Katakana is one of the two Japanese 'syllabaries', the writing systems used to represent the sounds of Japanese syllables. (The other is hiragana.) Katakana symbols are used to spell out words phonetically, especially non-Japanese terms.
The term katakana is usually written in Japanese using katakana as カタカナ. However, it originally came from 片仮名, which means 'fragmentary kana', because most of the characters are actually fragments of more complex kanji with the same reading.
If you are just starting out with your Japanese studies, you should learn hiragana first. Once you have learnt hiragana, learning katakana is a great second step.
For more information on how to go about learning written Japanese, see our other detailed guides:
Study katakana now: use QUICK TEST to find out what you know. Hone your writing with DRAWING PRACTICE then study with free FLASHCARDS. When you are ready, take the Kanshudo katakana CHALLENGE. Once you have read this guide, you can mark it as completed using the button at the bottom of the guide.
1. Basic katakana chart
The basic katakana chart is as follows.
a ka sa ta na ha ma ya ra wa n
i ki shi chi ni hi mi   ri    
u ku su tsu nu fu mu yu ru    
e ke se te ne he me   re   dakuten
o ko so to no ho mo yo ro (w)o handakuten
2. Dakuten and handakuten
The 'dakuten' symbol ( ゛) and the 'handakuten' symbol ( ゜) are not used on their own - they are used to modify the katakana symbols they appear after.
When ゛is displayed after another katakana symbol, it indicates that the symbol should be 'voiced'. 'Voicing' is a linguistic term for a sound that makes the vocal cords vibrate - as opposed to just emanating from the mouth. In Japanese, this means that the sound of a consonant moves further down your throat. So, for example, the unvoiced sound カ (ka) becomes the voiced sound ガ (ga).
When ゜is displayed after a katakana symbol, it changes the sound to a 'p' sound, so for example, ハ (ha) becomes パ (pa).
ga za da ba pa
gi ji   bi pi
gu zu   bu pu
ge ze de be pe
go zo do bo po
3. Yōon and sokuon
The basic katakana can be modified in a couple more ways. Katakana ending in 'i' can be followed by a small ya, yu or yo (ゃ, ゅ or ょ), which elides the sounds of the two characters. For example, キ (ki) plus ヤ (ya) would become キャ (kya). This type of modification is known as 'yōon'.
キャ ギャ シャ ジャ チャ ニャ
kya gya sha ja cha nya
キュ ギュ シュ ジュ チュ ニュ
kyu gyu shu ju chu nyu
キョ ギョ ショ ジョ チョ ニョ
kyo gyo sho jo cho nyo
ヒャ ビャ ピャ ミャ リャ
hya bya pya mya rya
ヒュ ビュ ピュ ミュ リュ
hyu byu pyu myu ryu
ヒョ ビョ ピョ ミョ リョ
hyo byo pyo myo ryo
Finally, a small tsu (ッ) can be used between two katakana to double the second consonant. For example, サッカ is read as 'sakka' (author). This is known as a 'sokuon'.
4. Drawing practice
To learn the katakana, there is no substitute for lots of practice! Practice your recognition with flashcards (use the link at the top of this guide), and use this section to practice drawing. Most importantly of all, practice using katakana in context by reading Japanese sentences whenever you can.
Use our Katakana Drawing Practice, or practice any individual katakana by using one of the links below.
5. Additional symbols, rarely used katakana and more information
An additional katakana character you will encounter regularly is the lengthening symbol ー, known as . This symbol serves the same function in katakana as う does in hiragana: it lengthens the sound of the previous symbol. For more information, see っ, ッ and ー  emphasis and elongation.
Two more symbols are officially part of katakana: ヽ and ヾ. These are each used to indicate that the previous katakana symbol is repeated - the dakuten form ヾ indicates that it is voiced. For example, サヽキ would be read ササキ. For more details on repetition symbols, see 々, 〻, 〱, ゝ and ヽ  kanji and kana repetition symbols.
Additionally, a number of katakana symbols have fallen into disuse over time, and since katakana is used to represent loan words which might require sounds not present in Japanese, a number of unorthodox combinations of katakana have emerged to try to replicate those sounds more accurately. For more details on both of these areas, see extended and rare katakana.
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