Studying While Eating: Improving Your Katakana Skills through Food

Increase your appetite for learning and food simultaneously! Our Japanese language instructors want you to be aware of the many academic benefits Japanese food can serve in bettering your Japanese katakana and cultural skills.

The many ways to write in Japanese

As you may know, there are three types of characters in Japanese: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. While kanji implies meaning and often has multiple readings per character, each letter of hiragana represents a sound, with the exception of two particles sounds: は as topic maker is pronounced “wa,” and へ as a direction marker is pronounced “e.” Katakana is the same way, with each letter representing one specific sound.

How are Hiragana and Katakana used differently?

Hiragana is used for function words (such as particles) and for okurigana. For those that don’t know, okurigana are the characters that follow a kanji root. They indicate the word sound and function the word serves in a sentence. For example, in the word 大きい (ookii), きい (kii) is okurigana. These sounds are represented by hiragana largely due to the fact that there simply are no kanji associated with them.

Katakana, on the other hand, is used for four main purposes:

1) Interjections to emphasize emotion, such as ワー (waa)!

2) Onomatopoeias, such as トントン (tonton, knocking sound) and ワンワン (wanwan, dog bark sound). If you want to know more detail about Onomatopoeia, visit the Tofugu page on Japanese onomatopoeias.

3) Foreign loan words, referred to as 外来語 (がいらいご, gairaigo). This includes words such as トイレットペーパー (toiretto peepaa, toilet paper) and コンピューター (konpyuutaa, computer). These words were adapted from English and other European languages, and are not originally Japanese words.

4) Japanized English loan words, or 和製英語 (わせいえいご, waseieigo), differ from regular foreign loan words in that they sound like loan words, but their meanings and usages were created in Japan. Some of them are adapted from English, but their sounds were shortened or the words have different meaning from the original words. This includes words such as ハンバーグ (hanbaagu, hamburg steak) or ガソリンスタンド (gasorin sutando, gas station).

The last Japanese language learning article we published, “Experiencing Japan the ‘Write’ Way – Preparing for JCMU by Learning Hiragana and Katakana,” mentions some waseieigo terms: モノクロ (monokuro, monochrome), コーヒーカップ (koohii kappu, coffee cup/Mug), アイスコーヒー (aisu koohii, iced coffee/cold coffee).

As you know there are many katakana words found on the menus of western style restaurants. Most of them are waseieigo. Even if you can read katakana characters, you may not be able to understand what is meant by the word.

Katakana in Japanese food menus

I would like to introduce some katakana foods, which you may encounter at restaurants or supermarkets. Let’s use the food menus from Coco’s, a popular Japanese family restaurant chain on JCMU’s Hikone campus, as an example.

First, here are a few waseieigo items on the Coco’s lunch menu:

  • ハンバーグ (hanbaagu)
    Hanbaagu, or hamburg steak, is similar to Salisbury steak. You can enjoy it with a variety of sauces. Oftentimes, foreigners ordering hanbaagu will think that they’re ordering an American-style hamburger, so they’re often surprised when their plate arrives before them!
Coco's Hanbaagu
ハンバーグ (hanbaagu) meal set from Coco’s
  • きのこデミオムライス (kinoko demi omuraisu)
    With this dish, rice is covered with a soft scrambled-like egg and a type of brown sauce poured over it. Omuraisu is generally made by combining an omelette with rice. However, this omuraisu is different: fried rice is covered with a soft baked egg, combined with ketchup.

A must-know for students is the pizza and sides menu:

  • カリカリポテト (karikari poteto)
    Karikari means crunchy, with poteto (potato) used here to mean french fries. French fries are typically called furai poteto, or simply poteto, in Japanese. Karikari poteto remains one of the most popular dishes among JCMU students!

The curry and rice dishes menu has a few more examples:

  • ローストチキンドリア (roosuto chikin doria)
    Rice au gratin with roasted chicken, sliced pumpkin, bite-size pieces of broccoli and kidney beans.
  • フレッシュアボガドのチキンジャンバラヤ (furesshu abogado no chikin janbaraya)
    Sliced avocados, fried chicken, and sliced tomatoes over top jambalaya.
フレッシュアボガドのチキンジャンバラヤ (furesshu abogado no chikin janbaraya) from Coco’s

Hard-to-understand katakana words

Even if you can read katakana words, it can be difficult to understand the real meanings behind them. Let’s see some examples:

  • モッツレラチーズのトマトスパゲッティ (mottsurera chiizu no tomato supagetti)
    This dish’s name literally means spaghetti with mozzarella cheese.
  • イタリアンスパゲッティ (itarian supagetti)
  • ナポリタンスパゲッティ (naporitan supagetti)
    Both of these dishes are the same: sliced fried vegetables with ketchup sauce. It is referred to by different names though based on the area you find it in. Itarian supagetti is what it is called in the Kansai area of Japan. In other parts of Japan it is called naporitan supagetti. If you are interested in learning about napolitan spaghetti, read the following Japan Times article: “Spaghetti Napolitan is Japan’s Unique Take on Pasta.”
Napolitan Spaghetti.jpg
ナポリタンスパゲッティ (naporitan supagetti)

Tasty katakana sweets

Next, I would like to present two sweets commonly seen at supermarkets or Cafés:

  • モンブラン (monburan)
    Monburan means “white mountain” in French. Cup-size sponge cake is decorated with chestnut whipped cream.
  • ショートケーキ (shootokeeki)
    A delicious piece of strawberry sponge cake. The name of shootokeeki comes from the term “shortcake,” and has many origins.
ショートケーキ (shootokeeki)

Lastly, let’s see two widely used ingredients for making cake:

  • ホイップ (hoiipu)
    This is whipping cream. The size of a whipping cream box is much smaller than those found in the United States.
  • ホットケーキミックス (hotto keeki mikkusu)
    This refers to pancake mix. Further explanation on pancake mixes in Japan are at the following Japan Today article: “Hotcake Mix vs. Pancake Mix.”

Make food a part of your learning routine!

I hope that you enjoy learning katakana. It may be difficult to memorize each character independently, so I suggest that you remember them in chunks. This is especially true when learning food names in Japanese! This way, you can learn many words in katakana and understand Japanese food culture, as well. For even more food-related words in both English and Japanese, click here.

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