At first, learning Japanese may seem like a daunting task, for the grammar is completely different from European languages and the writing system ornate - two alphabets mixed with a ideographic character system adapted from Chinese. But if you just relax and start with the basics, you'll find that learning the language is not as difficult as it sounds.


Letters in the Japanese alphabet are referred to as kana, specifically hiragana and katakana. While the alphabet is larger than the Roman alphabet, it is a phonetic alphabet where each alphabetic combination represents just a single sound. Thus any Japanese word can be written in a way that can be read without having to remember "hmmmm, how is this pronounced?!?". To some this may sound obvious, but consider the sound of ough in the English words through, though, thought, tough, plough, thorough, and hiccough. Although they share the same ough sequence, no two words in this list are pronounced the same way!! Japanese kana are much simpler, the way something is written is the way it sounds.

Learn how to read and write the kana on our hiragana and katakana pages or visit Jack Halpern's website for a more detailed description of kana.

Using Japanese on your computer

One way to develop your ability to read Japanese is to use your computer to access the wealth of information in Japanese available on the internet. For those using computers running recent versions of Windows or MacOS software it's possible to both view and input pages written in Japanese, even on machines using non-Japanese system software. Windows users can download the Global Input Method Editor from Microsoft, which includes both Japanese fonts and software. On a Macintosh computer, users running under Mac OS X will find that their system already includes all the software they need to input and display Japanese. For Mac OS 9.x users, simply install the Japanese Language Kit software that ships with the system.

Even with the proper software and fonts installed, users will sometimes come across pages that do not display correctly; instead they appear to be full of accented Roman characters and strange punctuation. This is caused by websites that don't properly declare the character encoding of a page, the way in which characters on the page are encoded as binary data. Since non-Japanese machines are typically set up to display Roman characters by default, the pages will be displayed as such. The solution is to manually change the encoding of the page to Japanese (Auto Select). There are actually several different encoding schemes for Japanese, so the Japanese (Auto Select) option will choose the right one for a given webpage.

Dictionaries and other online aids

Once you've installed the proper fonts and software on your computer, you can use a myriad of online resources to help you learn Japanese!

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