to hide their true feelings, but in English we use the word a lot to mean someone who does the things they condemn other for.

    In that case they really want 言動矛盾, but they never find out because no one tells them and they don’t know the kanji so they never question their 英和辞書.

    1. Thanks for bringing up a really good point that I glossed over, which is that the kanji have meanings. Hiragana (like romaji) is just a collection of sounds, but once you have a visual, with the kanji, you can understand the meaning of the word.

      That’s why Japanese is harder to learn without kanji, because then it’s just memorizing random sounds, without understanding why the words sound like they do.

  3. Ewww, hairless cats? 🙁

    I totally agree with what you’ve said about Hiragana.
    If I get a Japanese text that only consists of Hiragana (would be the same for Katakana, but I’ve never seen one), I simply cannot read it. It’s so much more difficult to make out words – and it takes much longer to understand.

    Japanese is such a beautiful language and I highly recommend getting into kanji as quickly as possible.
    Although I have to admit that I was worried and tried to delay it at first as well. Though, that was loooong before I actually moved to Japan.
    When I finally lived in Japan my conversational Japanese, my listening skills etc. … that all wasn’t too bad, but I just couldn’t read / understand the world around me very well.

    And that’s when I finally became serious about studying kanji.
    A whole new world appeared in front of me!

    If one is serious about learning Japanese, get into studying all kana (including kanji) ASAP!

    I have to disagree with what you’ve said about romaji, though.
    Of course, romaji might be better than hiragana alone, but one should stay away from romaji.
    It might be okay for the first few lessons to get a hang of other things first – and it might also be ok for people who aren’t serious about studying Japanese and just want some simple phrases for travelling.

    But for anyone who’s serious about it, STAY AWAY from ROMAJI and don’t think you’re doing yourself anything good just focusing on Hiragana and Katakana! ^^;; …..

    Phew. Sorry, got worked up because of the hairless cat image in my head. ;P

    1. I don’t know. I just don’t see that. Romaji is everywhere in Japan, and Japanese people have no problem with it. Hasn’t killed anyone yet. Westerners seem to get bent about it—Agh! It looks like my language!—but I think that’s focusing on the wrong issue.

      You know, when I see someone writing in romaji, I think Well, that’s a crazy backasswards way of approaching Japanese, but whatever. And when I see them writing in all hiragana, same thing. That’s not any better.

      But it’s okay, because these are helpful tools for people starting out. Romaji’s great up to a point, as is hiragana, but they’re both just stepping stones to understanding the real language.

      I’m not worried about someone who uses romaji at all, because if that person reaches a plateau in their language learning, the next step is pretty obvious.

      With hiragana and katakana, I think it’s less obvious, and a lot of people (myself included) spend too long at that stage, believing they can continue progressing in Japanese without learning kanji. That’s the real danger. Well, not really a “danger,” like no one’s gonna die, but you get what I mean.

      1. I guess so.
        I just had a look at some of my super old Japanese textbooks and they also started out with romaji and then changed to hiragana only for some chapters. I couldn’t read the hiragana texts very well. It’s freaking annoying. The romaji ones were easier to understand.

        I’m not a Japanese teacher and I certainly wouldn’t be able to teach Japanese to others.
        I also know that what works well for some, won’t work well for others.
        Even I had to try and fail several times until I found a way / method to learn / memorize kanji.

        But as I really like reading and as that was one of my goals, I knew that I had to get the kanji down ASAP. And once I found a method that worked for me, I felt like kicking my ass for not getting serious about kanji earlier. I’m sure – at least in my case – it would have sped up the whole study progress.

  4. 私もそ思います
    I prefer lessons to use the same regularly-used kana+kanji sentences as authentic materials.
    Kana only and romaji-only handicap you in many ways.
    My own low-level-Japanese example is just recently realizing that the ‘Otsukaresama’ from my first ever Japanese lesson uses お疲れ様 . Until then, I have been struggling with remembering 疲れた (I’m tired). To me it makes sense that the ‘tired’ kanji could be part of the ‘thanks for your hard work’ expression. Oddly, even with the same kanji, a japanese teacher I mentioned to said they were unrelated usages.
    For some reason, very few of the Japanese teachers I have met have good tools for studying kanji – often they just say ‘please memorize’. And they have seemed in my experience to not have some much interest in the characters themselves.

    When I studied Chinese, of course they dive right into the kanji and make you write sentences over and over. Writing the characters in sentences was more effective than in isolation for sure. You quickly start to notice the common radicals and can see the chunks in characters. My Chinese teacher taught about different usages of radicals, meanings, stroke order theory, etc.

    When learning the kanji pronunciation I think either kana or romaji is fine as long as the romaji is the standard.
    For practicing speaking flow, a romaji sentence can be very useful reference since as mid-beginner I can read it at closer to normal speed than a kanji+kana sentence where I dont know all the kanji. A kana-only sentence is hardest since you dont know where the word breaks are!
    I don’t see why anyone should stay away from romaji, it’s not like you need to ‘learn’ it. Just don’t rely on it. Everything in moderation.

