Katakana

The katakana system is very similar to the hiragana system, and relatively easy to learn if you have already mastered hiragana. As in the hiragana system, each katakana symbol represents a syllable, with the exception of one character used to represent a terminal ‘n’ sound. The different combinations of consonants and vowels creates a 10×5 grid, with some gaps for syllables that do not feature in modern Japanese.

Basic Katakana Table

a i u e o
K
S
T
N
H
M
Y
R
W
n

Katakana are used in Japanese text to represent foreign words, such as English words that have been incorporated into Japanese. This is much the same as the English use of italics to represent the use of Latin or French expressions (like déja vu); the expressons could be written in normal hiragana script, but the use of katakana draws attention to the foreign source of the word. Because Japanese does not usually have consonants at the end of syllables (with the exception of the terminal ‘n’), and because certain English sounds are lacking in Japanese (such as ‘l’ and ‘v’) the importation of English words to their katakana equivalent is imprecise and the result sometimes sounds a little comical to English ears.

Examples:
cake ケーキ (Kēki)
video player ビデオプレイヤー (Bideopureiyā)
juice ジュース (Jūsu)

Note that, as shown in these examples, katakana uses a long dash-like symbol is used to represent that a vowel sound is long. (Hiragana uses a different approach, adding and extra vowel symbol.)

Katakana are also used to indicate pronunciations of kanji when that pronunciation is ultimately derived from Chinese (so-call ‘on readings’, or ‘on’yomi’), in contrast to pronunciations that are purely Japanese (‘kun readings’, or ‘kun’yomi’), which are expressed with hiragana. This concept is discussed further online – for instances, try tofugu.com. (When these ‘on’ readings are translated into Western scripts, the katakana are often rendered in capital letters, whereas the ‘kun’ readings are usually rendered in lower case.)

Overall, the katakana look angular, and involve straight lines, whereas the hiragana are more curved. In a few cases, there is a strong resemblance beween the hiragana for a syllable and the katakana, with the katakana looking like a straightened out version of the hiragana, or like the hiragana minus its curves. The table below provides a direct comparison of the two scripts, with characters highlighted where the derivation is close enough to provide some mnemonic value.

Hiragana-Katakana Comparison

a i u e o
K
S
T
N
H
M
Y .
R
W
n