I've just started, and everything says learn your hiragana and katakana first.

The hiragana, very clear. I guess you can say an awful lot of things in Japanese with hiragana. But everything I've been reading all seems to say that katakana are mostly used to form loanwords from other languages. I don't see how a beginner would need to use loan words early on.

So what is the importance of the katakana? I have absolutely no doubt I'm badly underestimating them.

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    It is very difficult for me to imagine such a thing as “English without loanwords”! Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 3:34
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    [Regarding English] "but without our loanwords, we can get by absolutely fine." McWhorter ("The Power of Babel") claims that 99% of the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary derive from foreign languages, ie are loanwords.
    – Dono
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 3:42
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    "Why should I learn capital Latin letters? They have no use except for marginal cases like abbreviations and initials, and express the same thing as lower case letters anyway!" ;)
    – 9000
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 15:33
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    Hmm I have no idea... Would you please try learning only hiragana and kanji first, and tell me if knowing no katakana at all causes you any inconvenience...
    – user1016
    Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 9:02
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    @Chocolate: I went two years with knowing as little katakana as possible. It does indeed cause inconvenience, but they all look the same to me. Even now I still have trouble writing them. However, they didn't hinder my reading as much as I expected.
    – Chris
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 0:04

7 Answers 7


But everything I've been reading all seems to say that katakana are mostly used to form loanwords from other languages

Katakana are used for way more than just making loanwords:

  • It is used for reading classical Chinese (漢文).
  • It is used for names of people, places, countries, restaurants, etc.
  • It is used in science, for example biological names of plants and animals (オニヒトデ or エチゼンクラゲ).
  • It is used for expressing something different than the original meaning: クルマ vs. 車, etc.
  • It is used for company names.
  • It is used for expressing slang or when somebody with a foreign accent is speaking Japanese (often seen in Manga).
  • It is used for onomatopoeia, etc.

This is just off the top of my head, but katakana has many more uses than just foreign loan words.

  • I forgot about it being used for more than just loanwords! Similar answers can be found in the related question japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/1930/… , and probably other questions tagged katakana.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 4:28
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    メキシコサラマンダー is not a good example of biological names because the fact that both メキシコ and サラマンダー are loanwords could account for the use of katakana. Biological names are often written even when they do not fall into other categories of katakana usages: for example, エリマキトカゲ is seldom written in any other ways such as 襟巻とかげ and 襟巻蜥蜴. Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 11:49
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    @TsuyoshiIto: That's true. I changed the examples to some sea creatures that have been in the news in the last couple years.
    – Jesse Good
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 20:27
  • It is also used to separate a local language from the national one. Here in Okinawa a bilingual sign may be written in Japanese in hiragana/kanji and in Uchinaguchi in katakana, or sometimes the other way around.
    – zxq9
    Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 0:46
  • Sometimes it is used for things such as Pokémon names, as well. Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 23:38

I've just started, and everything says learn your hiragana and katakana first.

Yeah, start with basic things first.

I don't see how a beginner would need to use loan words early on.

Won't you ever write your own name, even though you're a beginner?

So what is the importance of the katakana?

As one of the three common ways of writing Japanese, and not an incidental one, it is very important. It's not based on frequency of usage (although they are more frequent than you seem to think), but on getting the foundations of the language, right from the beginning.

Your question sounds a bit like "why learn capital letters? They appear a ridiculously small amount of times compared to lower case letters!"