  5. I think this post outlines my entire lazy existence. One minor victory is more than enough to justify a lack of any real progress.

    1. Same here. When I learned hiragana and katakana, I didn’t bother learning kanji. I don’t even have the inclination to study Japanese. Lazy lady me.

      1. I think that’s most people. Everybody tries to avoid talking about it, because nobody wants to face the reality. Kanji’s like being gay in the army.

  6. Wait, what? People learn romaji?

    Also as 5 or 6 you could have had “Learning to use them together” or something.

    1. I don’t think I posted on that thread. There’s someone named Ken, but it’s not me. I’m actually a fan of classes, although it helps if you take the right one. I’ve always maintained that classes don’t suck, but rather that we do. Expecting the class to “teach” us—just pour the information into my brain, please—rather than taking responsibility for our own learning is where the suck comes from. More about that here: https://japaneseruleof7.com/why-do-classes-suck/

    1. No, you absolutely need hiragana. And katakana. They’re both essential components of the language.

      The point is that, without also learning kanji, Japanese is far more difficult, because you’re ignoring the meanings of the words, and just memorizing sounds. So to use hiragana instead of kanji is a massive mistake.

      As for “learning” romaji, that’s the beauty of it. You already know that.

  7. Reading this article just reinforces the notion that I am in no way, shape or form cut out to learn Japanese. The time investment versus reward is just not sweet enough for me! I think I shall stick to knowing a handful of phrases and smiling a lot. Great article, love hearing about this stuff!

    1. Now see, there’s a sensible decision. You might even enjoy Japan more by speaking less of the language. Kind of like how you’d enjoy eating at restaurants a lot more if you weren’t the Health Inspector.

  8. Hey Ken, I know this question is off topic from the post and I’m sure you’ve answered hundreds of questions similar to this one. I recently had a great experience as I was able to live in Hachioji for 3 months, which was a blast. The only problem is that I had been working there as a music producer. I am now back in america trying to find my way to get a stable job and visa in Japan.

    And of course the easiest solution looks to be teaching, I have a 2 year degree AA and I’m considering getting a BA or BS in English teaching. Do you think having a 4 year degree in English teaching would land me getting a job teaching at a highschool rather than a language school? I’ve only heard bad things about teaching at language schools so I’m trying to avoid looking at those as an option. Any insight would be great, thanks!

    1. Yup.

      With a 4-year degree, you should be able to get a job teaching in the Japanese public school system. Majoring in English (or ESL) would look particularly good. There’s probably more demand for elementary schools than high schools, but they’re fine places to work too. I agree–anything to stay out of the eikaiwa.

  9. Ken Seeroi you are murdering my dream! As I sit at home beating my head against studying kanji, I think about how someday I will go to Japan for a few months and take a class where I can learn to actually speak. Now I’m wondering if that’s even a good idea, if classes that let Americans in treat them like lazy babies.

    1. Well, careful what you wish for. Because I’m sure you can find a full-time school that’ll sit your ass down and force you to learn Japanese for real.

      Though I have to say that what you describe—take a class for a few months, with the goal of speaking—doesn’t sound like you’re setting your sites particularly high. My sense is that at the end of that time, you’d be able to hold simple conversations, but not really communicate on an adult level. I guess it’s a matter of how far you want to go with it though. Nothing wrong with just being able to talk about your hobbies and the kinds of foods you like.

      1. Well, since I will never get to live there, reading is actually more useful. I’m probably never going to need to have more than simple conversations. And now that you mention it, the thing I most like to converse about is what kind of foods I like. So maybe I can dream after all.

  10. Kanji are the language, so yeah, you’re right that they’re just slightly important. If you’re starting out, then you’re lucky, because you can learn them right from the beginning, instead of putting it off for years and playing catch up, like some people I know.

  11. I am convinced there’s a Japanese conspiracy to not teach foreigners (aka, foreigners that look foreign) Japanese. I don’t think Japanese classes are designed well enough to teach us how to master the language, and I agree with Ken–they go ‘easy’ on us because they think Kanji etc.. is too difficult for us foreign lookin people).

    Maybe that’s why foreigners tend to learn Chinese faster–because there’s no crutch like hiragana. It’s kanji from day one (and pinyin–the romanji equivalent–for pronunciation’s sake).

    I also know there’s two types of romanji–the old school romanji from Commodore Perry’s days with the accent marks is all messed up and horrible. The modern romanji equivalent (like to spell out hiragana) is wayyyyyyy better and I agree that is super useful.

    1. Of course, I’m not trying to promote romaji as the way to learn Japanese. What I’m really saying is that it pays to make the choice early on: are you going to learn this language for real or not? If not, that’s fine. Stick with romaji. But anyone who wants to actually use the language for daily life and discussing things more significant than the weather will need kanji. All of it. You can’t just learn the alphabet through “G” and decide that’s good enough. The notion that hiragana is sufficient for Japanese is just self-deception. Learners need to progress past it as soon as possible.

