My Most Dreaded Katakana

The Japanese writing system consists of three alphabets (hiragana, katakana for loan/foreign words and kanji, or Chinese characters). I taught myself hiragana and katakana my first month in Japan, finding hiragana much easier to master. Katakana, which I learned second, is more difficult for me because there are a few characters that look very similar. Even months after commencing my study routine, there are still a few katakana characters that repeatedly give me trouble. Here, I will list them and explain ways to remember them, with hopes that these hints will make their way into my thick skull as well.

shi and tsu

シ ッ

My first name in Japanese is シ―ラ (shi-ra), so you think I would have this one down by now, but I am afraid I don’t. The difference in each of these characters is small but still important. According to my JET Programme Japanese language course book, the first two strokes of shi are written “with the second coming below the first. The last stroke is written from lower left to upper right.” In other words, the last stroke is written from bottom left to top right, and it looks thicker on the bottom than on the top. In contrast, the first two strokes of tsu are written “so that the second is to the right of the first. The last stroke is written from upper right to lower left,” resulting in a slightly thicker stroke on the top. Read this helpful online guide as well.

so and n

ソ ン

The difference between so and n is pretty much the same as shi and tsu. The second stroke for so is written from top right to bottom left, while the second stroke for n is written from the lower left to the top right. The character so looks more like a broken checkmark to me than n.

u and wa

ウ ワ

These two aren’t as difficult as shi and tsu, or so and n in my opinion, but I still mix them up! The obvious difference is that the katakana u () has a little line in the middle of the character. Here’s one device to remember it by: udon noodles are popular in Japan, so the little line sticking up is like an udon noodle sticking up from a pot. The wa () can be remembered because it looks like a water fountain…kind of.

ma and mu

マ ム

These are basically the same symbol but reversed. The ma () opens to the left while the mu () opens to the right. Here’s one (very silly and maybe absurd) way to remember it: male (it kind of looks like a man’s nose) and mura, like Murakami (Haruki Murakami is one of Japan’s most international authors). I hope this helps! がんばれ!

Some helpful sources I used for studying: Kana Can Be Easy by Kuniko Ogawa and Japanese for Busy People: Kana Workbook.

Author: Sheila Burt


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