My first time in Japan, I went with hours of studying kana, Japan’s native phonetic alphabet, under my belt.  I thought this would allow me to read signs, maps, and other important travel documents. In the end, I wasn’t able to read a single thing.

Kanji is arguably the most prominent part of the Japanese writing system. The elegant characters, originally adapted from Chinese, make up most of the Japanese you’ll see written in books and magazines, on signs, and by hand. Understanding kanji is necessary to fully appreciate the Japanese language and culture, so this guide is here to help you get started.

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