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Writing system

The writing system is the most complicate part of Japanese learning, so be concentrate :

The Japanese writing system is made of three types of characters :

- The Kanji (漢字) that are used to write most content words of native Japanese or (historically) Chinese origin, including:

  • most nouns, such as 川 (kawa, "river") and 学校 (gakkō, "school")
  • the stems of most verbs and adjectives, such as 見 in 見る (miru, "see") and 白 in 白い (shiroi, "white")
  • most Japanese personal names and place names, such as 田中 (Tanaka) and 東京 (Tōkyō). (Certain names may be written in hiragana or katakana, or some combination of these and kanji.)

Most kanji have more than one possible pronunciation (or "reading"), and some common kanji have many.


- The Hiragana (平仮名) that are used to write the following:

  • okurigana (送り仮名)—inflectional endings for adjectives and verbs—such as る in 見る (miru, "see") and い in 白い (shiroi, "white"), and respectively た and かった in their past tense inflections 見た (mita, "saw") and 白かった (shirokatta, "was white").
  • most _joshi_ (助詞—grammatical particles—small, usually common words that, for example, mark sentence topics, subjects and objects, or have a purpose similar to English prepositions like "in", "to", etc.
  • words that lack a kanji rendition, or whose kanji is obscure, difficult to typeset, or considered too difficult to understand (as in children's books). A reasonable number of common words of various grammatical types lack a kanji or have only an obscure or unusual kanji, and hence are usually written in hiragana.
  • furigana (振り仮名)—phonetic renderings of kanji placed above or beside the kanji character. Furigana may aid children or nonnative speakers or clarify nonstandard, rare, or ambiguous readings.

- The Katakana (片仮名) that are used to write the following:

  • transliteration of foreign words and names, such as コンピュータ (konpyūta, "computer") and ロンドン (Rondon, "London"). (Some foreign borrowings that have become naturalized may not be rendered in katakana.) See also Transcription into Japanese.
  • commonly used names of animals and plants, such as トカゲ (tokage, "lizard") and バラ (bara, "rose"), and certain other technical and scientific terms, such as mineral names
  • occasionally, the names of miscellaneous other objects whose kanji are rare, such as ローソク (rōsoku, "candle")
  • onomatopoeia, such as ワンワン (wan-wan, "woof-woof"), and other sound symbolism
  • emphasis, much like italicisation in European languages.




Kanji are traductions of a meaning more than of a sound, thus Japanese and Chinese characters can have the same meaning with different prononciations.

To learn Kanji's is a long process, Japanese school children are expected to learn 1,006 basic kanji characters, the _kyōiku kanji_, before finishing the sixth grade. The order in which these characters are learned is fixed. The kyōiku kanji list is a subset of a larger list, originally of 1,945 kanji characters, in 2010 extended to 2,136, known as the _jōyō kanji_ – characters required for the level of fluency necessary to read newspapers and literature in Japanese. This larger list of characters is to be mastered by the end of the ninth grade.

We won't learn the Kanji here but they will be written in this website with their prononciation, you can find here a list of the 2230 most frequently used Japanese Kanji.




Hiragana are a syllabic system, each character corresponding to one sound, a syllable ( a consonant followed by a vowel ), a vowel, or "n" (ん), a nasal sonorant which, depending on the context, sounds either like English m, n, or ng ([ŋ]), or like the nasal vowels of French.


Here is a list of the Hiragana, they are grouped by characters that have the same shape, but that are modified by a dakuten marker ( ゛) ( to change 'h' into 'b', 't' into 'd', 's' into 'z', 'k' into 'g' ) or by a handakuten marker ( ゜) ( to change 'h' into 'p' )


And how to draw them :







As for Hiragana, Katakana are a syllabic system, each character corresponding to one sound, a syllable ( a consonant followed by a vowel ), a vowel, or "n" (ん), a nasal sonorant which, depending on the context, sounds either like English m, n, or ng ([ŋ]), or like the nasal vowels of French.

