The Japanese Language (日本語 / にほんご / nihongo) can seem very challenging, but the basics are actually fairly easy to grasp. This page is an introduction and some practical tips on learning and getting by.
Japanese uses three "alphabets", although they are not really alphabets (two syllabary and one logographic set). Even Japanese people struggle with them to some extent, so to make life easier for learners a system called rōmaji can be used. This writes out Japanese words using English characters. For example, Japan in Japanese, written in rōmaji, would be "nihon". The next section will explain how to pronounce words written in rōmaji.
The two syllabary are called hirogana and katakana. Hirogana is used for Japanese words, while katakana is used for everything else like foreign words, sounds (onomatopoeia) and the like. Some people prefer to learn hirogana first because it is most useful for learning Japanese, and in fact many children's and learner's books are written entirely in hirogana. Others prefer to learn katakana because it allows them to read foreign words, and there are quite a few used in Japan. For example, a menu with western dishes will contain a lot of katakana, although the foreign words might not necessarily be English ones if the dish is from a non-English speaking country.
The logographic characters are called kanji and come originally from China. This has the interesting effect of allowing Japanese people to understand written Chinese to some degree, even if they don't speak a word of the language. This is possible because each character represents an idea. For example, the character for cat is 猫. An English speaker reading it would say "cat", and Japanese speaker would say "neko" and a Chinese speaker would say "mao". It represents the idea of a cat no matter which language you speak.
Basic Sounds / Pronunciation
Pronunciation of Japanese words is actually very easy, because unlike English characters almost always make the same sound with very few exceptions. There are only 46 sounds, all but one of which are a variation of the five vowel sounds. Conveniently, the vowels are the same as English: A, E, I, O and U.
As you can see on the right, every sound except for "n" is just a vowel and a consonant. The "k" row, for example, is just "k" plus the five vowel sounds. There are a few exceptions, like "tsu" and "fu", but they are not hard to learn.
In practice this means you only need to learn how to say a few sounds and you can say them all.
a / あ: Like "at", "animal", "ah-ha" etc.
i / い: Like the name of the letter "e", or the "i" in "immediate", "index", "in" etc.
u / う: Like the double-o sound in "room", "broom", "loom" etc.
e / え: Like "eh", or the "e" in "end", "estimate" etc.
o / お: Like the "o" in "on", "other", "off" etc.
Thus, you the "a" column for all the other sounds are:
ta: Like "tattle", "tamper" etc.
ka: Like "cat", "category", "captain" etc.
sa: Like "Saturday", "sapphire", "Saturn" etc.