Thursday, August 15, 2013

Japanese hiragana and katakana, part 2

As promised, here is the second and last part of an article about Japanese hiragana and katakana. In the first part of this article, I gave a brief introduction to Japanese kana, followed by a detailed description of the book Let's Learn Hiragana by Yasuko Kosaka Mitamura. In this second installment, I will describe the companion book, Let's Learn Katakana, written by the same author. I will also give my recommendations at the end.

Here is a sumary of the table of contents of Let's Learn Katakana:


In the preface, Mitamura clarifies the uses of katakana symbols, and outlines the general structure of the book. She points out that the use of katakana is not limited to writing words of foreign origin, but that its use is quite varied. Note that foreign words in this case do not include words which originated in China.

Chapter 1: How to write syllables

The structure of this chapter is very similar to the structure of the first chapter of Let's Learn Hiragana. First, Mitamura gives a short introduction to the Japanese writing system, followed by a list of the five types of katakana syllables, and a description of the three types of stroke endings used in writing.

The katakana syllabary is then presented in two tables. The first table presents the core katakana syllables: 46 basic katakana symbols, 18 dakuon and 5 handakuon symbols, and 33 yoon symbols. An extension of these 102 core katakana syllables is given in the second table, which lists 25 additional katakana symbols. These additional symbols mark syllables which are used in foreign words but not in native Japanese words. So that's a total of 127 katakana symbols. As in the case of hiragana, once you learn the 46 basic katakana symbols, the remaining modified and composite symbols are easy to learn.

In the next pages, the 46 basic katakana symbols are presented in detail. They are subdivided into three groups, and from here, the treatment is exactly the same as in Let's Learn Hiragana: Each group of katakana is presented using a table where exemplar katakana symbols are drawn in large script down one column, and the sequence of strokes needed to properly write each katakana are drawn in the next few columns (see Figure 1). The corresponding romanized pronounciation is shown next to each katakana symbol. There is space on this table for the student to practice writing the katakana. On the reverse or opposite page, another table is given with the same set of katakana symbols drawn down one column, and corresponding dashed symbols which can be traced are drawn in the next column (see Figure 2). The rest of the table columns are left blank for the student to fill in with practice writing.

(Please excuse my practice writing on the sample pages. These are actual pages from my own copy of the book.)

Figure 1: A table from Let's Learn Katakana presenting one group of katakana symbols, with stroke order sequence. Click on the image to enlarge.

Figure 2: A table from Let's Learn Katakana presenting one group of katakana symbols, with space for writing practice. Click on the image to enlarge.

After a group of katakana symbols has been presented, a set of writing and reading exercises is given which employs words that are written with the katakana symbols which have been presented so far. Besides being instructive, it is also amusing to learn how foreign words are pronounced in Japanese.

Explanations of dakuon, handakuon, and yoon katakana symbols are integrated into each group of katakana being introduced since, unlike the case in Let's Learn Hiragana, there are no separate sections where these symbols are introduced. The discussion in Let's Learn Hiragana about dakuon, handakuon, and yoon symbols applies to katakana as well.

Chapter 2: How to write words

This chapter gives basic rules for writing words in katakana. It covers topics such as double vowels, double consonants, component words, and the expanded katakana syllabary. This chapter also contains ample writing and reading exercises.

Chapter 3: Words of Japanese origin

In this chapter, Mitamura introduces a variety of words of Japanese origin that are commonly written in katakana. These include names of plants and animals, and onomatopoeia (giseigo) and mimesis (gitaigo). Mitamura also gives various other applications of the katakana syllabary in writing native Japanese words, such as its use for emphasis and for writing brand names.

I will point out, as Mitamura does in the book, that onomatopoeia and mimesis are encountered far more frequently in Japanese than in English. They are an important component of the Japanese language. As a student of the language, I find Japanese onomatopoeia and mimesis to be among the most interesting and fun aspects of the language. This chapter gives many examples of these words.

Chapter 4: Words of foreign origin

This is an important chapter which gives the rules for transliterating foreign words into Japanese using katakana. Mitamura gives a comprehensive list of rules, based on official guidelines, enough to give a student a firm foundation in transcribing foreign words into katakana and reading katakana words. Each rule is followed by an ample number of examples. Most of the transliterated words in this chapter are English words, but there is also a sprinkling of words which originate from a few other languages. The chapter ends with a generous amount of reading and writing exercises. The answers are given in Appendix A.

For me, mastering how to transcribe English words into katakana words is one of the harder parts of Japanese. Word spellings and pronounciations are just so different in the two languages. Reading Mitamura's thorough guide reassures me that there is rhyme and reason in how this is done. Reading katakana words tends to be easier for me. And, of course, the more one reads and encounters foreign words written in katakana, the better one gets at being able to spontaneously recognize these words.

Chapter 5: Review exercises

As with Let's Learn Hiragana, this chapter begins with a list of katakana that are commonly mistaken for each other. This is followed by some more reading and writing exercises.

Appendix A: Exercise answers

This appendix contains answers to exercises given in Chapters 4 and 5.

Appendix B: The derivation of katakana

This appendix gives a brief description of the origin of katakana, and then gives a table which lists the corresponding kanji characters from which the 46 basic katakana symbols were derived.


Some recommendations

If I did my job well, hopefully you now have enough information after reading this article to be able to make a decision as to whether or not these two books will suit you. But I'll give my thoughts about them, anyway.

These books cost roughly $10 each as I write this. If you buy used (make sure you get clean copies), which was what I did, you can get them for less. I do not hesitate to say that these books are an excellent value. Mitamura does an excellent job of covering all the bases. After using these books, a student will have a firm foundation in the different aspects of hiragana and katakana: how to write them, how to pronounce them, how Japanese words are written, how foreign words are transcribed and written using katakana, and even the derivation of hiragana and katakana from kanji characters.

If you decide to buy these books, do study hiragana first before katakana, as Mitamura recommends. This is mainly because, in reading Japanese, you will encounter hiragana much more often than katakana. Another good reason for following this prescription is because Let's Learn Katakana builds a tiny bit on topics already discussed in Let's Learn Hiragana.

I would like to give a final recommendation. After learning how to pronounce, write, and read hiragana and katakana, the next logical immediate step would be to be proficient in recognizing them. This means that when you see some text written in Japanese, you must be able to quickly recognize the kana symbols and how they are pronounced. As a first step in being proficient in recognizing kana, I recommend that you drill yourself using flashcards, whether they be physical flashcards or electronic flashcards. I personally used the website in this link to practice kana recognition when I was first learning them. But physical flashcards that you made yourself would do just as well. If you decide to take the electronic route, there are also various apps in the market available for your Android or iPhone device.


The dimensions of the book are approximately 8.25 by 11 inches. There are 88 pages.

Mitamura, Yasuko Kosaka. Let's Learn Katakana. Tokyo, New York and San Francisco: Kodansha International Ltd., 1985.


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