How to learn hiragana in one hour or less

A week or so ago I decide to relearn hiragana and katakana (Japanese syllabaries), which I'd completely forgotten. I loaded a hiragana flashcard set onto iAnki (read Gary Wolf's excellent Wired article about the guy who invented the memory technique that iAnki employs) and went to work. Progress was brutally slow.

I looked around the iTunes store and came across Dr. Moku's Hiragana Mnemonics. It presents each character as an appealing and memorable cartoon - a rabbit eyeing a carrot, a dude with food, a farting cow. Each flashcard is a different color (to "refresh your brain" with each new character). Thirty minutes later I had memorized all 46 hiragana. Now my 9-year-old is learning them, and having a lot of fun. (of course, learning to write hiragana is going to take much more time).

Now it's time for Dr. Moku's Katakana Mnemonics.


    1. My unsolicited advice is to stop learning hiragana right now. With two weeks, spend your time learning katakana. This is the script used to write the loan words, most of which com from Englsh. Walking around, you’ll see katakana everywhere … and unlike hiragana, when you sound out a katakana word, based on context you’ll frequently be able to recognize the root English word. Ba-su for bus, ta-ku-shi for taxi, to-ee-re-to for toilet, etc. For a quick visit, katakana is much more useful.

  1. I had a whole book that covered pictogram versions of all three Japanese alphabets. A few of them made sense, but a lot of them… not so much, though there was no sound element like this. Honestly I found that just translating text was easier in the end.

  2. Interesting, but are you sure that after a half-hour you didn’t just put it in your short term memory? My own personal experience is that I didn’t really learn hiragana and katakana, as in permanently store it in my brain, until I learned to write them, and practice over and over. I imagine I’ll always be able to read them from now on, at least I hope so.

    Kanji is a bit tougher – but again it’s the kanji that I learned to write (with my own hand, not on an IME keyboard) that I can remember better.

    Also, what a cool thing to teach your child! Good for her brain development too.

    1. Actually, stroke order makes a lot of sense if you just imagine you’re writing with a brush rather than a pen. Top to bottom, left to right, nothing that goes against the grain of the bristles.

      Easier said than done of course, but if you can get your hands on a calligraphy brush you’ll find the set stroke order is the only way to write the characters cleanly.

  3. You’ll also want to learn Katakana (same sounds, but used for different things), and then at least a base set of Kanji (which are generally more or much more complex), depending on how much useful Japanese you want to have on hand. Spoken Japanese is not that bad, but the written, since it uses Hiragana, Katakana AND Kanji (often all in one sentence) is kind of brutal. High school students are expected to know around 2000 Kanji (though there are a lot more than that). And each Kanji can have multiple readings, which doesn’t help.

  4. Mark: Did you try testing yourself again with the iAnki version, or another version that doesn’t use these cards?

    It’s not clear from your description, but naturally you’d be far better at remembering these specific cards now, with their individual background colors and other cues.

    It’s not clear to me that having additional cues, like background colors, which make it easier for you to remember the cards but won’t ever be seen again outside the game, will actually aid in remembering the actual characters. That said, there could well be some research showing otherwise.

    1. Hmm.  It is also quite possible that for a while, when looking at the characters, the unique background colors of the flashcard will come to mind.  I think that’s more likely, based on the way I learn.  Of course, I still sing my ABC’s as I alphabetize…..

  5.  I’m surprised there has not been some reform to unify that writing system into one system.  Or is this the result of some mistaken reform?

    I took Chinese for a year.  They basically have one system of characters, although they come in simplified (mainland) and original (Taiwan) flavors.

    After two semesters of desperate flash-carding every night I maybe got to 100 characters that i could recognize and write.

    1.  I believe the beauty of it is that you can write with all three systems simultaneously, making poetry and sight gags and puns and clever stacks of meaning in a way that is impossible in other languages.  Unifying the system would not be “reforming” it, it would be destroying it as an art form entire.

      1. Also reading and writing Japanese activates more areas of the brain than any other writing system. But I think you would need to learn and study characters and kana as the Japanese do for that to be true, or to get the full benefit of all their possibilities.

          1. Are there not also more analytical approaches than mere rote learning? Are these not also traditional? I have come across books which analyse each character’s historical development individually and claim to be based on traditional teaching methods.
            Isn’t the situation somewhat similar to the ‘necessity’ to learn Latin and Greek to read and write ‘correct’ English?
            The demands of mass basic literacy put much more emphasis on rote learning and non-analytical approaches.
            I, too, have spent hours writing out thousands of characters hundreds of times. It works, but not well enough for me to have retained much over thirty years.

    2. I studied Chinese in China the old fashioned way – writing out characters hundreds of times until I could do it without thinking and recognise it immediately. It’s not trendy (and it’s certainly not exciting), but it works… 

      1. I agree with you Ping Kee. The writing of the characters many, many times really, really works for Chinese characters. It might not be trendy or sexy and I can definitely say from personal experience that it’s not the best way to learn French or Spanish — but I also know from experience that it is the sure way to retain one’s learning of Chinese characters. My theory is that the physical action of rote memorization in this manner utilizes Procedural Memory (or P. Learning) that bypasses the hippocampus. 

        (Here is a link to the WikiP exec. summary of P. Learning/Memory:    )

        Starting in 2006, I had four quarters — one year — of Mandarin first year — and one (or was it two?) quarters of second year — I chose to learn traditional chars. The characters I wrote over and over and over are the ones I best retain. The ones I studied mostly with flashcards are difficult or impossible to recall now – although I’m certain they’re still there.

    3. I don’t believe the system is defective; it’s analogous to sign-language. Hiragana is like finger-spelling, and Kanji is like one hand-sign that means the word you could have spelled.