      As for the teachers and schools, naturally they bear some responsibility. But look what they’re up against. Westerners are inundated with the message that learning Japanese can be fun and easy. For them, it’s a hobby they can pursue for a year or two and then go home. But some guy from Malaysia, he doesn’t come here thinking, Man, this is gonna be fun. I’ll just screw off in Japan, take class on Tuesdays and Thursday nights, and spend the rest of my time in Irish bars. He’s trying to get a job, survive, and make a life here.

      It’s a pretty big challenge convincing Japanese people that you’re actually serious about living in Japan and speaking the language in the same manner they do. They’re always like, Why would you want to?—after all, you’re white.

      It’s a pretty good question, actually.

  12. I actually recommend learning Chinese first, from Taiwan, the traditional style, not the simplified version from the mainland. That crap is some communist Mao-bull. And take a couple of university level classical Chinese classes as well then you would have a great grasp on many of the JLT1 archaic kanjis. This is why so many Chinese can pass that test. Now that you can now understand 80-95% of your world in Japan, who cares if you can’t speak Japanese! I mean, Japanese are not the most social and talkative bunch anyway, except when they are drunk which conversations always run smoothly when it’s lubricated.

    1. So the current best-practice for learning Japanese is: Step 1: Learn Chinese. Step 2: Everything else. Well great, two steps, how hard can that be?

      1. Actually I think step 2 would be “abandon Japanese and talk with Chinese (Taiwanese)”, presumably about Classical Chinese literature….

        1. There’s one thought. But if you’re gonna go that route, then maybe Step 1 should be Learn Spanish, and Step 2, Move to Barcelona.

          It’s too late for me. Save yourselves!

  13. I think I might try to learn Spanish first, considering it takes forever to learn japanese. It might even be easier to learn japanese with another language already under my belt.

    1. If your goal is to be popular in Japan, that’s a great idea. Maybe the only people in Japan who think it’s cool to speak Japanese are the foreigners.

  14. Hey ken, I have a question.
    I just finished learning hiragana and katakana not too long ago, and I wanted to know how to start learning kanji / Where should I start learning kanji?
    Is it like a “Look at random kanji online, note them down, learn them, move to the next list of kanji” type of deal or is there like a general order of kanji that people learn / a couple of kanji that you should learn before you start learning random kanji?
    Sorry if this is a bit of a stupid question but I really don’t wanna start learning kanji the wrong way, and then realizing a much better way once I already know 200 kanji or something *grumpy face*.

  15. Only hiragana sentences hurt my eyes. It’s really unreadable but it’s necessary in the first half year of Japanese. Now, I have no idea how they teach Japanese in the US or other countries except my own, but when I started back in 2004 we learned hiragana right away, using the romaji only for grammar until we got all the hiragana down right. Then, 5 months after the start of the class, we were introduced to kanji. At first most of the guys in my class were complaining but they came around to see how useful they are.

    As for me, well, I’m a Japanese language geek so I love kanji and ended up going all the way getting the JLPT N1 (a year after the new system was introduced), teaching the N5-N3 levels to others for 2-3 years and ultimately landing an IT job in Japan which was my field of study in the Uni.

    Knowing difficult kanji is a must when you work at an all-Japanese company and have to take tests in super hard level Japanese (just thinking of the security policy tests makes me shudder). My company has foreigners but does not do English. In fact, I’ve proposed they make their site in English as well so newcomers can browse it but alas! I always wonder how people who know minimal Japanese get by when they have to go to the hospital, to the city hall, call to ask about the electricity bill etc. Because I do that in full Japanese mode and not the こんにちはlevel. Most Japanese people I know have a limited to none grasp of the English language.

    1. “I always wonder how people who know minimal Japanese get by when they have to go to the hospital, to the city hall, call to ask about the electricity bill etc.”

      I think the traditional way is to get married to a Japanese person.

  16. Hey Ken. Absolutely digging your site, observations and writing(s). I’m also a Japan-based expatriot who has put many a hanko beneath many of your posts. Anyway, couldn’t find a contact for you, but if you could drop me a quick line at [edited] I would love to touch base and chat with you about some possible creative projects.

    Great site and keep it up!

    1. Looks like something promising Ken, Bang Bang. Good Luck ! Jacob, Ken is wise beyond his years and I know you are a good judge of character to pick up on this talented guy… just make sure he doesn’t spend too much time at the corner izakaya, cough cough!

  17. …hello; I do not know why you deleted my previous comment…I did not write anything inappropriate; I guess.
    I had these doubts and forgot this other one, and like you are a teacher and I do not have anyone to ask…if you not want to put this other comment too may be you can answer it directly…
    So, regarding what you say with OOKI, like an example, how some one manage to understand the meaning and pronunciation of a Kanji for the first time? Hiragana for the Japanese’ (romaji or hiragana for the rest?) or phonetically in the schools?
    The other question is I know a few hundreds, but only can identify them and know the pronunciation by hiragana or romaji, couple of meanings; but nothing more; I mean, how do you manage to read or write with only that?
    How do I construct the sentences? To me still sounds like learning from memory but do not know how to do with these characters.
    when and how I decide to substitute a hiragana letter for the counter part Kanji, normally with hybrid words?
    Learning those 2000+ then all will fall in the right places?

