How to Read Japanese: a Guide for Beginners

Japanese is a complex, but beautiful language. If you’re looking to learn it, this article will give you the basics on how to read hiragana and katakana, as well as introduce some of the most common kanji characters.

It’s not an easy language to master -it takes time and practice- but with these tips at your fingertips, you’ll be reading Japanese in no time!

How to read the Japanese alphabet

Modern-day Japan uses three different types of scripts:

  • Hiragana
  • Katakana
  • Kanji

If you’re just starting out, learn hiragana first!


Hiragana is the most commonly used script because they are phonetic symbols that represent only one sound each. Hiragana are simpler characters with a rounded shape and are used for grammatical functions, word endings, and particles. There are 46 hiragana characters, each representing one sound.


Katakana is also a phonetic script, used for words and phrases borrowed from other languages or to put emphasis on certain words. It has 46 characters too, but they are slightly different from hiragana.

They have a distinctive look- kind of spikey compared to the rounded shapes of hiragana and very straight lines, unlike the soft curves in hiragana.


Kanji are ‘pictographic’ symbols that originally came from China. There are over 40,000 kanji and only around 2,000 commonly used kanji. But don’t worry! You can get by knowing less than 300 common kanji characters that together represent all the most important aspects of the Japanese language and culture.

Kanji can have several different pronunciations depending on context and how they are combined with other kanji.

Here’s an example: 人 (Kanji for “person”)

The person kanji has two readings:

  • On’yomi
  • Kun’yomi

On’yomi reading is the Chinese reading of the character, where it came from. It’s usually used for words that were borrowed or adapted from Chinese. For the person kanji, its on’yomi reading is ‘jin’.

Kun’yomi reading is a Japanese reading of the character, where it was created. Kun’yomi is usually used for native Japanese word roots. For the person kanji, its kun’yomi reading is ‘hito’.

Before learning kanji, it’s important to have a strong understanding of hiragana and katakana!

How to read kanji

At this point, you must be thinking: if there are over 2000 kanji and all of them can have two or more pronunciations, how can I know how to read a kanji?

This is where Furigana comes in, and the reason why you should master hiragana first and foremost!


Furigana is small hiragana written above or next to the kanji, telling us how to read it.

This is especially useful for beginner readers still learning to recognize kanji and kana, or readers that are looking at names of people and places.

Furigana is mostly used in children’s books and manga publications. It can be found in newspapers as well, but not as often as it would be with magazines and other types of books.

How many kanji should I learn?

When you’re just starting out, it’s important to focus on a smaller number of kanji before trying to tackle all the 40,000 plus!

Focus on only the most common 300 kanji and continue learning them until you have mastered them. This might take a few weeks or even months, depending on your pace. But don’t worry, once you’ve mastered these 300 kanji, it will be way easier to learn the remaining!

You’ll be amazed at how much Japanese you can read and write with only these common 300 characters. So don’t feel overwhelmed if you see a list of 40,000+ kanji! There’s no such thing as “I can’t do it”!

Learning basic Japanese scripts can be challenging, but it’s worth the effort. You now know some basic information about the Japanese scripts and different methods for learning how to read them. For most people, learning hiragana first is a great place to start. You can go on and learn katakana after. Learning kanji is another beast, but we’ll cover that in more detail in another post!