This chapter will actually cover both reading and writing as they are obviously closely intertwined. When learning to read and write Japanese you should learn in this order: katakana, hiragana and kanji. By learning katakana you will be able to understand many English loan words. Katakana are simpler and more angular than the hiragana. Hiragana are necessary to start understanding Japanese – you can write Japanese entirely in hiragana if you do not understand kanji. Hiragana have a more rounded and flowing shape. Kanji are the hardest to master and should be left until you have fully mastered the kana. The sooner you can move away from the crutch of romaji (Roman letters) the better.
Both kana and kanji have a designated stroke order (kakijun). It's quite tempting for an English speaker to ignore correct stroke order, reasoning that it doesn't matter if the characters look OK and that learning the characters is hard enough without worrying about stroke order. Don't give in to temptation! Stroke order is very important and you are shooting yourself in the foot if you ignore it.
Correct stroke order will help make your handwriting legible and becomes quite intuitive after a while. The basic rule is to start in the top left hand corner and finish in the bottom right hand corner. There are rules for drawing boxes and other common shapes. Wikipedia has a nice explanation of stroke order here.
If you know the number of strokes in a kanji, you will be able to look it up in a dictionary without knowing the pronunciation or the reading. To be able to count the strokes it is essential to have a solid grasp of correct stroke order. If you don't know how the stroke order for a character, check it in your dictionary or online. Once again, stroke order is important so get into good habits from the start.
Learning the kana
It is possible to learn the kana (hiragana and katakana) through brute memory in a fortnight or so simply by writing them out over and over again but I really don’t recommend doing this. As we have seen, the kana have only one pronunciation each. They have no inherent meaning like kanji and are only used to represent the sounds of Japanese.
Go here for tables of the kana.
Go here to see gifs of hiragana stroke order.
Go here to see gifs of katakana stroke order.
Easily confused kana
Certain kana look quite similar and you will need to be aware of them.
Nu and Me
ぬ - nu has a loop at the end.
め - me has no loop.
Re and Wa
れ - re has a hook at the end.
わ - wa curves back on itself.
Ru and Ro
る- ru has a loop at the end. (Imagine a Japanese saying loop as "ruup")
ろ - ro has no loop. (Ro = No when it comes to loops)
Shiシand Tsu ツ
Knowing the stroke order for these two will help you differentiate them.
Both start at the top left.
シTo write shi you move down.
ツTo write tsu you move across.
Several publishers produce some rather goof mnemonic cards for the kana and using these should save you time as well as aiding retention. Try Kana Flashcards. Free printable kana flashcards can be downloaded from here (go to the bottom of the page), however, these cards do not come with mnemonics or stroke order. You can try making your own mnemonics (please do not do this with stroke order) e.g. the character ki looks like a key, the character ma looks like a mast etc. It's a good idea to follow the kana table and review each row before going on to the next one (start with a, i, u, e, o and go on to ka, ki, ku, ke, ko etc). You could also try learning hiragana and katakana simultaeneously as some of the shapes are similar. If this confuses you, learn them separately.
Once you think you’ve mastered them try writing out the 2 sets. a, i, u, e, o, ka, ki, ku, ke, ko etc. Go back and pay special attention to the ones you forget.
A nice trick I found was to write out the kana on the palm of my hand using my finger when I had a spare moment. This can be done almost anywhere and is great for queues, train journeys, time when you should really be working etc.
One final note about the kana, don't panic if you forget one or two sometimes. They will sink in with regular practice. Use your mnemonics and flashcards and keep at it. A little effort to read and review them each day will go a long way.
Installing Japanese fonts on your computer
Once you start learning to write Japanese, you may find it helpful to install a Japanese font onto your computer. Windows comes with Japanese on the original CDs. The Japanese language interface is called IME. Declan's guide is quite helpful in explaining how to install Japanese.
With Japanese installed, you will now be able to write emails in hiragana and katakana, visit Japanese language websites and use the various online translation/dictionary programs.
Another option for those who want to write Japanese is a web based IME program. This allows you to input Japanese text via the web and then copy and paste it wherever you need. One can be found here. Simply click the IME on/off button to switch between romaji and Japanese.