As discussed on our main language page, many signs and notices in Japan are written in Roman characters as well as Japanese. However it’s useful to learn to decode Japanese writing, especially in supermarkets and restaurants where English translations might be missing or vague. Japanese can be written using three different types of characters and this page will introduce you to the Katakana system.
Basic katakana is pretty easy once you get the hang of it and its mostly used to write foreign words for which there is no Japanese translation. This means that reading out the katakana phonetically will usually produce a familiar sounding word, especially once you account for the Japanese accent. For example, ビール becomes bii-ru which means beer.
There are 48 characters, which represent the 5 vowel sounds, 42 syllables of a consonant and a vowel (such as ma, ro, ke) and 1 character which represents a m or n sound. However, the sound of these characters can be altered by adding a double dot or circle to the top right corner of the symbol.
For example, ハ is pronounced ha but バ is pronounced ba and パ is pronounced pa.
The other character to watch out for is ー which makes the vowel sound longer. As we saw in bii-ru, it changes ビ from bi to bii.
Katakana can be shown in a chart, where the sound of each character is made by reading the consonant from the row followed by the vowel from the column. The first row is just vowel sounds and the last row is just n without a vowel.
Being familiar with this table (a similar diagram can be found in most good guidebooks) can help you quickly identify katakana characters and recognise key words and phrases. It will also allow you to find the pronunciation of unfamiliar words so you can look them up in a phrasebook. This is most useful in vending machine restaurants and supermarkets where you might want to identify a specific item (such as bii-ru!)