To learn written Japanese, there are three sets of symbols to learn: all of the hiragana, all of the katakana, and then as many kanji as you like.
This is one classic arrangement for the hiragana. These symbols represent phonetic sounds, like syllables. I've set the arrangement twice in the same shape, one with the hiragana, and one with the romaji (Roman-lettered) equivalents. With these syllables, you will be able to "sound out" any Japanese word. For example, the symbol for WA is は, and the symbol for O is を.
N WA RA YA MA HA NA TA SA KA A (WI) RI MI HI NI CHI SHI KI I RU YU MU FU NU TSU SU KU U (WE) RE ME HE NE TE SE KE E WO RO YO MO HO NO TO SO KO O B" D" Z" G" P° J" ん は ら や ま は な た さ か あ ゐ り み ひ に ち し き い る ゆ む ふ ぬ つ す く う ゑ れ め へ ね て せ け え を ろ よ も ほ の と そ こ を
Below the main arrangement, I've listed the diacritical marks which can be combined with the symbols in that column to fill out a few "missing" sounds. For example, adding two small marks (") to the TO (と) symbol makes it a DO (ど).
You should be able to learn the hiragana very effectively and effortlessly in two weeks, spending no more than a few minutes a day. This includes reading by sight, and if you're inclined, also writing the symbols. If you put in a little effort, you can reduce it to one week.
My method is to learn just a few symbols per day. It is important to learn only a few symbols at a time, so that you can retain them all in your short-term memory and absorb the new symbols quickly. Too many new symbols will just "fall out" of your short-term memory, making the process more frustrating and break the rhythm of fun learning. Run through a few drills to transfer the symbols progressively into your long-term memory. After each set of symbols, do not push to learn more until the next day.
Buying flashcards is useful, but they're pretty easy to make.
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