Here is a list of the Katakana, they are grouped by characters that have the same shape, but that are modified by a dakuten marker ( ゛) ( to change 'h' into 'b', 't' into 'd', 's' into 'z', 'k' into 'g' ) or by a handakuten marker ( ゜) ( to change 'h' into 'p' )



And how to draw them :


rōmaji (ローマ字 )


Rōmaji is the Japanese word designating the Latin alphabet, it is a word use to designate the method of writing Japanese in Latin script ; it's the method we will use to transliterate Japanese in this course ; it is quite straight and should be easily understandable ; however let's speak about some details :


- "ch" as in English is pronounced as in "cheap", and "sh" as in "sheep"

- there is no "l" in Japanese, we write instead "r" that is pronounced between a spanish "r" and "l"

- vowels can be lengthened, we will write them with "^", thus "ô" will be pronounced as a long "o", long vowels are important, you could be misunderstood if you don't pronounce them well.

- "u" is mostly pronounced as oo in "hook", but sometimes it can be not pronounced, we will write it with brackets "(u)" and the same will be done for any vowel that is not pronounced ; rarely "u" can be pronounced as in French.

- after "a" et "o", "n" will be nazalized ; so "an" and "on" will be pronounced "ãn" et "õn" ( for French, as if you would say "an'n" et "on'n" )

- when "tt" or "kk" is written, you must pronounced it with a short break between the two consonants and cut the pronounciation of the word in two parts ( as you would pronounce "it terrify me")


There is two system in Japanese for numbers, one from Chinese origin that is used to count from 0 to infinite, you can use the Chinese system for any numbers. There is also a system of Japanese origin which is very limited and allow only to count up to 10, but it is very commonly used in the daily language, so it is worth to know.

The Chinese system :

  10 + .. ...0 ...00 ..000
0 〇 zero / rei 十 jû tens hundreds Thous.
1 一 ichi 十一 jû-ichi 十 jû 百 hyaku 千 sen
2 二 ni 十二 jû-ni 二十 ni-jû 二百 nihyaku 二千 ni-sen
3 三 san 十三 jû-san 三十 san-jû 三百 sambyaku 三千 san-zen
4 四 yon / shi 十四 jû-yon 四十 yon-jû 四百 yombyaku 四千 yon-zen
5 五 go 十五 jû-go 五十 go-jû 五百 goyaku 五千 go-sen
6 六 roku 十六 jû-roku 六十 roku-jû 六百 roppyaku ...
7 七 nana / shichi 十七 jû-nana 七十 nana-jû 七百 nanayaku
8 八 hachi 十八 jû-hachi 八十 hachi-jû 八百 happyaku
9 九 kyû 十九 jû-kyû 九十 kyû-jû 九百 kyûhyaku


10 000 : 一万**ichi-man**

100 000 000 : 一億**ichi-oku**

1 000 000 000 000 : 一兆**ichô**

Then you just have to add numbers one after another to make big numbers, so for example 2.748.169.513 is written : 二十七億四千八百十六万九千五百十三 ni-jû nana-oku yon-zen happyaku jû-roku-man kyû-sen goyaku jû-san.

Japanese use suffixes with numbers too,  ban is used to count numbers, 二番 ni-ban = number two ; 番目 banme is used to make ordinals, 二番目 nibanme = second.

There is also suffixes to count objects, to make things easy, these suffixes are different depending of what you count, remember also that numbers are placed after the noun :

-ko : for small roundish objects. 林檎 三個 ringo sanko = three appples

-nin , 名様 -meisama (polite) : for people, except for one person : hitori and two people : futari

-hiki, -biki, -piki : for animals. 犬二匹  inu nihiki = two dogs

台 -dai : for machine.  車一台 kuruma ichidai = one car

-mai : for flat objects ( papers, tickets )

-hon, -bon, -pon : for long objects (bottles, pens)

-hai, -bai, -pai : for cups, glasses

-haku, -paku : for nights of a stay

-sai : for years (age) ; except for 20 years old pronounced hatachi.