  • +1, but many native english speakers don't bother with capital letters ... i find this especially irritating with personal pronouns.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 8:02
  • The name is a very good point. I do understand your analogy. Really, I wasn't arguing that they're not worth learning. I know they are, and if it sounded like I meant otherwise then I misspoke. What I was seeking with an explanation, by way of analogy, was "Once I learn my capital letters, where will I be using them? How will they benefit me?" Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 23:57
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    @AndrewGrimm: What native English speakers are not bothering with capital letters? I can't think of anything positive to say about anyone who claims to be a native speaker of English who would take that stance.
    – Questioner
    Commented Jul 14, 2012 at 18:57
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    @AndrewGrimm: Yes, I see that all the time. But I think that you are mixing in a lot of issues... one being that just because for whatever reason a lot of people speak or use their own language badly does not mean that that their habits represent options for speaking that language.
    – Questioner
    Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 2:12
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    @psosuna I also used alot
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 21:51

English does not have a special designation for loan words. Given that there is no demarcation of loan words in the language, it's almost certain that you're simply unaware of loan words you use every day.

The distinction between "derived from a foreign word" and "loan word" is a distinction without a difference. Nearly all katakana-written loan words are adapted in both meaning and pronunciation in Japanese. To be more accurate, "loan word" is the term used by Japanese learners to refer to "words derived from foreign (non-Chinese) languages". The Japanese language happens to have a handy way of demarcating these words, specifically spelling them in katakana.

A huge number of these "loan words" are currently displacing the Japanese-origin and Chinese-origin words in both casual and technical language. I won't say you can't get by without learning them, but it would be like only studying the most common capital letters in English... you're going to regularly find yourself effectively illiterate.

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    Why thank you for the keen explanation. And for the record, if one has a strong grasp on the language, there is a demarcation. It isn't a rule, per se, but it's there. Loanwords are completely unchanged. They've simply been stolen and added to our lexicon. A derived word is anglicised, so to speak. Amigo is very clearly not derived, while mortified is very clearly not a loanword. Here and there it can blur, but this is infrequently the case. Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 4:04
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    I don't actually think your statement (that "loanword" is distinct from a "derived word") is accurate. A little bit of googling provides a series of linguistics academic papers that rather clearly show "loan words" with adapted spellings and meanings. Wikipedia may not always be reliable... but it usually is for matters like this.
    – jkerian
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 4:10
  • I guess it's a matter of how much change it takes before you stop calling it a loanword. Maybe I'm against academia here, but for me it has to have much more than adapted spelling and pronunciation before I'll consider it to no longer be a blatant loanword. Maybe I'll ask this on Linguistics.SE! It's turning out to be a detailed question, it seems. Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 4:18
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    If "Loanwords are completely unchanged" is your definition then many of the English-based katakana words (和製英語) are not loanwords, because a great many of them are things like パソコン (personal computer) which have little resemblance to the original, or have entirely different meanings than in English (e.g. カンニング comes from 'cunning', means to cheat).
    – nkjt
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 8:51
  • +1, especially for "you're going to regularly find yourself effectively illiterate." Commented Sep 23, 2012 at 2:37

Some terminology: Hiragana and katakana together (as opposed to kanji) are called "kana". They may have used "hiragana and katakana" so as not to bombard you with new terminology. Also, "gairaigo" is a Japanese term for loanwords from western countries.

I don't know an awful lot about English. I'm merely a native speaker of it. So I can't really comment about loanwords in English, except to quote the following from James Nicoll:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

But there are some words in Japanese that don't have a non-gairaigo form because they were invented in European countries. As an example Is タオル used for the towels used at onsen? had the following as an answer:

Towels were introduced in the Meiji era and were almost exclusively imported from England. That's why the word タオル came from English, and there is no other word for them (although Japan of course had their own fabrics before that (I'm specifically talking about terrycloth)).

Regarding "getting by". While in beginner textbooks there's no kanji, a lot of hiragana and a lesser amount of katakana, in my experience of Japan as a tourist, there's a lot of kanji, a fair amount of katakana, and a small amount of words made up entirely of hiragana. There's some words made up of kanji plus hiragana, but knowing only the hiragana part won't help you much.

The main time I've noticed hiragana in Japan are words like です and ください and さん. I didn't notice many nouns, or many verbs being written entirely in hiragana, though I could be mistaken.

