Learn to read! Japanese Reading Lesson 001: あいうえお

Posted by meronpan on October 30, 2008

We’ll see how long this lasts, and I’m not sure this blog is the best place to do it, but I felt like trying to spread the Japanese language love.  Assuming I follow through, I’m not expecting anyone to be fluent when I’m done but I hope it may inspire those who are curious to follow up with classes or otherwise.

さ、勉強しましょう! Let's study!

These “lessons” will be aimed at otaku, so expect anime/manga/game/novel examples and such. ^^;

Anyhow, the first step towards reading Japanese is learning the alphabet (well, technically it’s a syllabary)! aaand the first letter (or kana) is… あ! In English it’s pronounced as ‘a’ in father, ‘o’ in otter, ‘a’ in saw, etc. Unfortunately I’m not sure how the pronunciation turns out in other languages/accents, gomen m(_ _)m

Here’s the rest of the vowels:

kana Pronunciation Romanization

‘a’ in father, ‘o’ in otter, ‘a’ in saw a

‘i’ in ski, ‘ee’ in flee, ‘ie’ in sieze i

‘oo’ in food, ‘ue’ in clue, ‘e’ in grew u

‘e’ in egg, ‘e’ in pressure, ‘e’ in blend e

‘o’ in glow, ‘o’ in own, ‘o’ in stoke o

I think when learning this stuff it’s best to immerse yourself immediately so from here on out, after a character has been covered, I’ll start using the kana rather than the romanization.

Getting right into things, let’s practice!

Read the following:

1. あい

2. いい

3. うえ

4. あおい

5. おおい

6. あう

7. ええ

…the answers!

1. あい – ‘ai’ – you’re probably familiar with this word.  Usually when you hear it it’s, ‘love’ or ‘affection,’ though it’s also a homonym for the color indigo.  It can also be a name – i.e. Enma あい

Enma あい

2. いい – ‘ii’ – translates to ‘good’, as in ‘kimochi いい‘ (feels good) or ‘いい tenki’ (good weather).  Or if you see Kan’u you might tell her, ‘いい pantsu’ (nice pantsu)

いい pantsu

3. うえ – ‘ue’ – means ‘above’, like ‘tsukue no うえ ni aru hon’ (the book on top of the table) or ‘うえ no hou onegai shimasu’ (i’ll take the upper one please).  Or, in Shakugan no Shana-tan, 「いいkagen, あtama no うえ de meronpan taberu no wo yamete kure yo!」 (will you behave yourself and stop eating melonpan on my head?)

You may also hear うえ as a suffix when people address someone they respect like ‘hahaうえ‘ (mother).  Love Hina fans are probably familiar with Motoko’s sister, Tsuruko, who Motoko addresses respectfully as “あneうえ“.

motoko's あneうえ

motoko's あneうえ

The way I like to think about this is that to praise someone, you consider yourself a lowly being, with a lower social standing. This makes the target of your praise someone who is *above* you, with *higher* social standing, hence adding うえ sort of literally translates to ‘who is above me’. Anime fans are probably familiar with the use of ‘sama’, and yes, the usage is similar – showing respect to the person you address. I believe うえ is old fashioned though, and no longer in common use. I also usually only see it with kinship terms (i.e. haha, chichi, ane (mother, father, sister)), not appended to names, though because I so rarely see it, I’m not sure if it’s technically wrong to do so.

Here’s a close up of the upper right panel above:

Not quite readable (sorry ’bout that ^^;) but the speech bubble on the right is 「あ 姉 いや こ これは …」 The little characters to the right of the kanji are called furigana, the reading of the kanji usually in hiragana.  We’ll go into that a bit later, but in this case the reading is あねうえ (aneue).  So the whole blurb would be “a- aneue iya ko- kore wa…” (si- sis! err th- this is…)

4. あおい – ‘aoi’ - ‘blue’ as in ‘あおい sora’ (blue sky… also the name of a famous… *ahem* well I’ll you research that yourself if necessary *nsfw, don’t research this in public! the link is to wikipedia so I suppose it is relatively sfw though* ^^;;).

sora あおい

sora あおい

5. おおい – ‘ooi’ – an adjective meaning ‘many’, as in ‘rozario to banpaia no panchira wa おおい desu ne’ (there are a lot of panchira in rosario and vampire, aren’t there?).

panchira ga おおい

panchira ga おおい

6. あう – ‘au’ – the verb ‘to meet’ as in, ‘kanojo to あう‘ (he’s meeting with his girlfriend).  It can also be attached the end of verbs to mean “to each other” or “together”.  For example…

“あい shiあう futari ga to-dai tte toko ni haいru to ne, ‘shiあwase ni narerundatte” Here あい is love as in 1. followed by shiあう (to do to each other).  As such this becomes ‘to love each other’ although in this case when translating, it’s more natural to say something like ‘lovers’ rather than ‘two people that love each other’.  If you’re not already familiar with Love Hina, this is the opening passage, “Did you know that if two lovers both go to Todai they’ll live happily ever after?”