    1. Whoops, sorry about that. Sometimes valid comments get deleted as spam. My apologies.

      I’ll try to describe the process that children go through as best I can. Just this past week, a Japanese colleague asked me to translate a recording she’d taken of an interview with an English-speaking child.

      “I can’t make out these words,” she said.

      I listened. “That’s because they aren’t real words,” I replied.

      So what I see children doing in both English and Japanese is using real words when possible, and simply making up their own words as placeholders when necessary. They’ll just make up a word that sounds right. (Non-native speakers also do this as part of the learning process.)

      When it comes to writing, it’s somewhat the same thing. Children learn hiragana in pre-school. As soon as they’re able to write, they start using the characters, although they’re really all over the place. They can’t actually spell words accurately. Then once they enter grade school, at about age 6, they get formal instruction, lots of it, just like we did, writing out words and sentences. They’ll also learn katakana, and embark upon the long journey of learning kanji.

      As you probably know, schools in Japan teach a fixed set of kanji every year. So in year one, they learn about 80. In year two, a bunch more, and this continues through high school.

      So how do children learn how to the reading and meaning of 大 for the first time? Organically. They’re heard the word “Ooki” about a million times, and they’ve seen it as well, even if they didn’t know what it meant. Then at some point, they just naturally put it together. Exactly in the same way that you can see a Mercedes-Benz emblem and know how to pronounce it. That type of exposure is sufficient for learning a few hundred kanji, assuming there’s enough exposure. Bear in mind, they also don’t have another language to interfere with their input–there’s nothing else for them to think in other than Japanese. Beyond that, they have to study, just like we did, although again they have the advantage of having heard and seen millions more words than we have, simply by growing up. Also, children learn in a way entirely different from adults, since their brains are still being formed. But that’s another story.

      So in terms of specific advice, I’d suggest that you take a class in Japanese, preferably in person, or online if necessary. It sounds like you don’t have enough basic knowledge to know how to proceed, and a semester of Japanese should really clear that up. Alternately, you could work through a basic textbook, like Genki I, although that’s a bit boring to do on your own. Get some basics for a few months before you start diving into how to use kanji.

      1. Exposure is really a key. Japanese is a third language to me, so it’s hard to progress very fast, but I found that just riding trains and reading station names that I pass in kanji and hiragana (they post them like) is more useful than anything I’ve tried with books!

        1. That’s a great way to learn the readings of the kanji. I’ve always thought that if all Japanese signs came with hiragana, non-native speakers would progress a lot faster with the language.

      2. You just blew my mind by using the Mercedes-Benz emblem analogy. Learning Kanji honestly seemed like an impossible task but you when you put it like that it seems about 50% less hard. Right now i could probably name over 3000 companies, foods, bands, movies and so on just from the emblem. Sure i have been exposed to them formy entire life but it really puts in perspective just how doable it actually is. It will in no way be an easy task because so much of the Kanji have very subtle, but vastly different meanings but once you start to associate them in that they will slowly start to make sense.

        Does Kanji itself respresent a sound, word, idea or something else?

        1. You’re right—that part’s 50% less hard than it seems. What’s a million times more hard, however, is when you combine kanji. Which is basically the challenge of the language, because Mercedes + Sun = hot car, but Mercedes + Moon = belly button lint.

          So your question, “Does Kanji itself represent a sound, word, idea or something else?” is right on target, and the answer is Yes. What’s screwy about kanji is that it’s inconsistent. Hell, it’s almost as bad as English.

          1. English as far as abc’s is pretty straight forward in that the letters represent a sound, until they don’t. I’m sure explaining that the “P” in Pterodactyl is silent doesn’t make it an easy language to learn for the Japanese. Even i cannot explain to my nephew why that it is. I just tell him to Google it which seems to solve half of lifes questions.

            I was struggling to wrap my head around learning a way to even start going about solving the problem of kanji, so hearing it put in those terms made a lightbulb flash in my head. Granted it was saying “are you sure you want to do this, beer sounds much easier”, but it makes sense. I have already spent over 10 years of my life learning history in my apare time, so 10 years of Japanese seems doable. I probably won’t have any hair left and no social life but then again not much would change…well I do have beautiful hair. You should have seen when it was shoulder length.

  18. …hello, may be I expressed the idea incorrectly. I know the very basics and Im into the basics not with the Genki, but with Minna no Nihongo, those books are better than the Genki, but still somewhat poor. By the way, I think (however your opinion could be better in this case) that the methods are not so good. They should implement something easier like: “to say it s a chair use DA or formal Desu so isu da or isu desu; then the negative and the past. All at first stage and so on. Is not better this way? and after the basics, Kanji.
    When I started learning music (harmony, etc) and several other things that I have been learning in my life, I noticed the same stupid logic in the academical way to teach; now, I have another vision (like see behind the curtain in a theatre) and I can improve the way I teach some things to the rookies.
    So, still I do not get how I see a new kanji and know how to spell it right; the pronunciation. I only know the firsts hundreds kyoiku kanji, and I did not see any secret stuff to take a given new kanji and know the pronunciation and to know how to build sentences…

    1. If there was secret stuff, Japanese would be a whole lot easier.

      There are a frustratingly high number of pronunciations for many kanji, and as for constructing sentences, well… the only thing you can do is to keep steadily progressing. Only years of exposure and practice will enable you to get there. It would help if you were four years-old too.

