The lesser used of the three Japanese writing systems, Katakana is largely about foreign words, but has some other interesting uses too. You might ask yourself how important it is to have a writing system just for foreign words and writing techniques like onomatopoeia, but due to the cultural significance of both Katakana is actually an integral part of writing in Japan. Since comic books and Manga are such a big deal in Japan, you will find examples of Katakana characters from a very young age if you grow up there. Even as an adult learning Japanese, you are very likely to come across Katakana since Manga is one form of literature that makes learning the language and its writing systems entertaining. There's also a little game you might have heard of called ‘Pokemon’. That’s right, you can set the game to Japanese and call it learning, which is just one of many ways you can keep your motivation up as you study the complex language.
The History of Japanese Katakana
Much like Japanese Hiragana, Katakana came about originally around the 9th century, when the Japanese people decided to create new writing systems to use alongside Kanji. Just as Japanese Kanji was borrowed from the Chinese characters, Katakana also has its origins in an ancient form of the Chinese language. The Katakana writing system was developed not to express concepts that weren’t covered by Kanji, but as a way to convert foreign words into Japanese along with expressing a whole host of scientific terms and literary effects. It has also been historically used as the main writing system for company names and logos. As for why Katakana looks different from the other writing systems, the story goes that Katakana developed its characteristically blocky style with straight lines due to the way it was first conceived. A priest first wrote in the writing system using a bamboo stick, which as you can imagine doesn’t give, so drawing curves like the ones necessary for Kanji and Hiragana would have been very difficult. As a result, the characters ended up being as they are today, more blocky in style and made up of many straight lines.
This syllabary writing system shares one thing in common with Hiragana, and that’s the fact that they both can be referred to as kana. However, they also differ in many ways, and Katakana has its own unique look and special usage. Whereas you’ll likely find a combination of Hiragana and Kanji in just about every basic text you’ll come across in Japanese, Katakana is slightly more niche. Even so, it is still very common, and definitely isn’t something you can afford to skip over if you want to learn how to write in Japanese.
As we’ve already touched upon a couple of times, the usage of the Japanese Katakana writing system may be infrequent, yet is still very necessary. Some say that until you have mastered the basics of reading and writing Hiragana, you needn’t bother with Katakana. Yet on the flip side, if Katakana is one of the writing systems you start with, you might have an easier time staying motivated. This is due to the abundance of foreign loan words that should be recognisable to the learner. Katakana can be used to express a variety of concepts, from the foreign to the scientific and even the literary, as we’ll explore now.
First and foremost, Katakana is used to write words that are borrowed from other languages. If you’ve ever heard a Japanese speaker pronounce a word that sounds awfully similar to an English one, then chances are it’ll be written using Katakana characters. For example, you can write coffee in Japanese with the word ‘kohii’, and spoon is pronounced ‘supuun’. Don’t be surprised to come across many English-sounding words during your Japanese studies, since they are vast in number. If you do, then you know that they will be expressed using the Katakana writing system.
Katakana is used for a wide variety of different names. Not people or object names, but just about everything else. This includes, but isn’t limited to, company names, technical terms, plant names and scientific terms. As a result, if you find yourself writing an essay in Japanese at some point, then a sound knowledge of Katakana will help you with the technical references. While it may not be important to learn all scientific or technical terms, it can certainly be useful to know some of the more important ones. For example, ‘homo sapiens’ is written in Katakana.
Katakana is also used for some literary effects like onomatopoeia. This captures everything from the sound a doorbell makes, to the crashing sound associated with a car crash. The reason why this is worthy of mention is due to its prevalence in Manga and other forms of Japanese writing. You’ll struggle to read any Japanese comic that doesn’t use Katakana heavily, so if you’re an avid comic book reader or gamer in fact, then you’ll definitely want to brush up on your Katakana.
As for the importance of Katakana, while it may be deemed less significant than the two other writing systems, it certainly has its place in all kinds of texts. While it’s easy to think that learning foreign loan words in Japanese shouldn’t be your number one priority, there’s actually a very good reason to do so. When you go out to eat at a restaurant, you’ll find that the menu is likely written in Katakana. As a result, if you want to get by when you first arrive in the country and show off to your friends, then it’s worth getting to grips with this writing system and some of the most common foreign loan food words. This can also be considered as an early win in your struggle to master the complex Japanese language. The first time you are able to successfully identify what you want to order in a restaurant without consulting the English, you’ve taken one small step towards your reading comprehension goals. A word of warning though, not all loan words are derived from English. Some, like ‘tempero’ come from Portuguese, so you need to be careful that you don’t mistranslate, as you could end up with a very different dish than the one you were expecting.
There are 46 characters in Katakana, just like with the Hiragana writing system. You may be pleased to know that the characters in this writing system are made up of clean straight lines and angular corners, as opposed to the curves of the other systems. While a brief glance at the katakana character chart might be intimidating, once you learn the correct stroke order, each character should be easy enough to produce. As with anything, you need to dedicate time to this practise in order to master it. Not only memorising the sound and appearance of the character, but also the specific stroke order.
Resources to learn Katakana
If you’re wondering how to work on your Katakana, or brush up on your stroke order, then these resources should help. We’ve organised them into different categories to support different learning styles. We realise that while some people prefer the old-fashioned way of studying grammar from a textbook, others absorb information more readily from video or by interacting with apps and online resources.
- Let’s Learn Katakana
‘Let’s Learn Katakana’ is a textbook written by Yasuko Kosaka Mitamura, detailing exactly how to write in Katakana with exercises you can do to practice. There are few textbooks dedicated just to the Katakana writing system, so this should be a very in-depth look at the lesser-used form of kana. This book is very well-rated by past customers, and so is highly recommended as an introduction to the Japanese writing system.
- Learning Japanese Hiragana and Katakana
This textbook by Kenneth G. Henshall and Tetsuo Takagaki tackles both kana writing systems, so you can kill two birds with one stone. Learning the two syllabary writing systems togethers can be an effective way to improve your Japanese writing and reading skills quickly.
JapanesePod101 is an excellent resource for just about every element of learning Japanese. The popular Youtube channel has several videos dedicated to Katakana, which are well worth your time.
- Japanese Ammo with Misa
This channel provides an easy method for learning Katakana quickly, and has a good video series on the topic.
Online Resources & Apps
Learn Katakana: The Ultimate Guide, much like the Hiragana guide on the same website, is a fantastic article to consult if you have any doubts about Katakana. There’s not much that isn’t covered in this guide, so it can be a great reference point if you get stuck.
- Katakana- Learn Japanese
This app by Faery Games is an attempt to make learning Katakana interesting by gamifying it. Drawing the characters on screen with three different types of exercises, this is an entertaining way to stay sharp and practise your Katakana writing.
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