Teaching little children how to read Japanese

Japanese orthography is complicated.

There is Hiragana that looks like this: ひらがな(this reads Hiragana in Hiragana)

Katakana that looks like this: カタカナ (this reads Katakana in Katakana)

And Kanji that looks like this: 漢字(this reads Kanji in Kanji)

The three kinds of scripts have different functions and roles, and they are usually used within the same sentence. And any Japanese person who went to school would, in general, do this with without thinking.

The most basic script is hiragana. Hiragana is a phonetic lettering system and you can literally write out any Japanese words in hiragana. Children will first be introduced to hiragana. Then katakana, which is also a phonetic lettering system but only used to express foreign words (like the above sentence Hawaii is written in Katakana, not hiragana).

As children enter school, they will learn Kanji, which means Chinese character, and by the time they graduate from high school, they are supposed to know about 2000 Kanji.

So when my first daughter was born, I knew the literacy part was going to be challenging. Probably if my husband was Japanese or literate in Japanese, it would have been easier, but in my case, I am the only person in the family who knows Japanese.

I decided to go realistic with this mission. I knew how hard it is to acquire the Kanji skills equivalent to her Japanese peers, and that was not a realistic goal. But I wanted her to at least master hiragana before going to school, and from there on, build her repertoires in katakana and kanji slow and steady. When she is old enough and decide to pick up Japanese seriously, she can do it herself, but you need to have some basis to even do that. At the end of the day, that basis was all that’s necessary, in my opinion.

As a matter of fact, by the time my daughter was 3 years old, she was able to read hiragana. How did we do that!? Here I am going to share my secrets! I believe it is transferable to other languages too.

1 . Start Early

It is all about familiarity. Yes, the Japanese orthography is complicated but hey, any Japanese (well, 99% literacy rate) can read and write. The Japanese orthography often scares people off because it’s so foreign and ‘strange.’ Therefore, the most important thing is to get her used to it.

I started reading her Japanese children’s (babies’) books, showing her the letters and pictures when she was about 3 months old.

4 months old.
9 months old

Reading to her everyday, even just 10-20 minutes a day was enough to have the visual shape of the hiragana letters instil in her brain (Children books only use Hiragana, and some Katakana in general). We should never underestimate the power of accumulation, especially for young babies.

2 . Integrate learning and playing

When my mother visited Vancouver from Japan, she brought a set of Karuta. Karuta is a traditional Japanese card game (introduced by Portuguese mid 16th century) that promotes language learning and memory skills.

Among many types of Karuta, the most basic one for little children to play usually have popular anime characters. There are two kinds of cards, the ones that are read by the reader role person, and the other that are laid on the floor to be matched with what was read and picked up (or rather, slammed) by the rest of the players.

The Karuta that my mom brought had my daughter’s favourite character (anpanman). She was immediately hooked and learned how to read all the hiragana literally over night.

2 years and 11 months old. Playing karuta with her grandma

My mother who is a Japanese teacher and have taught many non-Japanese business people and academics working in Japan was so surprised how quickly she learned. It usually takes a long time for her students to even tell the differences between the characters, such as あ and お、or へandく.

But my daughter was able to tell the difference right away. She has been immersed in the Japanese literature since she was a baby. Even though I never explicitly taught her how to read, it was instilled in her.

Laying the cards to get ready for the game


Because she loved playing karuta so much, she got herself into learning the letters very naturally. We didn’t have to force anything on her. Integrating learning with playing is the key, especially for young children.

Making words with hiragana blocks

3 . Utilize gadgets

There are many useful literacy aiding gadgets out there. Don’t hesitate to use them. For example, this audio hiragana learning keyboard book was a gift from my friend which turned out to be so wonderful.


You press the hiragana key and the corresponding sound will come out from the book.

Once your child learned how to read (input), then she/he needs to output what she/he learned. Input and output should always come together.