  19. Agh, i didn’t want to know that! Now i have to actually try -_-
    But thanks for the heads up, you’re amazing as always Seeroi

    1. Wait, did I say “years”? My bad. I meant “weeks.” Japanese is so easy, you can become fluent in three months. So be happy. Don’t worry about all that readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic stuff, just go straight to the front of the line and get your diploma. Remember: as long as you think you’re great, you actually are.

      1. Haha Thankyou! Though I think I’m going to take your advice and do this properly. Going to have to if I plan to move to Japan at the end of the year

  20. I’ve already added kanji to my learning, based upon two posts you’ve written. On the other hand… I learned hiragana and katakana in about 4 hours last week using mnemonics and a puzzle game (and a bit of Memrise). This motivated me to install language packs on my phone and pc. I feel this makes some learning and mem easier since I now think in phonetic blocks (symbol = sound) more than misc groups of letters. Plus, I text in Japanese more now… for the reasons you mentioned above.

    1. That’s awesome. It’s really important to deal with real Japanese—that is, Japanese as it’s normally written, whether that’s in kana or kanji. So you’re definitely on the right path. Keep hope alive.

  21. In my experience, Japanese find it bothersome, not quick, to read and write in Romaji. Of course, Kanji is more efficient. However, if you’re not at that level, and you want to write something to help with communication, I feel you are actually being more polite to your Japanese friends, colleagues, shop assistants and so on, if you use a script which is easier for them to read, and to write. That’s Hiragana or Katakana if you’re not at a communicative kanji level yet. Of course it’s up to the learner to learn, but Hiragana or Katakana can help smooth the pathways of communication when at a beginning level. I think it has its uses.

    1. I’m really trying to picture the situation in which you write something in hiragana or katakana to explain the concept to a Japanese person, considering they already have thousands of words of English vocabulary.

      “Sushi! I want sushi. Here, let me write it for you: すし. Now do you understand?”

      Conversely, I’ll have an hour-long conversation with a group of people in Japanese, and then when it’s time to exchange names and phone numbers, everyone writes their names in romaji. Eh, probably just a coincidence.

  22. The text book I first used was in hiragana only and I thought that was pretty cool. But then I used the series, Mina no Nihongo. It’s in kanji right from the beginning with furigana on everything. It’s no substitute for studying kanji but it ‘s a great assistance, you’re reading /real/ Japanese.

    I can’t even read that first text book now.

    1. Yeah, hiragana only is pretty much impossible, like trying to read pig Latin. andway at’sthay ywhay anjikay asway inventedway.

  23. And don’t get me started on furigana pasted all over a piece of written Japanese. I hate it with a passion. The furigana characters are usually tiny and difficult to read, which is frustrating. I hate seeing furigana on every single kanji, even the most basic ones, it reminds me of trainer wheels on bicycles.

    Also, I’d rather spend a moment trying to recall the reading of a kanji I’ve met before rather than mechanically read the furigana. I actually go through texts with whiteout blasting all the furigana. I make a separate list of new / unfamiliar kanji compounds in the text for review when reading back over the text.

    1. That’s the right way to do it, for sure, although the whiteout really messes up yours screen. It’s great to have online tools like Rikaichan to provide readings on demand, but ever-present furigana just holds a brother back.

      1. Ah, an Irish joke, to be sure. Actually, I’m an old-fashioned type still lugging around print books. I’m thinking of intermediate starter level text books where you should have a recognition vocabulary of around 300+ kanji, but they put furigana on words like 日本語. If you are at intermediate level and can’t read that, you’re are in serious trouble.

        I worked through two ancient second-hand copies of reading texts from the pre-furigana era: Jorden’s Reading Japanese and volume 1 of the Naganuma readers. Okay, they are really old, but they gradually introduce new kanji so you are reading proper Japanese without furigana or translations.

  24. I read the romaji words in your examples and had to stop and think: “what’s exactly wrong with their pronunciation?”. Then I realized I’m supposed to read them “American style”, but why exactly would I… That’s a silly assumption. There are more languages in the world than “American” and “some other asian languages with strange letters LOL”. A lot of languages use roman alphabet and the letters are read differently in all of them, so naturally I read Japanese words written in romaji in Japanese pronunciation. (my native language being Polish helps though, I think it’s easier to me to produce Japanese sounds than it is for a native English speaker).

    With that said, you’re probably right that there’s no real advantage in using kana over kanji, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Problem is, people should be clearly told, that they should spend not more than a week learning kana so that they can move on. Hearing “we’re learning hiragana now” from someone learning Japanese sounds like asking a kid what they did at preschool today, and him answering “we learned the letter M”.

    1. I think Ken’s point is that if you are not prepared to climb the kanji wall (and it’s a steep one), then you are little better off learning to read hiragana.

