Are Loanwords "Real" Japanese?

Are Loanwords "Real" Japanese?

Shortly after I started studying Japanese at university, I got an email from a friend in Sweden:

“How’s it going? Learned any more ‘Japanese words’ like camera and video?”

I’d copy-pasted her some of the "new words" from my textbook. There was a list of them - words like kamera (camera) and rajio (radio)…

I felt like I was cheating. These aren’t Japanese words!

Or are they?

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Calligraphers of Instagram (bonus pun!) - @yogai888emi again


I can't believe I wrote an entire blog post about calligrapher @yogai888emi and forgot to include this amazing pun.

タイ料理が食べタイ

tai ryouri ga tabe-tai

"I want to eat Thai food."

What's the Japanese word for "Thai?" it's タイ tai.

And how do you say "want to eat" in Japanese? You stick -tai on the end of the verb.

It's funny, right?

Cute, too ♡

Calligraphers of Instagram (Part 1) - @yogai888emi


I absolutely love kanji - Chinese characters that are also used in Japanese writing.

But calligraphy is not my strong point. My writing is good, but not particularly beautiful.

I have, however, recently become slightly obsessed with instagrammers who post Japanese calligraphy photos.

So I thought it might be fun to share some with you!

I first discovered @yogai888emi via this adorable story about falling asleep on the train.

↓ Look at those lovely clean lines. I immediately had serious handwriting envy.

A post shared by 恵美・曄涯 (@yogai888emi) on

Can you read this one?
↓ 掃除 (souji) "cleaning"


If kanji's not your thing, you can find beautiful hiragana and katakana on her page too.

↓ ハナゲ (hanage) "nose hair"



There are videos, too, if you like watching calligraphy. I do - I find it strangely relaxing.

↓ 煮える (nieru) to boil, to be cooked. This one's from the height of summer!



You can find heaps more of her work at @yogai888emi's instagram page. I hope you enjoy exploring it as much as I do.

Just looking at calligraphy won't make your handwriting more beautiful though - unfortunately!

Why Does Everybody Forget Katakana?


I'll let you into a secret. I hate katakana.

Students of Japanese tend to start with its two phonetic alphabets. We start with hiragana, the loopy, flowing letters that make up all the sounds of Japanese.

Then we move on to katakana - all the same sounds, but in angular blocky font.

Hiragana seems fairly easy, I think. And when you start learning Japanese everything you read is written in hiragana, so by reading you constantly reinforce and remember.

Katakana? Not so much.

The katakana "alphabet" is used extensively on signs in Japan - if you're searching for カラオケ (karaoke) or ラーメン (ramen noodles) you'll need katakana.



But if you're outside Japan, then beyond the letters in foreign names, you don't get a lot of exposure to katakana.

I think that's why a lot of beginning students really struggle to remember katakana.

Here are a couple of suggestions:

1) Use mnemonics


Personally I still can't remember some of those sticky similar katakana without goofy mnemonics.

For example, I still think katakana ウ (u) and ワ (wa) look super similar - I remember that ウ has a dash on the top, just like hiragana う (u) .


2) Practice, practice, practice


I'm not a huge fan of having you copy letters over and over again, but there is something to be said for "writing things out".

By writing letters down, you activate muscle memory, which helps you remember. So get writing katakana!


3) Start learning kanji


It might feel like running before you can walk, but starting to read and write kanji (Chinese characters) before your katakana is completely perfect can be a good option.

Kanji textbooks have the Chinese readings of the characters in katakana, so learning kanji is also really good katakana practice.


And maybe, you'll turn into a katakana lover, not a hater. 


Why You Should Use Mnemonics - the Quickest and Best Way to Learn Hiragana and Katakana


This week I finally got around to going through the mid-course feedback from my students and drawing up plans to incorporate some of what you asked for into the rest of the course.

Several learners mentioned the importance of learning the kana early on.

Learning to read Japanese can be a daunting task. The Japanese language has three distinct "alphabets" (four if you count romaji!) and learning kanji is a task that takes years.

You can learn the kana (hiragana and katakana) pretty quickly, though, if you use the most efficient way to memorise them - mnemonics.

It's a bit like brute force memorisation, except it's fun...

Hiragana and Katakana are the "building blocks" of the Japanese written language. Students in my beginner class mostly start with the romaji edition of 'Japanese For Busy People', because my priority is to get you speaking from day one, and to spend class time on speaking as much as possible. Reading and writing is mostly set as homework.