But how? Learning how to write takes time and cannot catch up with the speed of learning how to read. This is where this audio book comes in handy. She can output what she wants to say by pressing the button. There is a feeling of accomplishment as she does it because she can actually hear what she pressed. This audio book really accelerated her learning and we owe a lot to this book and our friend who gave her this book.


4 . Don’t take a long break…any longer than a week

Kids are quick learners. They constantly surprise us how quickly they can pick up new words, new skills. But they are also quick forgetters.

I once made a mistake of getting too relaxed, took some time off from her Japanese practice. After some weeks, it was quite shocking to see how quickly her Japanese reading skills deteriorated.

So even if it’s only for 5 minutes, or even 2 minutes, it is important to practice everyday. To be honest, it is still not easy a task for us, and there are days I just can’t get around it. But I am doing my best.


Luckily, her favourite anime show Anpanman (Redbean Man) has many workbooks for little children. When she is not in the mood of practicing Japanese, I will take these workbooks out and have her play and learn at the same time.

Having fun with the Anpanman workbook

Also, I must add that having our Japanese babysitter, and practicing Japanese with her once a week has helped us a lot.

Practicing with her babysitter/tutor

If it is possible to hire a babysitter who speaks your language, please go for it. There is no need to worry whether or not your child will learn the dominant language. She/he will learn the dominant language no matter what. So if that is the reason that is holding you back from having a babysitter that speaks the minority language, please let that worry go. I will discuss this issue regarding the relationship between minority language learning and dominant language learning in my next blog post.

So here you are my strategies for early childhood literacy education in the minority language. Please share your strategies and ideas. I would love to hear from you!


This week, I am joining the link party at the Multicultural Kids Blog on “Bilingual kids, reading and writing” and the Practical Mom on “Practical Monday.” Please visit their great websites for more inspirations!

Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop


The Muse of Music


Together with nurturing multilingual learning, I believe that promoting musical ability in children builds their intelligence and a broad-minded character. The goal is not to produce future professional musicians (although that will be great as well), but to instil abilities and habits that are crucial for success in a globalized world.

Although there are many benefits found in music, I will focus here on three that transfer in useful ways to other activities.

1 Our children learn self-discipline, focus, and memory skills that are transferable to other activities (i.e., learning a language, studying for exams, finishing projects that they start, etc.)

Self-descipline: To learn how to play an instrument to the level that you can join community orchestras or a band is not attainable without commitment. It requires practicing every day with purpose. Through making music, our children learn self discipline–opening their instrument case, practicing, then cleaning and replacing their instrument in the case. Everyday.

Focus: Playing music means being present in the moment. It requires focusing on each and every body movement and its relationship to the sound you make. It requires athletic focus and intellectual focus at the same time, a habit with wide application which children acquire ever more strongly the more they practice.

Memory: Whether you choose the common method of reading musical notation right away or the Suzuki method that starts with listening and playing music, eventually children learn to play from memory. They will learn to memorize by using multiple cues–visual memory, ear memory, and muscle memory. Whether they learn to play a whole song or a whole concerto from memory, learning music involves the mind and body and all the senses working together, creating memory skills that go beyond the intellectual.

Each of these crucial skills (self-discipline, focus and memory) are powerful when applied to other activities, and become foundational for success in any field they choose to pursue.

2. Our children learn how to overcome challenges

Even more than the skills outlined above, our children acquire the quality of perseverance. There will be musical phrases that they can’t play right away. Acquiring new abilities often involves plateaus with sudden leaps. Today, they couldn’t play it right. Tomorrow and the day after they might continue to struggle. But seemingly out of nowhere after a week or two or ten, they will suddenly get it right. Only with perseverance and by not giving up will they learn to play better. It seems to be a simple thing to learn to work hard and not give up, but it is a lesson that is hard to instil when our daily lives are so busy. Musical practice provides a structure for teaching and learning this essential life lesson, a way to augment our daily parenting and help build a perseverance that lasts a lifetime.

