The Biggest Spelling Mistakes in Japanese

Nobody’s perfect. Everybody misspells a word, makes typos, or some other mistake when writing

I like to think that I have a decent grasp on the English language but, as any longtime Tofugu reader knows that despite my best efforts, I still make a ton of typos, weird grammatical errors, and even leave some sentences unfinishe

These spelling mistakes might make you a bit frustrated.

If it’s so easy to mess up in your native language, it should come as no surprise that misspellings in Japanese are common, especially for people just learning Japanese.

Characters That Look Similar

In English, it’s generally pretty easy to tell one letter apart from another. Unless somebody has awful handwriting, each letter is pretty distinct from another.

Not always the case in Japanese. There are a lot of characters that look alike in each of the forms of Japanese writing.

Hiragana

Hiragana is how pretty much everybody starts learning Japanese and at first glance, there’s a little to get confused about. Initially characters like and , or , , and can throw you for a loop.

Katakana

After you’ve conquered hiragana and move onto its angular brother, katakana, things get a little trickier. It seems like everybody has trouble with the , , , and .

Kanji

Everybody whines and complains about kanji, and part of that comes from the abundance of kanji that look like each other. With thousands and thousands of kanji, it’s not surprising that a few resemble each other. Kanji like and , or and  might throw a wrench into things.

With time and experience though, you learn to recognize the differences between all of these characters. There are a lot of hints that’ll help you along the way (strokes, context, mnemonics), and in no time, you’ll be able to see the differences.

Short Sounds and Long Sounds

I can think of a few times in English when a short and a long vowel sound makes a difference in meaning, but the differences aren’t usually that pronounced. They might just indicate past and present tense, like with “fed” and “feed.”

Illustration by Kristian Bjornard

But in Japanese, long sounds and short sounds make a huge difference, and it doesn’t help that a lot of romanized Japanese just sort of ignores these differences.

When somebody talks about the capital of Japan, they write “Tokyo”; when they say good morning, they write “ohayo.” In both cases, the romanization ignores the long sounds and can trip you up when you’re writing in actual Japanese.

We’ve harped on the downsides of romaji before, but it’s worth emphasizing it again because it could mess up your writing!

Big versus Small

The small plays a unique role in Japanese. A little (also called a sokuon 促音) creates “double consonants” which, like short and long vowels, can entirely change the meaning.

(You can learn how to pronounce the small here)

It’s something that might be confusing or frustrating once you start learning Japanese but, like other writing mistakes, you learn to recognize it pretty quickly. Not only do you keep an eye out for its size, but you also start to learn the words that use the small .


Have you run into one of these problems when writing Japanese? What trips you up the most? Let me know in the comments!

  • Man Who Wears A Box

    this article is reminding me of my Japanese class :). well, Japanese can be frustrating for beginner, especially if you aren’t familiar with Japanese characters or other non-alphabetic characters.

  • Hamyo

    yeah, that’s a fact. japanese is not that easy, like koichi said “you can’t just sit back, and watch anime with english subtitle or just drink some syrup then you be able to use japanese language” :D

  • lychalis

    indeed. no magic tonic or digital chip. but I am in love with the simplicity of japanese. It’s making thing a lot easier for me :D

  • デニス エイドリアン

    I remember having some trouble with “ツ” and “シ”, like “ソ” and “ン” as well, specially when reading handwriting japanese. I dare to say, 70% of japanese natives don’t make any effort at all (or just don’t care) when marking the difference between them. But, oh well, eventually you get used to it anyway.

  • Zyoudan

    The way I remember “ツ” and “シ” is that the small lines in “ツ” point to the top, and those begin with T. The small lines in “シ” point to the side, and those begin with S.

  • http://twitter.com/rapchee rapchee

    i always forget how to spell/type tokyo XI stupid romanji. how was it again?

  • Hamyo

    simplicity? yeah may be it’s your passion that helping you to make it simple, hmmm… but i’m really sure to learn japanese just from watching anime is not working after all.

  • Tora.Silver

    Oh man, I thought I was the only one who left sentences u

  • Jon

    On Lang-8, I accidentally wrote 愛すクレーム instead of アイスクリーム. Not only did I use an unnecessary (and wrong) kanji in the アイス part, I also used レinstead of リ! I probably weirded some people out with that ‘complaint that loves’, or at least made them chuckle.

    I remember ツシソン by remembering tsu and so as more vertical (ツソ), and shi and n as more horizontal/less vertical (シン). It works well enough for me, but it’s much easier if I can have one of the opposites to maintain the distinction between ‘vertical’ and ‘less vertical’.

  • 肉人

    What about the Japanese? What are their most common spelling mistakes? I often find a lot of typos while reading the newspaper in my native language, in English as well, but not in Japanese (or is my Japanese still too bad for me to see them?) :D

  • solidsyco

    はじめまして、はしさん日本語を勉強してます。日本が大好きです。
    私は英語人です。

    どもうよろしくおねがいします。

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    とうきょう

    It’s all drawn out, like it’s being dramatic, or something.

    TOOOOKYOOOO!

  • Richard

    Katakana spelling can be quite difficult to remember when I’m typing. Like do you need a “っ” or not? Is there a “ー”? It’s more difficult to remember when the spelling is unexpected. It took me a while to learn that “news” isn’t “ニューズ” – in fact, it’s “ニュース”. But for some reason “newsletter” is “ニューズレター”. Another spelling I remember haviing problems with is “Sweden”, which is “スウェーデン”. I expected “autumn” in katakana to be “オートム” but it’s “オータム”. There are loads of things like this that I have to check when I’m writing.