  25. a great article and glad i found this site. I spent a year teaching in Hokkaido 18 years ago and basically did as Clare suggested above. learn a few phrases, smile, wait for a ka? at the end of a sentence before explaining i didnt understand. This year in Japan is just surfing, fishing etc and ive more time to learn to read something. Im working my way through Michael Rowley’s KanjiPicto Graphix book http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12225605-michael-rowley-s-kanjipictographix-dragon-book and I am kind of getting it. ive never had any formal Nihon-go lessons and Hiragana is harder for me than kanji. The book is unconventional and some will hate it but i think that’s why it works for me. Now i see signs etc and i don’t totally understand but I now often know what is the subject. thanks i’ll be reading more of your writings for sure

    1. In my experience, a few kanji are better than no kanji (a few equals about thirty up to a hundred or so). You can do that and still be a dabbler.

      After that, it’s serious slog for the next few years.

      There are three levels.

      (1) Just want to speak some basic Japanese but not writing. Stick to romaji.
      (2) Just want to speak some basic Japanese but learn a bit about how it is written. Okay, learn kana and some basic kanji, but don’t kid yourself you can read real Japanese.
      (3) Want to read and write Japanese just like the Nihonjin. Prepare to spend hours every day for the next few years.

  26. Hm, I’m still learning Japanese, but I think Hiragana and Katakana are very helpful.
    Hiragana help you understand the grammar, with particles and word endings (what to do with verbs and adjectives) and if you have a text with furigana on it, you can READ THE TEXT!!!!
    That’s amazing.
    I love manga, so since I found out that they have furigana, I have been reading them in Japanese and having a blast doing so. ^^
    Sadly, regular books, websites and video games (q__q) don’t come with furigana, but so far, I see them as more of a help than a hindrance in learning. Not having to look up every single kanji every time it pops up makes learning the language more fun and rewarding. Rather than: “I learned those 50 kanji, but still can’t read this sentence! D:”, I now think: “Hey, this sentence is really interesting! What is that kanji? What additional meanings does it have?”
    Of course, I gotta still learn them seperately if I want to read books someday, but if you already know words and grammar, learning the kanji is more fun and there are more ways of doing so (how about writing a text in Japanese and find out what kanji you need?).
    What I also found very fun is looking up kanji by radicals in an online dictionary.
    But maybe this approach only works for nerds like me…

  27. Arrived at your blog for the first time. Back in the Stone Age the Japanese used romaji for telexes. I had to translate a few of those and they were a bitch- not impossible, but a bitch. It might be possible to find some online somewhere if you are interested, you might find them amusing/enlightening.

    I agree that anyone in Japan, including the Japanese, would be shit out of luck if they couldn’t read romaji. As a translator I would really like to ban katakana. It drives me a up a wall- often find it much hard to work out than obscure kanji (except when English words are written in weird, made-up ateji; I remember the first time I encountered 乙波 (“offer”) in a series of emails I was translating. I wanted to strangle someone by the time I figured out wtf it meant.

    By the way, the Vietnamese switched from kanji to romaji with great success. Remember what George Sansom said about Japanese writing: “One hesitates for an epithet to describe a system of writing which is so complex that it needs the aid of another system to explain it. There is no doubt that it provides for some a fascinating field of study, but as a practical instrument it is surely without inferiors.”

    1. That is brilliantly put. I was recently watching a high-level online Japanese class, and it occurred to me that the only thing the instructor was doing was helping the students to sound out the words. That’s it. Just being able to pronounce the language requires half a lifetime of study.

      1. Ok. Soo. I jus recenty like 3 days ago started to learn japanese. Clearly i have not learned a whole lot but i found your blog searching things online. I have to say you are awesome. BUT after reading this entry, im a little confused on what i should learn first. I got rosetta stone and it’s ridiculous! I want to ne able to read write and speak in japanese. What should i be using to learn This? Start out with kanji or the hiragna and katakana while learning kanji??

        1. Hi Jasmine,

          I used Rosetta Stone years ago, and thought it was pretty good.

          The product is advertised as though you can just learn Japanese as a child would, by understanding meanings through context. While that’s true to a certain extent, I found it was essential to look up any words I was unclear about.

          For example, I remember one picture of a guy skateboarding, and the word associated with it was “korobu” 転ぶ. So I thought “korobu” meant “to ride,” as in ride a skateboard. Turns out it means “to fall down.” So that kind of misunderstanding can happen if you don’t look up some of the new words.

          I also found it super beneficial to read along with the pictures, instead of trying to do an auditory-only method. Rosetta Stone is great for that, because you can instantly switch between romaji, kana (hiragana and katakana), and kanji. It would be beneficial for you to start learning the kana now. Then go through every frame, switching between kana and kanji. That will give you great kana reading practice, and start to familiarize you with the kanji.

          Hope that helps.

          1. The teacher at my school said that we are only going to use katakana for names and i wanted to know what the main purpose for katakana is.

            1. Katakana is analogous to italics in English. Just as “a” and “a” are the same letter in English, so are “あ” “ア” in Japanese. (“あ” is hiragana. “ア” is katakana.)