3. Our children experience the world through beautiful melodies and rhythms, and share in the timeless power of music to transcend time and space

Our daily lives are surrounded by noise…an increasingly unpleasant cacophony of blaring voices hawking and selling wares. Although classical music pieces are not alone in being beautiful, they have proven over the centuries to encapsulate some of the many timeless qualities of music. It is a gift to our children for them to experience first hand the melodies and rhythms of beautiful music.

When our children learn classical music, they learn that even though most of the composers of the music they learn are dead, their songs are still played and listened to all over the world. The life of a great piece of music is so much longer than a person’s life, and it transcends geographical boundaries. In today’s society, where shiny toys and easy entertainment surround them, our children can become passive and pampered consumers, giving them the illusion that a fleeting desire for things is the meaning of life. As they themselves learn to make music, and to turn raw sounds into music, they create a connection both cognitively and through their feelings with the effects that music has had on human beings throughout time. The fulfilment of playing music and feeling its timelessness offers a profound alternative to the fleeting emptiness of material consumption. Through experiencing the timeless quality of music, they come to understand their particular place as a singular voice able to partake in a beauty which transcends time and space.

How playing music, like speaking multiple languages, can help your child find a belonging no matter where they go around the world

When I was four years old, our family moved to Australia (Brisbane) from Tokyo. My sister was 11, and my brother was 9. Australia at that time was not very open to “Orientals.” Anti-Asian racism was still ubiquitous in our everyday life, and not speaking English well didn’t help us fit in, either. But music did. When people heard us play music (my sister on the piano; my brother on the cello, and me on the violin), everything changed. People could hear and feel our voices through the music we played even when they could not understand the words we spoke. We felt a sense of belonging. Soon, we were able to learn to speak and understand English, but being accepted as part of a musical community in Brisbane accelerated our learning of the language and culture.

When I later went back to Japan during elementary school, it was very hard to fit back into Japanese culture. I couldn’t speak or write Japanese very well, and I stood out as strangely mute and deaf even though I looked like everyone else. But playing violin again helped me overcome linguistic and cultural obstacles.

Even when I was older, after college in Japan, music helped me find belonging when I moved to new places. I went to Toronto to pursue my Master’s degree. Toronto was cold (in many ways, beyond the weather), and I knew nobody. Everybody seemed depressed in the winter. I was too. I joined the university orchestra, which saved me from becoming detached from the world. I was making beautiful music together with people I had never met before. This immediate connection from playing music together was so precious and helped sustain me through those difficult first few months in a new place.

Even if there isn’t a local symphony orchestra that plays classical music, there is a confidence in knowing that by pulling out your violin, or whichever instrument, and begin playing, that people can hear your voice through the melodies you play. Even if you don’t know anybody in your new location or don’t know the local language yet, music is a universal language that helps you immediately connect to people in a new place. Because of music, I am comfortable in my own skin wherever I go. And this feeling of self assurance regardless of time and place is what children given the gift of music carry with them wherever they go.

Music transcends racial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic barriers. Music is a universal language that developed as our ancestors’ brains evolved, perhaps even before spoken language. When our children find their own musical voices through playing an instrument, they learn to converse in the universal language of the world.

Multicultural Fun Craft: The Doll Festival

Girls’ Day is coming! A day for all girls. Never heard of it?

It actually exists. In fact it’s been around for over 1200 years in Japan.

This day is also known as “the Doll Festival (hina matsuri)” because of the traditional Japanese dolls display. The stars of the display are the Emperor and the Empress accompanied by the imperial musicians, court ladies and ministers.

So any typical household with girls in Japan would display either the whole set of the doll display (which could be up to 7 tiers of platforms) or just the Emperor and the Empress around this time of the year as they celebrate the arrival of Spring, wishing health and happiness for their daughters.

You can read about the details about the day (e.g., how to celebrate, the full display of the dolls, etc.) here.

