furiganas of katakanas

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Furigana, also called rubi or ruby, are kanas that provide some type of annotation to a character or word. We will find the furigana above the character or word in horizontal text, and to its right in vertical text. A Japanese child would first encounter furiganas in children’s books, annotating in hiraganas the sound of katakanas. Hiragana is the first syllabary a child learns, and it is easier to learn than katakana because it is used more often than katakana so there is more opportunity to practice it. Hence, it makes sense to annotate the less-common katakana characters. The fragment below is the first phrase from the page on the right, from the children’s book 「かいぞくがやってきた」 (The Pirates have arrived):

Detail from「かいぞくがやってきた」 (The Pirates have arrived)

The words of our fragment are already parsed with spaces because they are from a children’s book:

ライオンも ぞうも きりんも
ペリカンも フラミンゴも
さいも ゴリラも かばも わにも・・・・・・、

Replacing the katakanas with the annotated hiraganas we get

らいおんも ぞうも きりんも
ぺりかんも ふらみんごも
さいも ごりらも かばも わにも・・・・・・、

that we can translate to

“the lion, the elephant, the giraffe,
the pelican, the flamingo,
the rhino, the gorilla, the hippo, and the crocodile……,”

This text let us in a curious situation with many foreign words that have been katakanaized. There are many names of animals, for example, that we can write in either hiragana or katakana; both forms are accepted. Those animals names that we can write in either kana were dutifuly writen in hiragana in the fragment, i.e., ぞう, きりん, さい, かば, and わに. For whatever reason, we can only write some other animal names in katakana, e.g., ライオン, ペリカン, フラミンゴ, and ゴリラ. It doesn’t appear to be a rationale for accepting both forms for some names while rejecting it in others. It just might that it is what it is.

Because there is a one-to-one correspondance between hiragana and katakana characters, we will have the situation in which each katakana character is anotated with exactly one hiragana character, e.g.,


furiganas of kanjis

Japanese printed media aimed to a kanji-proficient population, like seinen and josei mangas, and novels for adults, don’t use furiganas, but that aimed to young people that have yet to master kanjis, like shounen and shoujo mangas, and light novels, annotate their kanjis with furigana. The most common annotation is, again, for the furigana to reproduce a kanji or kanji word phoneticaly, in hiragana, e.g.,

ほん         今日きょう

Unlike the annotation of katakanas, there is no one-to-one correspondance between a kanji word and the number of hiragana characters needed to describe it phonetically. Sometimes we can match each kanji with a specific set of characters, e.g., in 日本語, 日 corresponds to に, 本 corresponds to ほん, and 語 corresponds to ご; in other cases we have to match the whole kanji word with the characters that describe it because there is no correspondance between the kanjis that compose the word and the word’s sound, e.g., in 今日, both characters together sound きょう, but the sound きょう has no relation with either 今 or 日.

Let’s consider the following panel from a shounen:

A panel of Gowther from ‘nanatsu no taizai’ (The Seven Deadly Sins), # 169

Every character in the panel is either a hiragana or a kanji character, here parsed with spaces:

自分の 望みの ために 仲間を 傷つけるの だけはよせ!!
最後に 一番 傷つくのは 自分 なんだぞ!!?

However, since every kanji has a furigana on its right, we can replace all the kanjis for hiraganas and end up with a hiragana-only text:

てめえの のぞみの ために なかまを きずつけるの だけはよせ!!
さいごに いちばん きずつくのは てめえ なんだぞ!!?

that translates to

“For the benefit of your own wishes, don’t just hurt your companions!!
In the end, the one that gets hurt the most… isn’t it yourself!!?”

Furiganas are useful even if we already know the kanjis because, beyond using them as phonetic annotations, they might convey a nuance. For example, by itself, the straightforward reading of 私 would be わたし, which means ‘I’. However, its furigana might be わたし, わたくし, あたし, あたくし, あたい, あて, わし, わい, わて, わっし, or わらわ; all of these words share the same kanji 私, and all of them mean ‘I’, but all of them have a different nuance, e.g., some are used only by women, some are anticuated, some are used by blue collar workers, some are from the Kansai dialect, etc. In essence, even if we know the kanji for a word, we might prefer to indicate the nuance by spelling the word out in hiragana instead of using the kanji or, at least, to spell the word out in furigana.

This possibility to instill nuance with a furigana is present in a discrepancy with the furiganas in the translation of the panel above. The word 自分, which appears one time in each of the two sentences, sounds じぶん, but the furiganas annotate it as てめえ; てめえ has its own kanji: 手前. Both 自分 and てめえ mean “you”, though, so the meaning doesn’t change, but the nuance of the words is not the same: てめえ is derogatory while じぶん is not; hence, at a deeper level, the kanji and the furigana readings are giving us slightly different versions of the sentences: the じぶん version sounds like advice while the てめえ version sounds like a scolding. The use of the furigana gives the feeling that the sentences are neither an advice nor a scolding but something in between, like an admonition or a warning.

furikanjis of katakanas

Although not common any more, sometimes an author would use a kanji to clarify the meaning of a katakana. If we think about it, specially in fantasy and sci-fi novels, authors come up with madeup names that have a meaning behind them, e.g., a ‘firebolt’, a ‘mockingjay’, a ‘bladerunner’, ‘parselmouth’, ‘neverland’, etc. A straight katakanization of one of these words would correctly imitate the original sound of the word, but would lose the reason for the word to be what it is. Hence, in some cases, the katakanization of the madeup word might be accompanied with a furikanji -an annotation in kanji- that would attempt to describe the meaning behind the madeup word. For example,


where we have approximated ‘firebolt’ as ‘fire-arrow’.