When starting on your path to learning Japanese one of the most obvious differences that stands out over English and many other languages is the use of Japanese characters instead of the letters that most of us are used to. Although it looks very difficult, with time and practice one will find that the reading and writing of Japanese characters can be a lot of fun and not overly difficult. Like any other organized system of writing there are some basic rules and core components that, once mastered, make it easy to build upon and advance your knowledge.
Japanese characters consist of three sets, Hiragana, Katakana (collectively known as Kana), and Kanji. The Kana consist of 48 characters each and Kanji number in the thousands. Before you panic about the sheer number of Kanji, the actual number in common usage is approximately 1850 and a person could get by without learning any Kanji if they are proficient in the other Japanese characters (Kana).
The two sets of Kana characters are actually quite similar with Hiragana being used for native Japanese words and Katakana being used for foreign words that have no Japanese equivalent (like foreign names, products, etc). Each Japanese syllable is represented by both a Hiragana and Katakana character and in many cases, they look quite similar but Katakana is much more angular in style.
Kanji is by far the largest set of Japanese characters but learning it is not as difficult as one might think. Many of the Kanji are derived from pictures or look somewhat like the word they represent. For example the Kanji for three is simply three lines, the Kanji for tree looks very much like a simple drawing of a tree. They are not all that easy, but it will give you confidence in your learning when you are able to get off to a good start.
If you spend some time practicing, it will not take long to get the basic Japanese characters down and from there you can build on your vocabulary by tackling a few characters per day or week. Before long you will be reading and writing at a level that you wouldn’t have thought possible only months earlier. Like any learning pursuit however, the fundamentals are key and a good program that teaches the basics is key. MegaHiragana from Rocket Japanese is an example of one that will set you off on the right path to learning the basic Japanese characters.
Practice, don’t try to do too much at once, and most of all have fun. Learning Japanese is a great adventure, Gambatte kudasai!