A major benefit of learning hiragana is to help with learning how to pronounce Japanese. That's because the relationship between how something is written and how it is pronounced is straightforward for Japanese written in kana. The problem with Romaji is that you have to remember how "a", "e", "i", "o" and "u" are pronounced in the context of Japanese, as opposed to in English.

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    Really? In your experience you saw more katakana than hiragana? That's interesting. Fantastic quote, by the way. Really funny and quite true. Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 4:12
  • If a person with better Japanese could confirm or refute my claim about "more katakana than hiragana", that'd be appreciated.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 4:29
  • By Hiragana less than Katakana, do you mean lack of Hiragana being used for important parts of speech (e.g. nouns, verbs) as opposed to being grammatical markers (e.g. です and ください and さん)?
    – Lie Ryan
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 7:20
  • @LieRyan I don't really know whether ください and the like are grammatical markers, but I think I agree with what you're saying.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 8:09
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    Answering the question is the whole point of an answer. That is too evident for you to ask. Unlike you, I do not tell when I upvote or downvote.
    – user458
    Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 0:45

You have a logical jump from "learn first" (what textbook says) to "important", and actually, your inference is wrong. Katakana is not particularly important than other letters (perhaps you mean kanji). Eventually, you would have to learn all. The reason you should learn kanas first is because they are easier and is a clear (established) set than the kanjis.

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    -1 "Katakana is not particularly important than other letters" - I don't see Aerovistae claiming that they are particularly important.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 6:37
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    @AndrewGrimm: Note the title of the question.
    – jkerian
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 6:38
  • @jkerian Ack, I never read the big print. :| That said, would "Are the katakana important to learn? If so, why?" be an improvement in your opinion?
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 7:06
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    @AndrewGrimm: I don't think it makes much difference, the point of the question gets through either way. With that said, though, this is an extremely basic question. It could have been answered with a google search, a glance at any of the language-learning resources listed in our resource thread, nearly any first year textbook, or even just reading two paragraphs into the katakana wikipedia page. It veers dangerously close to the 'motivate me plzkthx'-form of "learning question", but is probably okay in the current form.
    – jkerian
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 7:21
  • @jkerian You're right, I do realize that. I'm just starting this language, and I wanted to ask a question like that just to get a little of my bearings before I set into things with serious effort. Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 23:58

First, you don't "say things in hiragana", you say in Japanese. At most you can write things in it, but you can do it with katakana as well! Japanese writing have two distinct parts:

  1. kanji: copied verbatim or derived from Chinese writing. They form word stems, and most often have several different readings associated with them.
  2. kana: syllabary where each symbol is always mapped to exactly one syllable (let's forget は for now). Katakana and hiragana are two different renders of same syllabary (so there's one hiragana and one katakana for each syllable that sounds exactly the same). Also you can write any word in Japanese with either hiragana or katakana.

Think of those two variants as CAPS and lower case in Latin alphabet. Should you learn one or other? Well, sure, in modern writing you see more lower letters, unless you're reading titles or advertisement, but correct answer is: learn both and order doesn't matter much.

Actually you may even want to follow same pattern often used while learning other alphabets: learn hiragana and katakana symbol for same syllable at same time. Them often being similar helps too.


Here's the real reason: シャーロット・ランプリング. When your Japanese is really good and you're living in Japan, and reading Japanese newspapers for fun - you will know what they're saying but not who they're saying it about. I still remember us saying シャーロット・ランプリング over and over in various ways until suddenly one of us got it. Of course now it seems blatantly obvious.

  • I'm guessing the thumbs down is because this is a really specific example of something that happened to you because of it. This sounds like an anecdotal way of saying: you often need to know katakana to read names. Commented Sep 23, 2012 at 1:30
  • Thanks @phoenixheart6, you're probably right. I think I'm often too light-hearted about things and should be more respectful of my fellow exchangers. It's a jungle out there and many people are trying to carve out a life in it and don't have time to waste.
    – medmal
    Commented Oct 1, 2012 at 7:41

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