7. ええ – ‘ee’ – can mean a lot of things depending on what dialect, how you pronounce it, etc.  For example, in the kansai dialect it’s the word they use for いい.  In normal speech it can be used in a complaining tone ‘ええええ?’ (whaaaat?/do i have to?), or a questioning sort of phrase, ‘ええ?’ (wha?)… or more of a flat agreement ‘ikun desu ka?’ ‘ええ’ (are you going? yeah)

“fukubikiken desu ka?” “ええ、kore kuraいno” (A lottery ticket? Yeah, about this big…”)

“KORAaaaaaa!” “Wa E?!” (“HEY!!!” “Wha.. wha?!”)

Additional Resource:

A quick search for “learn hiragana” pointed me to a nice simple tutorial that includes instructions on how to write these characters.  This post covers the characters in their 3rd lesson.

Next time, か き く け こ! (ka ki ku ke ko)


18 Responses to “Learn to read! Japanese Reading Lesson 001: あいうえお”

  1. Panther said

    Wee. Lessons! Since I never bother to even start learning maybe this will be a start.

  2. Blowfish said

    A very nice post! Thanks for the work you have put into this

  3. gordon said


  4. meronpan said

    @panther if there’s ever anything specific you’d want covered, let me know. otherwise i hope to provide a solid basis to get people started

    @blowfish i wish i had scans of my manga so it’d be easier/nicer looking to get sample material…if so i woulda had this post up in no time at all! one of the downsides of actually purchasing everything i read ^^;

    @gordon あおいちゃんの? それに、目ってdannyさんの使い方だよね? なら、はい! 書いた通り!

  5. phossil said

    thanks for posting such an important stuff.

    Im learning myself japanese and I didnt know the examples in this post (… Well Im still a beginner)..

  6. meronpan said

    @phossil my pleasure. I do go into some kind of obscure detail for a beginning lesson, so I wouldn’t expect people to be familiar with everything. The important this is learning to recognize the characters!

  7. Persocom said

    Awesome post, everything that has to do with learning Japanese helps for me, I procrastinate too much and when people blog about it, I feel better because it’s kind of being thrown in my way and I need to learn it, instead of “oh I’ll get around to it later”. Love the pictures you included as well! Two thumbs up! :D

  8. meronpan said

    @persocom Glad you got something out of it, and hopefully I can churn out the follow up lessons somewhat regularly ^^;

  9. sonic_ver2 said

    Hmm… a very nice way to learn Japanese writing, starting from basic. Fortunately for me, Indonesian people pronounce a-i-u-o-e just like Japanese people pronounce them, so i think i won’t have any problem with pronounciation.

    Anyway, Sora Aoi it’s a one nice example here. (i’ve watched some of her action :P) XD

  10. meronpan said

    @sonic_ver2 that’s definitely a plus. I think it’s pretty similar in Spanish. I sort of have a pet peeve for people who don’t work on their pronunciation, so I try to make sure it’s explained properly. (not that I have anything against people who simply don’t know better – it’s the people who have studied japanese for years and years (formally!) and for some reason still have horrrrrible pronunciation)

    I figure there’s already a buncha learning material out there for beginning japanese, so my approach is to spice it up for the otaku crowd ^_^

  11. Philthylizard said

    Marvelous I was searchinhg for something Likes This it could be a start to learning

  12. meronpan said

    @philthylizard slowly but surely churning out the lessons, lemme know if you have any feedback~

  13. Good lesson and with lots of post which every otakus is familiar with ^.^

  14. Nikou said

    Hi, Nice beginner lessons.

    Japanese is so hard for me. I’ve lived in Japan for 2 years but failed to speak fluently. Now, I’m in China, I’m having an easier time with Mandarin. I wrote a blog post about the difficulties I had learning Japanese over Chinese. TheShanghaiExpat. Please feel free to visit and let me know if you are interested with link exchange.


    • meronpan said

      2 years is a long time, but without formal lessons, it can be a real challenge. though it’s true lots of the material in textbooks isn’t a good representation of real life conversation (err, in regards to your post on your blog ^^;), it does provide a foundation/framework in which you can identify and familiarize yourself with parts of speech and grammar concepts. definitely agree that the multiple readings of kanji make reading harder in japanese though.

      i’d usually be happy to add you to my blogroll but unfortunately i’m not sure the content of our sites really matches… my posts are mainly geared towards people with interests in akiba-kei, japanese language, and japanese culture (as it relates to akiba-kei otaku ^^;)… if you’re still really interested… i guess we can work something out? ^^;

  15. […] here we go!  Lesson 4 is here or start from the beginning if you’re […]

  16. […] it wasn’t that dramatic ^^;).  Today we will cover the negative present tense!  Click here for lesson 1 or here for the previous lesson (6).  Ready?  Rettsu GO! […]

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