              The usage between katakana and italics is similar. One way it’s used is in drawing attention to something by making it stand out. It makes things look important, so it’s frequently used in advertisements. The second way it’s used is in identifying foreign words. In English, we might say that an onigiri is a Japanese rice ball. And in Japanese they would spell “sandwich” in katakana: サンドイッチ.

              Thus your name, as a non-“Japanese” name would be written in katakana.

      1. Heh, apparently there are shortcuts to making internet comments, including not reading or referencing the article.

  28. Hey man, I love the blog. I’ve just discovered it and been through a few articles already. I love your writing.
    I’ve just decided to take on Japanese myself. I’m tired of living passively and want to take serious initiative, and achieve something I know that I will enjoy.

    Reading this and the “one year sumo” article were really good, and your “why you must learn kanji” article was a SERIOUS eye opener – I might have been hung up on just the Kana, or I might have been suckered in by Benny Lewis or another con artist, telling me to exclusively talk to people.

    Who knows, I might be giving up in a year’s time. But I also might be doing really well because I’m on the right track thanks to you.
    Cheers man. Better get cracking on to that Kanji then.

  29. I do think Hiragana is not “enough” but it isn’t evil. I DO think that it helps with changing your mindset from English (or alphabet-based language) to Japanese. If I always see letters, I have a harder time wrapping my mind around the fact that rakkyou should be pronounced らっきょう. Japanese people *may* use romaji or be able to read it, but how many times have you seen shirts (or even people’s attempts to write Japanese in romaji to accommodate the foreigner) where it says “kyou ha byouinn he ikimasita.” So much wrong with that version of romaji, and yet I see it a lot when Japanese people are the ones doing the romanizing.

    Hiragana and katakana have a place – you’re right, they are stepping stones but they are also necessary to read almost every Japanese sentence you will come across in everyday life. Without kanji you are screwed, but if you take your hiragana and katakana too lightly you won’t be able to read stuff as quickly (when all three syllabaries are coming at you at once) and your pronunciation will likely always sound a little off.

    Just my two yen.

  30. My take on hiragana is that it’s there to fill in all the little spots between the kanji, not to replace kanji. Foreigners who read whole sentences written in hiragana or with every kanji bedecked with furigana are not reading Japanese as a Japanese adult does.

    Actually, kana are pretty hopeless as a phonetic system as they represent syllables, not phonemes. These then get crushed and modified with diacritics to represent different sounds. An alphabetic system (such as one based on Roman letters) is much better at representing the phonetic basis of a language like Japanese (even including intonation patterns, if necessary).

    The Japanese invented their own system of Romaji which is pretty hopeless – the sentence above would probably be written “Kyō wa byōin e ikimashita.” in a version of Hepburn Romaji with macrons over the long “o”. It’s not difficult to read.

  31. Hey Ken,

    Another awesome article indeed (I know I’m late to the party though, I just started digging through all the awesome). And I’m beginning to realize it seems you rather like dispelling the illusions of grandeur commonly held by people enamored with the language.

    Well, I’ve read quite a lot of your blog posts by now, and I’m actually rather fired up to learn Japanese. I know. I guess I’m just crazy like that. So what advice would you give to someone who is about 160% percent committed to learning this language? Forget the usual dissuasion, or appealing to my common sense by saying things like “it may take you over a decade” or “Japan is probably not what you think” because that clearly hasnt worked by now, and it should have.

    I’ve seen other clear-cut guides to learning Japanese, but I’d like to hear it from you, complete with Ken Seeroi’s trademark enthusiasm.

    And wish me luck 🙂

    1. Man, that enthusiasm’s making me want to study Japanese. I better get to a fridge quick before I do something I regret, like learn stuff.

      So I’m sure you’ve seen this: https://japaneseruleof7.com/category/learn-japanese/ Those are all the articles related to learning Japanese.

      And somewhere in that pile of nonsense, I talk about how to learn the language, so I’ll just leave you with that. Plus one additional piece of wisdom to ignore: Start learning kanji, today. You can’t get anywhere in the language without it. It’s as essential as numbers and symbols are to math.

      Oh, and good luck, seriously. Write back in ten years and let me know how it worked out.

      1. Hey Ken,

        Thanks for that. Mark my silly words on a blog post, you will meet some random black guy in Japan one day, (well er…another one) thanking you for this.

        Till then! 🙂

  32. Ken, I’ve been reading around the internet, and a lot of people are telling me that you don’t need to learn the stroke order of the kanji, since in the modern world you can just type what you need digitally.

    Since you’re one of the few people who are actually honest about this language, I was wondering what your thoughts are on this? is it possible? or is it foolish to try find a shortcut through my learning? Thanks.

    1. That’s a pretty great question.

      Before I get into the answer itself, let me just say you’re smart to focus on kanji. Studying Japanese means studying kanji. The two are inseparable, assuming you want to get beyond mere pleasantries with shopkeepers and rambling incessantly about your hobbies with every person you meet.