      This gives a lot of flexibility in the writing, and once you start learning the Kanji you can break sentences apart visually because Hiragana ends up being used mostly for particles and exclamations. It is helpful to be able to tell quickly whether that “no” sign is part of a whole word or just means “and”.

      And Katakana is a life-saver, the only tricky part being that it encompasses all loan words, not just the English ones :) 

  6. They almost switched to using the Latin character set after WWII, but wound up not doing it, and it’s probably not going to happen now. The problem with only learning how to read those characters is – you need to be able to do it in reverse, too, and know what symbol to write when you hear a sound, so memorizing these characters this way is only part of it, plus having to learn the same sounds with different characters with the Katakana. And then there’s the Kanji. It’s a mess, and they don’t need to use Kanji, and they only need one set of the Kana (Hiragana, Katakana), but try convincing them of that.

    1. I’m unconvinced that there isn’t a need to retain kanji – otherwise you’re going to run into issues with distinguishing homophones that they don’t have at present.  Having two different sets of kana is inconvenient if you’re learning as a foreigner, but English manages to have cursive, sans serif typefaces and all sorts of other strangeness and also manages ok

      1.  Distinguishing homophones is not really a problem. If it were, that shit would get hashed out in the spoken language where there are no visual cues to distinguish homophones.

    2. It’s not a mess unless you’ve never bothered to actually attempt to learn it. Every spelling of every English word is also a “mess” that basically required rote memorization. 

      Kanji also proves useful if you travel to other countries that use it – if nothing else than an introduction to other Asian languages. I was glad I had a few thousand Kanji under my belt for an unplanned trip to Taiwan. Kanji also makes reading and absorbing information easier.

      1. Yes, I agree. I do this the other way; when I visit Japan I can communicate by writing/reading Chinese characters. It definitely makes things easier. 

  7. I did exactly this sort of thing back when I was a Boy Scout, and made my own flash cards for Morse code. By the time I finished making my own set, I had it down cold. I can still remember specific images, 45 years later!

    C = car = • – – • = (wheel) (door panel) (door panel) (wheel)

    If you really want this to stick, get the app and duplicate the process on paper, but make up your own symbolism. Not because theirs isn’t good, but because the act of making your own will burn it into your brain.

    1. Very interesting comparison. How fast can you decode Morse ? Can you listen to ham radio ?

      It is widely believed, among hams, that when people use any visual mnemonic to remember the code, they will usually get stuck at a speed of ~10 words per minute, and have a really hard time getting past this barrier.

       It has been observed, however, that learning at a high speed from the start (teaching one symbol at a time, or with wider inter-symbol blanks) allows one to reach ludicrous speeds after some time, without particular effort. 

        Apparently, the conversion of information across different senses (a time-based sequence of dits and dahs vs. a space-based sequence of dots and dashes) carries a heavy latency penalty in your brain. Hence to go past that magic speed, you have to relearn everything, this time making direct associations from sounds to letters. Learning with the right method lets you bypass the slow path right away.

        So, what is the impact of these kana mnemonics on reading speed ? Could you hit a similar brick wall with reading speed ? or does it not matter because reading doesn’t require a fixed speed ?

    2. You think like I do.  The hiragana I remember from almost 40 years ago are those I a) used most often and b) made up my own memory aids for.  That said, these cards DO help bring back something I thought for years was lost.

  8. Hiragana and katakana are ‘abbreviated’ kanji. Would it not be better to learn the original kanji which can also be broken down into meaningful and even pictorial radicals and phonetics? The way kanji or hanzi are taught outside Japan and China sucks. At university the problem is simply to learn as much as possible as fast as possible and very little time can be given to learning correct ‘brush’ strokes or the correct way to break down each character into meaningful components to understand its development.
    I’m always forgetting kana, kanji and hanzi.

    1. Hiragana and katakana are ‘abbreviated’ kanji. Would it not be better to learn the original kanji which can also be broken down into meaningful and even pictorial radicals and phonetics?

      No, because they aren’t ‘abbreviated’ kanji, but separate writing systems completely separate from kanji.

      Of course hiragana and katakana are originally derived from kanji, but that’s not the same thing as saying they are ‘abbreviated’ forms of kanji.

      1. Not the best choice of words, perhaps (I thought I covered myself with the parentheses suspecting that there may be a Japanese term for the process with no equivalent in English). Actually hiragana are derived from a different, cursive script with a reduced stroke count as in short form and long form Chinese characters. In thinking of kanji most people will generally picture modern printed characters and not cursive scripts so abbreviated seemed not inappropriate.

        This is a different process from the creation of kanji which are built up from discernible elements – strokes, radicals and phonetics .

        Yes and no. Kana perform a different grammatical and lexical function from kanji within one writing system. They are not different writing systems.

  9. too bad iAnki seems to be unavailable in international stores. May I ask where you found those hiragana flashcards?

  10. “I decide to relearn hiragana and katakana (Japanese syllabaries), which I’d completely forgotten.”

    How serendipitous. I just had the same thought this week and started in ernest to continue to learn, however slowly but surely.

    Thank you for pointing this app out. I just started using and the open source AnkiWeb.

  11. Kana perform a different grammatical and lexical function from kanji within one writing system. They are not different writing systems.

    @Wreckrob8 I think they are different writing systems. Anything in Japanese can be written in hiragana or katakana without the use of kanji, and typically is for books for small children (in hiragana, that is).

  12. I finished James Heisig’s “Remembering the Kana” (dual book with both katakana and hiragana) on the plane to Tokyo and it was amazing how well that system worked! Agree that Katakana is more fun/useful, except for recognizing udon and yakitori shops.

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