When you don't know which one of these suffixes to use, Japanese use the old counting system with numerbs from 1 to 10 :

The Japanese system :

Used mainly in daily life to count objects ( when there is less than ten )

1 一つ 2 二つ 3 三つ 4 四つ 5 五つ 6 六つ 7 七つ 8 八つ 9 九つ 10 十
hitotsu futatsu mittsu yottsu itsutsu muttsu nanatsu yattsu kokonotsu

Grammar, general rules

Sentence structure :

The sentences in Japanese usually follow a Subject-Object-Verb order

Means that phrases will be structured as [watashi wa gakkô ni ikimas(u)] (lit : "I (topic) school (locatif) go")

Genders, plural, articles :

Japanese has no grammatical gender, number, or article, nouns are non-inflecting, that means for example that 猫 neko can be translated by cat, cats, a cat, the cat, only pronouns can express genders 彼 kare means he and 彼女 kanojo she.


Verbs :

Verbs in Japanese are not inflected to the subject, their form change only with the time, present, past or future, with the negation or with the politeness degree, that means speech can change according to the person you're speaking with. Moreover, subject is often omitted in Japanese when it is not essential to mutual understanding. Thus, 行く iku can mean I go, you go, he/she go ... in its informal form.


Adjectives :

In Japanese, adjectives  behave like verbs, their form change according they're conjugated to the past, present, future or negative. That means that 小さい Chîsai can mean small, it is small, I am small... But 小さくない Chîsakunai means not small, it is not small, I am not small...


Particles :

In a Japanese sentence, there is always a syllable after a word ( except verbs ) to indicate the role of the word preceding, if it is subject, object, location, possessor, etc... Ex : パンを食べます pan-o tabemas(u) bread-[object] eat.


Degree in speech :

There is three degree of formality in Japanese speech that you will use according to the person whom you speak with, inflection of verbs and adjectives will change and sometimes the ending of nouns will change :

- the informal speech is the one you will use with members of your family, friends, people you know well.

- the polite speech is the one you will use with people you just met, someone in the street, etc...

- the honorific speech is the one you will use with people considered as important, your boss by example, politicians, religious people, etc...

We will concentrate here mostly on the polite form, which is the easiest to learn and the most useful, but we will also approach the informal way of speaking. The honorific speech won't be studied here.

Pronouns and particles

Pronouns :

There is no proper pronouns in Japanese, most of the time in speech, there is nothing to express pronouns :

見ました か ? mimash(i)ta ka ? Did you see ? ( lit :"see-[polite]-[past] [question]" )

見ました mimash(i)ta I saw ( lit :"see-[polite]-[past]" )

But when it is necessary, there are words equivalent to personal pronouns. Let's see the most usual ( in red the most important to remember ) :

person | politeness | gender | japanese | romaji | notes

I | formal/informal | both | 私 | watashi | formal or polite context, gender neutral I | informal | female | あたし | atashi | Not use in written language but common among young woman I | informal | male | 俺 | ore | Frequently used by man, can be seen as rude you (singular) | depends | both | name+title | Most of the time, "you" is rather expressed with the name of the person you're speaking with followed by an honorific suffix. you ( singular ) | formal/informal | both | あなた | anata |  Depending on the context, is often used as an equivalent of english "dear" you ( singluar ) | informal | both | あんた | anta | Express familiarty towards someone, generally seen as rude in formal context you ( singular ) | hostile/rude | mainly males |  貴様 | kisama | to show hostility towards someone he/she | very formal | both | あの方 | ano kata | he/she | formal/informal | both | あの人 | ano hito | litteraly : "that person" he | formal/informal | male | 彼 | kare | can also mean "boyfriend", most commonly used for "he" she | formal/informal | female | 彼女 | kanojo | can also mean "girlfriend", most commonly used for "she" we | informal | both | 私達 | watashi-tachi | we | formal | both | 我々 | ware-ware | you (plural) | informal | both | あなた達 | anata-tachi | they | neutral | both | 彼等 | karera |

  Honorific title :

  • さん -san : The most basic honorific, about equivalent to Mister or Miss (no distiction between the two in Japanese). 山田さん Yamada-san : Mister Yamada

  • -sama : Politer than -san, used to address people ranking higher on the social ladder. It is also used by shop assistants to address customers.

  • ちゃん -chan : Usually used to address young children. Also used to address (usually female) close friends.

  • -kun : Used to address male close friends.

  • お客様 okyaku-sama : "Mister customer", used by hotel or shop owners to address you.

  • 店長さん tenchō-san : The way to address the owner of a shop, though not the part-time workers.

  • お兄さん onī-san, お姉さん onē-san : Literally brother and sister respectively, is used to address young people who you're having a hard time finding a better honorific for.

  • お爺さん ojī-san, お婆さん obā-san : "Gramps" and "granny", very popular to address old people. Cuter when used with -chan.

  • 社長 shachō : The boss of the company.

  • そちら sochira: Means something like "on your side" and is used when absolutely no better honorific can be found.

Conjonctions, postpositions :

Japanese doesn't have prepositions or conjonctions as in english, instead it has particles that are usually located just after a noun, they can have different meaning according to their place in the sentence :


を o : indicate the object of the sentence : パンを食べます pan o tabemas(u) = eat bread

ga : indicate the subject of the sentence : 私が 行きます watashi ga ikimas(u) = I go ; At the end of a phrase, express "but" : 犬は好きだが、猫は嫌いだ Inu wa suki da ga, neko wa kirai da = I like dogs but I hate cats.

wa* : indicate the topic of the sentence : ジョンは学生です JON wa gakusei des(u) = John is a student

の no : indicate the possessor : 先生の車 sensei no kuruma = the teacher's car ; 私のコンピューター watashi no konpyûtâ = My computer

ni : express the location, equivalent of in, at : 東京に あります Tôkyô ni arimas(u) = I am/you are/.. in Tokyo

he : express the direction, equivalent of to, towards : 東京へ 行きます Tôkyô he ikimas(u) = go to Tokyo

で de : express location or means, equivalent of by : 自転車で行きましょう Jitensha de ikimashô = let's go by bicycle

から kara : express provenance, equivalent of from : 東京から帰った Tôkyô kara kaetta = returned from Tokyo

まで made : indicates a time or place as a limit, equivalent of up to, until, as far as : この電車は、下関まで行きます   Kono densha wa, Shimonoseki made ikimasu = this train goes as far as Shimonoseki.

より yori : express comparaison, equivalent of than : see adjectives part

ka : express interrogation, always at the end of a phrase : 判りました か wakarimash(i)ta ka ? understood ?

でも de mo : at the beginning of a phrase, express "but", "however" : でも、私はそう思わない De mo, watashi wa sō omowanai = But, I don't think so

to : according to the context, can express "and", "or", "with" or "if".... :

  • それとこれ sore to kore \= that and this
  • それとこれと sore to kore to = that or this
  • 僕と行きたい? boku to ikitai ka ? = Do you want to go with me ? (lit : "I-with/and go-want [interrogation]" )
  • 勉強すると分かる benkyô suru to wakaru = if you study you will understand (lit :"study do if understand")

ne : interjection, similar to english "hey" : ね、いま何時? Ne, ima nanji ? = hey, what time is it ?

ので no de : at then end of phrase, express "because" : テストがあるので、行けない Tesuto ga aru no de, ikenai = Because there is a test, can't go.

には ni wa : after a noun, express "for", after a verb, "in order to" : 私には watashi ni wa = for me ; みずをみつけるには mizu o mitsukeru ni wa = in order to find water


*Difference between ga and wa, the subject and the topic is difficult to apprehend, and is not always clear, if you need more precision, you can check wikipedia.

Nouns and adjectives

Nouns :

As we saw already, nouns are invariable, they don't have plurals and genders. Most of them are written with kanji's, sometimes with only one kanji, but very often with two or three. Example :

One Kanji :

  • hako : box

  • migi : right (contrary of left)

Two Kanji :

  • 戦争 sensô : war

  • 平和 heiwa : peace

Three Kanji :

  • 喫茶店 kisaten : teahouse ; here the word is composed of three kanji's, 喫, 茶 and 店 meaning respectively "drink", "tea" and "shop", but the kanji 店 alone is pronounced mise and means shop. But in the word 喫茶店 it is pronounced ten. Kanji often change their pronounciation when inside a compound word.