But if you want to learn to read Japanese, you definitely need to start by learning hiragana.

But how to remember them?

The best, quickest, most fun method is to associate each character with a picture that it (clearly or vaguely) looks like, ideally also using the sound of the letter.

Hiragana and katakana are pretty simple, so associating each character with a picture is super easy.

Here's hiragana き (ki), which we can imagine is a picture of a KEY. My key is an old-fashioned one. Yours might be modern and spiky. Or it might have wings on it and be flying about getting chased by Harry Potter on a broomstick.

The point is to think of a strong visual image that makes the picture of the key stick in your mind:


Of course, you need to learn to read words and sentences too. So as well as learning each letter, you need to practice writing and reading. This where the mnemonic really sinks in.

Memorisation doesn't help you remember. What helps you remember is active recall.

Let me give you an example.

You're reading a sentence and come across the word きのこ. You're staring at the letter き - "which one was that again?" and struggle a little bit to remember it.

Then you remember - aha! it's the KEY! This is ki.

This process of active recall - pushing a little bit to remember something - is the process that cements the mnemonic in your mind.

Hurrah! You're on the path to reading Japanese.

Fun fact: Toad is a きのこ (kinoko).

For me, one of the great thing about using mnemonics to remember the kana is that when I explain the system to learners, they often tell me that's what they're doing anyway, even if they don't have a name for what they're doing:
"Oh yes, that's how I remember む too - it's a funny cow's face! MOO"

"No, む is a man saying MO-ve!"
I've also found - luckily for me - it doesn't matter seem to matter if the actual picture is rubbish. (You don't even have to draw them, I just did this to help my students out and to share the idea).


What's important is that the picture in your head is super clear.

...and once you finish hiragana, you can do the whole thing again for katakana!

You can find the whole set of hiragana and katakana mnemonics with the hashtag #stepupkana - please check it out and let me know what you think.

I'd love to hear what mnemonics you use to help remember the kana - let me know in the comments or add your story to the instagram posts for that character.

Have a lovely Friday everyone. 素敵な一日を過ごしてください!

Why Does The Japanese Language Have So Many Alphabets?

Why Does Japanese Have So Many "Alphabets"? - Step Up Japanese

My students ask a lot of good questions. And one that sent us off on a bit of a tangent a few weeks ago was:

“How old is Japanese writing?”

That'd make a good blog post, I thought (after we talked about it a bit).

So, let’s take a whistle-stop tour of Japanese history with a very brief introduction to Japanese writing systems!


Until the 1st or 2nd century, Japan had no writing system. Then, sometime before 500AD, kanji - Chinese characters - made its way to Japan from China (probably via Korea).

These characters were originally used for their meaning only - they weren't used to write native Japanese words.

↓ And at that time, Japanese writing looked like this. Look, it looks like Chinese!


But it was inconvenient not being able to write native Japanese words down, and so people began to use kanji to represent the phonetic sounds of Japanese words, not only the meaning. This is called manyougana and is the oldest native Japanese writing system.

For example, in manyougana the word asa (morning) was written 安佐 (that's a kanji for the a sound - 安 - and another for the sa sound - 佐). In modern Japanese we'd use 朝, the kanji that means "morning" for asa.

Problem was, manyougana used multiple kanji for each phonetic sound - over 900 characters for the 90 phonetic sounds in Japanese - so it was inefficient and time-consuming.

Gradually, people began to simplify kanji characters into simpler characters - that's where hiragana and katakana came from.

Katakana means "broken kana" or "fragmented characters". It was developed by monks in the 9th century who were annotating Chinese texts so that Japanese people could read them. So katakana was really an early form of shorthand.

Each katakana character comes from part of a kanji: for example, the top half of 呂 became katakana ロ (ro), the left side of 加 became katakana カ (ka).

↓ Each katakana comes from part of a kanji.


Women in Japan, on the other hand, wrote in cursive script, which was gradually simplified into hiragana. That's why hiragana looks all loopy and squiggly. Like katakana, hiragana characters don't have meaning - they just indicate sound.

↓ How kanji (top) evolved into manyougana (middle in red), and then hiragana (bottom).


Because it was simpler than kanji, hiragana was accessible for women who didn't have the same education level as men. The 11th-century classic The Tale of Genji was written almost entirely in hiragana, because it was written by a female author for a female audience.

What would 12th-century people in Japan think of my students, 800 years later, learning hiragana as they take their first steps into the Japanese language?

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