What is Katakana? Learning Katakana - the Japanese Alphabets and Language


If you've already learned Hiragana, you'll be pleased to know that it is very similar to Katakana! The two alphabets are structured the same way, meaning that every Hiragana character has an exact equivalent in the Katakana alphabet.

There are three alphabets in the Japanese language: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Katakana is considered to be one of the two basic alphabets and is often learned at the same time as Hiragana. Read more to find out what Katakana is and how it is used!
Katakana Alphabet

What is Katakana and How Many Characters are There?

Like Hiragana, Katakana is a phonetic alphabet - unlike Kanji, where each character has one or more meanings associated with it and can have multiple pronunciations, Katakana characters are always pronounced exactly the same.

Katakana was developed in the 8th century by simplifying existing kanji characters - the word "Katakana" literally meaning "fragmented characters". The key difference between Hiragana and Katakana is that Katakana is primarily used when writing words and sounds of a foreign origin (aka 'loan words'). Katakana is also used for emphasis, onomatopoeia, and scientific terms.

There are 46 basic characters in Katakana. These characters serve as the building blocks that can be modified to create additional and compound sounds. The full Katakana alphabet is shown below. This Katakana Chart for Japanese Learning is a great resource to hang in your office, bedroom, or just about anywhere to help you learn and memorize the full Katakana Alphabet!

Katakana Chart

How Long Does It Take to Learn Katakana?

In the Katakana alphabet, since there are far fewer characters, the characters are much simpler to write, and each character only has one pronunciation, it is significantly easier to learn Katakana than, say, Kanji. Katakana can be learned in a day and mastered over a few weeks! So, it is a great starting point alongside Hiragana when considering learning Japanese.

You may be wondering if Katakana is even important to learn as a Japanese Alphabet, given its similarities to Hiragana. In truth, all three alphabets are equally important and essential in everyday Japanese language. That leads to this next question...

Why Not Use Hiragana Instead of Katakana?

Since the Hiragana and Katakana alphabets contain the same exact characters, why not use Hiragana exclusively and forget about learning Katakana?

As we covered in the Hiragana article, there is a more limited set of sounds available to be used for native Japanese words than most other languages. In a long paragraph of text, if everything is written entirely in Hiragana, it can be difficult to distinguish words from one another, especially given that there are no spaces in Japanese writing. When some of the words are written in Katakana, this can be useful as it helps the reader figure out that they are reading a loan word. Simply put, writing certain words in Katakana helps convey information that makes comprehension easier and quicker. To make it possible to read Japanese quickly, Kanji and Katakana are important to have as well!

Your Katakana Learning Journey

Katakana is much easier to learn than Kanji, but it can still present a challenge to a Western learner who needs to learn an entirely new alphabet from scratch. To facilitate the learning, memorization, and mastery of the Katakana alphabet, here are a few recommended products which also make great gifts for Japanese learners: