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Japanese for Beginners: Understanding Written Sentences

written by: Makoto • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 4/5/2012

Ever felt puzzled by written Japanese sentences? There's a logic present in Japanese sentences and being able to identify the key elements will make reading Japanese a whole lot easier. This article will explain how to do just that.

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    Learning Japanese from Home

    You are interested in learning Japanese but you have no idea where to begin. You live in a city where interaction with Japanese natives is difficult or impossible and cannot afford to go abroad to experience immersion. You have browsed the Internet but the quantity of information is so massive that you do not know which article to read first and which path to follow.

    Having experienced this myself, I realized it would be a great idea to provide a guide to follow for learning Japanese, much like a paper guide you would purchase in a specialized bookstore.

    Note that it is entirely possible to learn a language without immersion but it requires a different methodology. Keep in mind that progress will be slower than living in Japan but can be achieved.

    This guide is for those who have no knowledge about the language but are motivated to learn it. There are many ways to learn a language, so keep in mind that this is my very humble attempt to guide you along the way.

    This guide will provide definitions to new terminology along the way so that you don’t have to scatter your research all over the Internet and waste valuable time in the process.

    Happy learning!

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    Getting Started: Avoiding Romaji

    It is entirely possible to memorize sentences with the help of audio tapes or videos without being able to read. A wide variety of guides will provide useful sentences that you will memorize and remember through repetition.

    This is not a school of thought I adhere to however. This guide isn’t aimed at teaching the bare minimum so that you could get by for a holiday in Japan. This guide’s purpose is for the reader not to remember things or pattern through forced repetition but it is rather to provide explanations so that one can understand the structure and recreate patterns when needed.

    This is why this guide will not be using Romaji (or very little of it). Romaji is the use of Latin alphabet to write the Japanese language. Although it does make reading Japanese sentences possible right off the bat, it is also a crutch will slow your progress in learning the language.

    Romaji is seldom used in Japan and it is more of a facilitating tool for foreigners to be able to read Japanese without having to learn the authentic writing system.

    The problem with Romaji is that it is mostly used in texts meant for foreigners, not Japanese people. This means that relying on Romaji will severely limit you when trying to read texts written in authentic Japanese, which is one of the goals to attain when learning a language.

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    Reading Your First Sentence

    Understanding Japanese text can be a daunting task. With all the different characters stuck together, it may seem impossible to figure out what has been written. There are some ways to decipher the general meaning of a Japanese text, as long as one is willing to spend some time and use a dictionary.

    This article will provide some hints and tips to be better equipped to understand written Japanese sentences.

    Let’s look at the following short sentence:


    Check out the next section to figure out where to proceed from there.

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    Step 1: です and Identifying the Kanji

    The first thing you will pay attention to is the です at the end of the sentence, which more or less means “it is."

    The next step would be to identify the meaning of the Kanji in this sentence. The Kanjis are important words in a sentence and figuring them out can sometimes be enough for you to get the gist of a whole sentence.

    Let’s look at the sentence again:


    There are 10 different Kanjis in this sentence. Kanjis written conjointly often mean that they are related to each other and form a word. In other words, the two Kanjis are in fact two related parts of a single word.

    For instance, let’s look at 日本. The first Kanji is 日 and the second Kanji is 本. They are written conjointly; they are both part of a single word. In this case, 日本 means “Japan." For more information about the different readings of a Kanji, read here.

    This means that we can safely assume that, although there are 10 different Kanjis, there are six different “ideas" in this sentence:






    You might be wondering, "How can I figure out what those words are? “ Well, there is a helpful application in Windows, which will let you do just that. See the References section for a link to a YouTube video that explains in detail how to figure out the meanings of the different Kanjis on your own without having to purchase a dictionary. Try to find out the meanings of the words above before moving on to the next section.

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    Step 2: Katakana

    Ok, you should’ve managed to identify each one of the following words :

    日本 : Japan

    学年 : school year

    四月 : April

    始 : begin

    夏休み : summer holiday

    短い : short

    The next step will be to determine the meaning of the words written in Katakana.


    Say the Katakana out loud: フランス… sounds familiar? Katakana are used for foreign words and transcribed phonetically. In this case, フランス means France.

    Now you know that the sentence is about Japan, France, the summer holiday and something being short.

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    Step 3: The Particles

    The next step will be to identify the grammatical particles in your sentence.


    の here establishes a connection between 日本 (Japan) and 学年(school year). We’re thus referring to the Japanese school year. The following は indicates that the information that follows is about the Japanese school year.

    The second は, in the second part of the sentence, indicates that the following information will be about the summer holiday.

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    Step 4: What Remains

    Let’s look at what still hasn’t been identified in our sentence.


    から: is a noun-following particle. It indicates the starting point of something and could be roughly translated as from. For more information about kara, read the following article.

    始まり:The two hiraganas that follows are linked to the actual kanji that precedes them (始). By looking in a dictionary you will find out that it means “the beginning, the start" of something.

    より:this word is used in comparisons and can follow either a noun or a verb. In this case, it indicates a comparison between the Japanese and the French summer holiday.

    :the い following 短 is the a usual suffix when words are adjectives, which, in this case, is the adjective “short".

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    Step 5: The Final Result

    Now that everything has been properly identified, you should be able to have a general idea of the sentence. Go ahead and write down what you think is the meaning of that sentence and then look below to find out the answer.

    In Japan, the school year begins in April, the summer holiday are shorter than in France.


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