Adjectives :

Adjectives are divided in two categories in Japanese :

i-adjectives : ending with i, they behave like verbs, their form change with time and have negative form, they are often translated "to be + adjective". It can be used alone or at the end of a sentence ( like a verb ) ( by example 今日は暑い kyô wa atsui today is hot ), but when use as a complement of a noun, it is placed before the noun: 暑い日 atsui hi a hot day.

Here is how they inflect :

politeness present negative past Past negative
informal -i -ku nai -katta -ku nakatta
polite -i des(u) -ku arimasen -katta des(u) -ku arimasen deshita

na-adjectives : these can be considered a form of noun ; they attach to a form of the copula "to be" which then inflect ( according to time, degree, negation ), but when attached to a noun to modify it, it is followed by the suffix -な -na.

Examples : 変な人 hen-na hito a strange person ; 彼は変だ kare wa hen da he is strange.

Here is how they inflect :

\ present past present neg. past neg.
informal へん hen da へんだった hen datta へんではない hen dewa nai へんではなかった hen dewa nakatta
polite へんです hen desu へんでした hen deshita へんではありません hen dewa arimasen へんではありませんでした hen dewa arimasen deshita

Comparative and superlative :

Comparaison is expressed with より yori, meaning from, to say A is more than B :

“A”より”B”が面白い "A" yori "B" ga omoshiroi "B" is more interesting than "A".

You can also simply use the word もっと motto, that means more, just before the adjective.

“A”より”B”がもっと安い "A" yori "B" ga motto yasui "B" is cheaper than "A".

or ”B”がもっと安い "B" ga motto yasui "B" is cheaper.


For superlative, you can use 一番 ichiban ( number one ) or 最も mottomo ( most ) directly before the adjective.

“A”が一番大切だ "A" ga ichiban taisetsu da "A" is the most important.

“A”が最もいい "A" ga mottomo ii "A" is the best.


Verbs in Japanese are always placed at the end of the phrase, as we saw they are not inflected to the person, but they change according to the tense, present or past, ( japanese has no future tense ), the degree of politeness and negative form.

Verbs are constructed from a stem, usually one or several kanji, it is the form you will find in dictionnaries and it correspond to a kind of infinitive, but also to the present tense of the informal form of the verb : 行く iku is the stem of the verb to go and can mean I go, you go, he/she goes... But also I will go, you will go,... But always in the informal form. As an agglutinative language, you just have to add suffixes to form the shape of the right conjugation, but this can change the initial stem :

Polite form : take off the final u and add -ます (i)mas(u) to form the polite form, 行く iku becomes 行きます ikimas(u)

Negative form : take off the final u and add ない (a)nai to form the negative form, 行く iku becomes 行かない ikanai

Past form : a bit more irregular, usually ends with た ta or だ da, 行く iku becomes 行きた ikita

Negative past form : add なかった (a)nakatta to form the negative past form, 行く iku becomes 行かなかった ikanakatta

Imperative : change the final u of the stem into e, 行く iku becomes 行け ike

To make things easier, you can use only the polite form !

In the PDF memos, each verb will be given with its stem/dictionnary/informal form and with its polite form. The conjugation of the polite form is very regular :

Negative form : replace ます mas(u) with ません masen, 行きます ikimas(u) becomes 行きません ikimasen  go

Past form : replace ます mas(u) with ました mash(i)ta, 行きます ikimas(u) becomes 行きました ikimash(i)ta went

Negative past form : replace ます mas(u) with ませんでした masen desh(i)ta, 行きます ikimas(u) becomes 行きませんでした ikimasen desh(i)ta didn't go

Imperative form : replace ます mas(u) with ましょう mashô, 行きます ikimas(u) becomes 行きましょう ikimashô go !

To be :


There are two verbs equivalent to “to be” in Japanese, iru and aru, they are respectively used for objects and for people they can be translated as “to exist”

Moreover, Japanese language use a copula, used with adjectives and with nominal phrases like "watashi wa gakusei des(u)", that would be translated "I am student" ( lit:"I [topic] student it-is" ). Like any verb, this copula can be conjugated with past, negation and degree of speech :

\ present past present neg. past neg.
informal da だった datta ではない dewa nai ではなかった dewa nakatta
polite です des(u) でした deshita ではありません dewa arimasen ではありませんでした dewa arimasen deshita