Hiragana vs Kanji for Beginner Vocabulary

Wasn’t sure what to search specifically for in the community because I’m sure this has been asked before. Sorry for asking what seems like a common question.

I’m confused about one thing (well honestly many things), but is the general consensus to learn the Kanji or Hiragana versions of words as a beginner?

For example:
Should I learn as a beginner
ねこ or 猫?
わたし or 私?
あお or 青?

How is this determined?

Is there an app or something that shows if the word is more commonly written in hiragana or kanji so I can focus on what really matters?

I spent a bit of time learning the colors these past few days, but in the example sentences it showed the kanji for blue so now it feels I wasted time learning the Hiragana /katakana versions. :cold_sweat:


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Yes. All of that.

The point is, for every vocabulary item, you’re learning two things: that the sound ねこ means “cat”, and that the kanji 猫 represents the sound ねこ. And also means “cat”. You can’t learn the kanji without also learning the readings. The effort you put into learning that ねこ means “cat” isn’t wasted when you discover people using the kanji 猫, because " ねこ means “cat” " is implied by the kanji 猫.


Seconding @Belthazar 's reply. It’s not either-or. You should learn both.

But also… it’s okay imo to mainly focus on hiragana versions of words as an absolute beginner and wait a bit until you really dive into kanji. Especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed by kanji right now.

Don’t worry, it’s not a waste of time. You’ll need to know the kana version anyway if you want to speak Japanese and understand when listening. And you’ll come across those words written both in kana and kanji.

If you use Jisho (a popular dictionary website), it’ll tell you if a word is usually in hiragana. For example, the word たくさん (meaning “a lot”):


As you can see, even though it can be written as 沢山, you really only need to know たくさん as a beginner.


I’m trying to "read"ドラえもん volume 1 and they have what is seemingly a lot of Kana words. How is this determined?

Maybe is just that they are words like nice, that’s, it’s etc, but from looking at it, it is a lot of Hiragana it seems. My vocabulary is very tiny so I have zero idea what I’m reading or how it comes together.

It seems though overall, based on what you’re saying, that the Kanji is a must and that most people just use the Kanji for these words like the colors.

Thanks, just trying to understand how it all works.

I think it’s OK to remember Kana form first. (Maybe see Kanji form a little too, but not trying to remember.)

Then, get on reading materials with Furigana. Or listen with text alongside, perhaps not without Furigana.

There are several words natives are expected not to know Kanji form as a child, therefore materials are made accordingly, but second language learners aren’t really a child…

Learning more common words may be beneficial to learn Kana, or low-Kanji, forms first.

One thing that confused me too was that 青 is blue (noun), but also green (noun) according to Jisho

Further down it says it’s also 青色

Since いろ means color is that translated as “blue color” vs just “blue”?

Thanks! It helps a lot that that resources says kana is more common.

My Japanese professor once described 青 as “the color of the mountain”–so, somewhere between blue and green. The topic came about because he called my backpack, which I would’ve called green in English, 青い :laughing: (Personally I’ve seen it used for things I would definitely consider blue, but also some things I would maybe call green or blue-green.)

Doraemon is for kids. Kids are taught the words before they’re taught the kanji, so the writing will use a lot less kanji than usual. Books intended for slightly older audiences use more kanji, but include furigana so you know the reading, while books intended for adults use the most kanji, but almost no furigana unless the reading is unusual, obscure, or some manner of pun or other double meaning is being made.

Well, that one’s more down to linguistic colour theory than anything to do with “gee, this kanji is weird”. Languages only add colour words gradually over time, and the idea of “green” as a separate concept to “blue” is a comparatively recent innovation for Japanese, and using 緑 to represent that colour is also fairly new (the word previously meant only “greenery”, i.e. vegetation, the leaves on trees, et cetera).

It’s basically “blue” as a noun rather than an adjective. 青い = adjective, 青色 = noun. 青 can also be used as a noun.


Here’s my recommendation for you as an absolute beginner; learn the kana versions first. Learn some basic words and grammar with just kana and don’t worry about the kanji for now. Beginner materials will all have furigana so even if there are unfamiliar kanji, you’ll be able to read the word. Then, as you learn more kanji, you will already know the pronunciation of the word from knowing the kana reading, and you’ll have an easier time remembering the kanji because of that. If you already know ねこ means cat and you learn that 猫 is pronounced ねこ, you’ll know that 猫 means cat. As you read more advanced texts you will come to realize which words are commonly written in kana; like Belthazar said, Doraemon is for kids and works written for kids tend to have fewer kanji.

If you saw 青 without ever having learned あお, you’d have no clue how to pronounce 青, but now when you see, for example, 青い, now you know that it is pronounced あおい since you learned あお. あお isn’t really the “kana version” of 青, but rather just how 青 is pronounced. So don’t worry, you didn’t waste any time!


This might help explain the history/why of it.


Also, as a general piece of advice do not expect or try to force Japanese (each word) to have a 1:1 correspondence to a word/concept/meaning in English. Even when A and B have the same meaning in both, it does not always mean that A+B will have the same meaning or convey the exact same concept.

Jisho’s “usually written using kana alone” is better than nothing most of the time, but it’s still a bit wonky here and there.

Jpdb.io provides percentages for each way a thing can be written, allowing you to see the differences between kanji vs kana, hiragana vs katakana, different kanji for different nuances, and okurigana vs a lack thereof.

Just worth keeping in mind that jpdb uses fictional media for its source of language.


Also, sometimes whether a particular word is written in kanji vs. kana can depend on context. Formal vs. informal as one example. Topic being discussed is historical vs. contemporary. Level of education. I have been told that age can also have an impact, there are some words that traditionally were always written in Kanji that the younger generations now traditionally write in kana. This is all from what I have been told by Japanese people around me when I was wondering the same thing as you so I asked a few people.