The Japanese Alphabet Explained:
Learning the Japanese alphabet is a little different when compared to Latin languages like English, Spanish & French. Instead of ‘one alphabet’ with 26 letters, you have 3 alphabet systems: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.
Hiragana & Katakana are the main alphabets for writing in Japanese. Both alphabets have roughly 50 letters with each their own sounds. Basically it’s just memorization to learn the letters, and if you’re diligent, you can probably memorize the whole alphabets in under a day or so.
Easiest way to remember the difference between Hiragana & Katakana is: Hiragana is used to write Japanese only words, while Katakana is used to write foreign words and names (like McDonalds, John, etc that aren’t originally Japanese sounds).
Knowing Hiragana & Katakana is enough to get you by for a first time trip to Japan and possibly read menus or buy some toys, but if you really want to be able to read Japanese stuff – you need to know Kanji.
However, this can be quite the daunting task. Unlike the previous alphabets, the Kanji alphabet is quite endless – there are literally thousands of letters you could learn. Each ‘letter’ has its own meaning too, which is used to replace Japanese letters in sentences to give more clarification to the overall meaning.
The best way to memorize the letters is to start with the ones required for the Standardized Test – Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). There are 2402 Kanji in all to learn. Sound fun? You bet!
You start at JLPT Level N5 being the most basic, then slowly progress through the levels with ‘JLPT Level N1′ being the most difficult. You need to know at least 1800 Kanji to read at a high school level (and attend college or get a job in Japan not teaching English). Knowing N5 is good enough to pass possibly SAT II Japanese if you’re looking to skip an introductory class offered in a US college.