    So anyway, this is not just a problem when you start learning Japanese. Sometimes it seems easier to type kanji words than katakana words.

  • Kaja117

    シは確かにツに似てるけど、字形を見えば覚えることが簡単になるよ。こういう一番簡単な物は「シ」ってほうが平。

  • Kaja117

    と思ってる!

  • Mandarina

    Today I wrote my very first postcard in Japanese, by hand, and I messed up わ and ゆ XD But when typing I have troubles with long vowels, I always have to check up in the dictionary…

  • Tora.Silver

    In trying to read this image, I confused けっしょう with けっしょ, so I read

    わ~、ゆきのけっしょうだ!
    Wow, it’s a snowflake!

    With:
    わ~、ゆきのけっしょだ!
    Wow, it’s writing in blood on the snow!
    Long vowels are important.

  • Tora.Silver

    In trying to read this image, I confused けっしょう with けっしょ, so I read

    わ~、ゆきのけっしょうだ!

    Wow, it’s a snowflake!

    With:

    わ~、ゆきのけっしょだ!

    Wow, it’s writing in blood on the snow!

    Long vowels are important.
    I’m not sure why when I edited it, my other post showed up as Guest…

  • ZXNova

    It wouldn’t be 英語人, Cause that sounds like “English Language Person” to me, if that was what you trying to say. You would omit the 語 and just say 英人, If you’re calling yourself a British Person.

  • http://profiles.google.com/shahiirosan shahiir mizune

    I’m usually confused between hou and ban…..

  • http://profiles.google.com/shahiirosan shahiir mizune

    The strokes for tsu and shi, n and so, katakana are different from each other. I kinda learned this from a nintendo ds game/software. Tsu and so starts of with the dots, than you slash the tail from top to bottom. However shi and n starts with the dots then slash the tails from bottom to top.

  • Richard

    I think writing mistakes when typing are more likely to be 変換(へんかん)ミス where someone has chosen the wrong kanji from the list that pops up when you press the spacebar. These are kind of like spelling mistakes.

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    > I can think of a few times in English when a short
    > and a long vowel sound makes a difference in meaning,
    > but the differences aren’t usually that pronounced.
    > They might just indicate past and present tense,
    > like with “fed” and “feed.”

    Wait, what?

    No, this is wrong.

    If you actually study English, you will find that we have hundreds of thousands of minimal pairs of completely unrelated words distinguished only by (our twisted, bizarre version of) vowel length.

    Just a small handful off the top of my head:
    add/aid, bad/bade, brad/braid, fad/fade, clad/clade, lad/laid/layed, mad/made/maid, pad/paid, rad/raid
    red/read/reed/read, head/heed, bed/bead, said/seed, dead/deed, wed/weed
    God/goad/good, cod/code/cawed/could, mod/mode/mood, nod/node/newd, odd/owed, rod/rode/rowed/rued, laud/lode/load/lowed/loud/lewd, quad/quod, sod/sewed, shod/shooed/shewed/showed, wad/wode/wood
    fill/file, mill/mile, bill/bile, till/tile, dill/dial, gill/guile, pill/pile, rill/rile, will/while, still/style,
    fell/feel, mell/meal, dell/deal, ell/eel, pell/peel, knell/kneel, sell/seal, shell/she’ll, tell/teal, spell/spiel, well/weal/we’ll, yell/ye’ll

  • http://project-kathryn.blogspot.com/ kathryn

    The tsu bugs me. Not when I’m writing but when I’m reading. Some times the difference btw the small one and the big one isn’t enough for me to tell which one they mean.

  • http://twitter.com/paretsong Aya

    hashi if you figure out what that date means i will draw you an alpaca (that looks like richard gere)

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Richard Gere’s birthday, duh

    EZ PZ

  • http://twitter.com/paretsong Aya

    DAGNABBIT

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Wait, God isn’t the past tense of good? No wonder that priest got upset when I told him I was God.

  • lychalis

    nah, watching anime won’t make you able to speak japanese, but it helps because of being able to see how it’s used, even if it’s mostly casual (I’m watching Utena at the moment, and it’s a mix) – but I have managed to learn new words from some parts. For example, yami. (from the absolute destiny apocalypse song if you know the series)

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Hahaha you guys!

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.alexander.980 Joel Alexander

    Intriguing, didn’t think of that.

    Another one I was taught is hiragana し is drawn top to bottom, then curving back up again – katakana シ is exactly the same. Ditto for つ – it’s drawn left to right, and back to the left, and so is ツ. You can make similar comparisons for そ/ソ and ん/ン, though in those cases, you just look at the start of そ and the end of ん.

  • Bob

    But… /æd/ | /eɪd/ . /fɛl/ | /fiːl/ . In japanese and many other languages these differences are large enough to warrant using different letters altogether. Not in english.

  • Jo Somebody

    Sometimes when the print is really small, my bad eyes can’t differentiate between a dakuten and a handakuten. Isn’t life cruel?!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JB63NWSWHEZICRJ7JXNG43LT4I Mobile

    If you find yourself in an advisory position in Japan, it would be a good idea to learn how to pronounce “advisor” correctly when introducing yourself as such… or you could end up a real asshole.

    顧問 vs 肛門

    Quite a big difference, although I bet some advisors can be real a-holes.

  • http://twitter.com/rapchee rapchee

    thanks!

  • DefJuk

    Tofugu goes all out on the Richard Gere love!
    I didn’t read the top picture at all the first time around, this just put a major smile on my face.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    still waiting on gere alpaca

  • http://twitter.com/paretsong Aya

    bam

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    YES

  • rennn

    It took me forever to remember 右 and 左. You’d think it would be a good idea to NOT write opposite words with remarkably similar kanji…