Today, I would like to share with you a fun craft idea as the day reaches by. We have been so lucky to have Milli, our daughters’ Japanese babysitter/tutor to celebrate this day with fun age appropriate crafts over the past 4 years. This year, because my older daughter has turned 4, Milli facilitated a craft workshop that is a little more elaborate than just colouring and cutting out paper dolls.

Made of Recycled Materials: Bunny Doll Display for Girls’ Day


Air-dry clay, 2 paper cups, 2 toilet paper rolls, Gold papers, Some colourful cloth scraps, 1 sheet of red paper, A chocolate box lid, pink, green, black paper scraps (or any colour of your choice)

1. Make two bunny heads out of air-dry clay (or really any kind of animal you like), let it dry.

2. Draw face parts, and decorate with a hat and tiara.head.JPG








3. Make a screen out of a gold paper. Fold it like an accordion. It’s better if the paper is a little thick.

4. Wrap the box lid with a sheet of red paper. IMG_8155.JPG








5. Cut the toilet rolls and make them into peach blossom trees.

6. Stick tiny pieces of green and pink papers onto the branches. IMG_8159.JPG

7. Decorate paper cups with cloth scraps.

Traditionally red and blue but any colour will do!

8. Make a little fan for the girl bunny (fold a small piece of paper like an accordion), and a shaku ( a stick for the boy), and glue them on to the decorated paper cup.

9. Place the head on the paper cup (turned upside down).

10. Place the bunnies in front of the golden screen and between the peach blossom trees


And here you are! The cutest hinamatsuri display to celebrate your girls!

Special thank you to Milli for teaching my girls about hinamatsuri (girls day)

Do you have a day to celebrate girls in your culture? Please go ahead and spread Girls’ Day for girls all around the world. It’s March 3rd!

Would love your feedback and questions.

Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop


3 Reasons on why I didn’t give up on my kids’ mother tongue

Today, in honour of UNESCO’s Mother Langauge Day (Feb.21st), I would like to present the 3 most fundamental reasons why I decided to stick with my mother tongue (i.e., Japanese) in raising my children.

1. Because I want to feel comfortable around my children

Although I am bilingual in Japanese and English, Japanese is the language of my heart. Not being able to communicate with your own children in the language that you are most comfortable with can be tragic in the long run.

Sooner or later, my daughters will speak better English than I do. So why bother speaking in English with them? For the sake of my dignity, I believe speaking in the language that I know better than my children is important.

As my girls grow up, it is expected that there will be complicated issues that we need to deal with. And I want to be able to communicate with them in my mother tongue in those times. As there is a saying, small child small problems, big child big problems, when the big problem comes, having two languages we can utilize as a family team will be a great asset for us.

Oh and I want to be able to laugh together with my girls when I am watching Japanese comedy! So sad if I can’t do that.

2. Because fostering grandparents-grandchildren relationship is important

Like any grandparents, my parents love their grandchildren. I want my parents to fully enjoy their relationship with their grandchildren, especially when they only get to see each other once a year.Grandparents have stories and wisdoms to pass on to the younger generations. It is a shame if my children cannot learn from them just because I gave up on bilingual parenting.

Furthermore, maintaining strong ties with grandparents, and having access to family history will help my children build a solid sense of who they are. In the future, just like many Asian Canadians, my daughters may feel as if they never fully belonged to the Canadian society. On such occasions, knowing their roots will surely help my girls explore their identity.

3. Because my children will be thankful someday

When my daughters are older, they may become interested in traveling around Japan, or living and working in Japan. And knowing the language will be a great asset. If they feel the need to learn more Japanese, they can always get serious about it because they already know the basics but learning Japanese from scratch as an adult will be quite challenging.

So there you are my three most important reasons for parenting my children in my mother tongue.

What about yours? I would love to hear from you!! Please leave a comment or write me a message from the righthand sidebar!

Have a wonderful week!



*A picture from 1.5 years ago. My mother teaching my daughter how to read Japanese.