      I’d also question anybody’s advice that says we don’t need handwriting anymore. I mean, we write notes to ourselves all the time—“Mom’s birthday next week, call her!” “Supermarket: natto, eggplant, seaweed, miso soup, tofu.” And of course if you take a class or attend a business meeting where people are speaking Japanese, you’ll need to take notes. Writing stuff in hiragana quickly turns into a string of jibberish—you need to be able to write kanji to function in this society. (Unless you just want to resort to English, in which case don’t bother wasting time on Japanese.)

      So is stroke order important? Yes, but.

      Yes, it’s important, in that it helps you remember how to write the characters. It’s schizophrenic to write the same character a different way every time. Plus it’d be about a thousand times harder–like trying to sign your name backwards. Yeah, try that. Whatever, it simply makes sense to write the same character the same way every time.

      So that’s the “Yes” part. It’s worth investing time to learn the stroke order of a couple hundred kanji.

      Now the “but” part. As I’m sure you know, learning Japanese takes a lot of time. If you happen to be four years old, eh, no big deal, you can invest thousands of hours over the next few years. But as an adult, you’re faced with cramming grammar, hiragana, katakana, kanji, listening, speaking, reading, writing, and about a billion vocabulary words into what’s left of your lifetime. You simply don’t have time to sit around working on your penmanship.

      So get the basics. After a couple hundred kanji, you’ll have a pretty good feel for the stroke order. After that, just wing it. The world won’t end if you mess up stroke 15 of a 16-stroke kanji. Japanese people make plenty of mistakes too.

      1. Sir K,

        Sometimes, I try too hard to understand your point, I get so serious in reading what you’ve written, let my guard down and then end up cracking up- and so I lost my focus then go back to square-one XD. Goodness me.


        P.S. Actually, at the very least, I’m starting to see that it’s not good getting stuck in Hiragana. I don’t even know you also have to study romaji to learn Japanese. More, it’s embarrassing to even say I only know a kanji at this moment (but I did say it). And it’s far from being accurate to even say this learning is just the tip of the iceberg coz I’m at the sub-atomic particle of the uppermost atom of the top-most molecule of the iceberg level (I hope no physicist sees this, I am not sure what this means). Anyway, here I thought I was getting there, indeed, “… this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated” (Anne Lamott).

  33. How are けん and いぬ both meaning 犬 (dog) any different from the English words “hound”, “dog”, ” canine”, and “pooch” all meaning “dog”?

    One does not need to visually see the relationship between words to know what they mean. One only needs to learn the words and their definitions. Otherwise English would be impossible, with our ridiculous number of different words with the same or similar meaning and hit-or-miss spelling system. ” Think about it: “Drink” vs “beverage”, ” humidify” vs “moisturize”, ” “sea life” vs “marine life”. And that’s just off the top of my head.

    I’m not knocking kanji. I’m building my vocabulary in words written in kanji. I believe you have to learn kanji to read Japanese. But really, the main argument for learning it is that kanji is the way Japanese is written. All other arguments are basically fluff.

    1. Good question. Here’s the answer.

      ‘How are けん and いぬ both meaning 犬 (dog) any different from the English words “hound”, “dog”, ” canine”, and “pooch” all meaning “dog”?’

      Because English doesn’t have 20 words all pronounced “dog,” but with 20 different meanings.

      In Japanese, you’ve got shibaken and chibaken, kenkyu and kenshu, chushaken and shaken and kyoukenbyou…kenri, kenmu, jyanken, kiken, iken, eiken, kenkou, kenka…even kentakki and ken seeroi. Which of those has anything to do with a dog?

      Who knows? It’s almost impossible to tell. But if I wrote them with kanji, even a small child could find the ones containing 犬 and know they were related to dogs.

      You framed the problem backwards. It’s not that one word can be expressed with a variety of different sounds. It’s that Japanese uses the same sound to convey a bunch of different words. And because Japanese is an agglutinative language, the permutations quickly go into the thousands.

      I appreciate where you’re coming from. I also thought it was possible to only “learn the words and their definitions.” Problem is that all the damn words sound exactly the same or mind-bendingly similar. But once you have kanji, it’s easy as pie to keep everything straight.

  34. /kəˈrädē/ is not an accurate representation of the Japanese pronunciation of the word. It’s Merriam-Webster’s IPA-based phonetic key for the standard American English pronunciation of the word. The Japanese would be more correctly represented as /kaɾate/

  35. Hi Ken
    .sorry but reading is not essential for language acquisition… That would mean an illiterate person would not be able to speak their own language fluently and as literacy among all members of society is a fairly new idea, the ability to speak a language isn’t. I have a son, I am English, his mom is Japanese. He speaks English as fluently as a kid back in England does. He learnt to speak before he could read or write. English or Japanese Reading may accelerate vocabulary and complexity of grammar but I am sure if you take a boat to north sentinel, as one of your countrymen disastrously did, you might find their illiteracy level to be quite high although they all speak their own language quite well ( not sure how to say ‘ I am not a missionary ‘ in the local language I’m afraid )

    1. Thanks, Michael. I’m really talking second-language acquisition, not first.

      Trying to simply “remember” the thousands of words of vocabulary in a new language…well, I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it makes learning way more difficult than it needs to be. Being able to read is pretty freaking useful. That’s why I’m writing to you, and not just thinking hard in your direction.

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