We use hiragana to spell out words of Japanese origin. Although we usually write the roots of verbs and adjectives in kanji, we write their conjugations in hiragana, as well as polite forms, greetings, and particles; hiragana is the glue that connects the ideas expressed in the kanjis.

Learning the kanas is not difficult; Japanese children learn to read and write both hiragana and katakana in 1st grade, with time to spare to learn 80 kanjis. Learning the kanas is probably the biggest bang for the buck when learning Japanese; we can learn them with 1/100th of the effort needed to learn a small number of kanjis, and they immediately give us the possibility of writing anything in Japanese, and reading about 50% of it. In addition, a lot of Japanese text aimed to young people uses kanjis with furigana (a.k.a. rubi, or ruby), i.e., a small text in hiragana next to the kanji that describes its sound.

Furiganas are common in mangas for young people that have yet to master kanjis. For example:

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

Every character in the panel is either in hiragana or kanji, 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 read all the text using hiragana alone:

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 something like

“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!!?”

Knowing kanas allow us to ‘read’ many mangas, but this does not mean that we’ll ‘understand’ them since, after all, they are in Japanese. Still, learning the kanas is a basic and huge step towards learning Japanese, and its really time well spent.

from kanji to hiragana

Hiragana started around the 5th century, at a time when kanjis were the only writing system available; kanjis represent meaningful ideas – things, feelings, actions, but since there are thousands of such meaningful ideas, there are thousands of kanjis. However, in the Japanese language there are only around 110 different sounds – ‘a’, ‘ka’, ‘tsu’, etc. Hiragana takes advantage of this small number of sounds: instead of using characters to represent meanings, it uses characters to represent sounds. For example, to design the hiragana character of the sound ‘me’ we would select one of the many kanjis whose kun-yomi (Japanese reading) or on-yomi (Chinese reading) sounds ‘me’; one such kanji is (woman, female), which has two kun-yomis: ‘onna’ (like in 女, onna – woman), and ‘me’ (like in 女神, me-gami – female deity), so we could use the kanji 女 to represent the sound ‘me’. Similarly, we would select one kanji for each of the 46 ‘core’ sounds of Japanese, where each such kanji represents only one sound, i.e., we can use the kun-yomi or the on-yomi of a kanji to represent a sound, but cannot use both the kun-yomi and the on-yomi of the same kanji to represent two sounds. We need only these 46 ‘core’ characters because we can obtain the rest of the 110 sounds as variations of the core ones.

After we select our set of kanji 46 core characters with the desired different sounds, we rewrite them using cursive script. Similar to western script, these ‘scripted’ characters duplicate the entire original kanji; however, the scripting makes the kanjis more curvilinear and minimalistic, with fewer and faster strokes; this makes more difficult to read scripted kanjis than to read the non-scripted ones. For example, the cursive script of 女 is め. Now we set め as the hiragana character that represents the sound of the original kanji 女, i.e., め represents ‘me’. Hence, the resulting few-stroke fast-to-write hiragana characters often have lost the resemblance to the kanji characters from which they came from.

The following is the list of kanjis used to derive the core 46 hiragana characters, together with the resulting hiragana character [wikipedia]. There is a clear resemblance between some kanjis and their hiragana characters, e.g., 仁 and に, 寸 and す, or 世 and せ; the resemblance between others is not lost, but it is more difficult to see, e.g., 計 and け, 由 and ゆ, or 太 and た; however, this resemblance is all but lost in many hiragana characters, e.g., 機 and き, 遠 and を, or 美 and み.

kanji a kanji i kanji u kanji e kanji o

core characters

Hiragana has a set of 46 ‘core’ characters that provides the basic sounds. We can follow some of these characters with a small ‘ya’ (や), ‘yu’ (ゆ), or ‘yo'(よ), to obtain 21 new sounds, e.g., the character ‘hi’ (ひ) followed with a small version of ‘ya’ sounds ‘hya’ (ひゃ). This gives us a total of 67 sounds.

+や +ゆ +よ
a i u e o
k ka ki ku ke ko きゃ kya きゅ kyu きょ kyo
s sa shi su se so しゃ sha しゅ shu しょ sho
t ta chi tsu te to ちゃ cha ちゅ chu ちょ cho
n na ni nu ne no にゃ nya にゅ nyu にょ nyo
h ha hi fu he ho ひゃ hya ひゅ hyu ひょ hyo
m ma mi mu me mo みゃ mya みゅ myu みょ myo
y ya yu yo
r ra ri ru re ro りゃ rya りゅ ryu りょ ryo
w wa wo
  • Japanese has the sounds し (shi), ち (chi), and つ (tsu), instead of ‘si’, ‘ti’ and ‘tu’, which it doesn’t have
  • は, へ, and を are pronounced ‘wa’, ‘e’, and ‘o’, when used as particles (see pronunciation)
  • ふ is usually written as the sound ‘fu’, but its actually closer to ‘hu’, or to the English word who (see pronunciation)
  • A character followed with the small ‘ya’, ‘yu’ or ‘yo’ is considered a single syllable, and is pronounced in one ‘beat’, e.g., ひゃく (hyaku – hundred) is pronounced ‘hya-ku’, not ‘hy-a-ku’
  • The connecting stroke between the main strokes of さ, き, and り vanishes in certain fonts, and it is frequently omitted in handwriting:
    さきり = さきり

ten-ten (“) and maru (°)

To allow 45 more sounds, we can mark some characters with double quotes (“), called ‘da-kuten’ (voiced-mark) or ‘ten-ten’; or with a circle (°), called ‘han-daku-ten’ (half-voiced-mark) or ‘maru’:

+や +ゆ +よ
g ga gi gu ge go ぎゃ gya ぎゅ gyu ぎょ gyo
z za ji zu ze zo じゃ ja じゅ ju じょ jo
d da ji つ” zu de do
b ba bi bu be bo びゃ bya びゅ byu びょ byo
p pa pi pu pe po ぴゃ pya ぴゅ pyu ぴょ pyo
  • We can write ‘ji’ as either じ or ぢ, but, in practice, ぢ is seldom used
  • We can write ‘zu’ as either ず or つ” but, in practice, つ” is seldom used
  • ‘ji + ya’ (じゃ) is ‘ja’, not ‘jya’
  • ‘ji + yu’ (じゅ) is ‘ju’, not ‘jyu’
  • ‘ji + yo’ (じょ) is ‘jo’, not ‘jyo’

The issue of having both じ and ぢ sound ‘ji’, or ず and つ” sounding ‘zu’, seems an arbitrary complication, and it is, but many languages have the same issue; in English, for example, ‘sent’ and ‘cent’ sound the same, so we just have to memorize the correct spelling for each case.

Since the totality of the Japanese sounds is embeded in the hiraganas, we have that we can write all the 67 + 45 = 112 original Japanese sounds using the 46 core characters and their extensions. Of these, two sounds – ‘ji’ and ‘zu’ – have two different representations, so the original Japanese language has 112-2 = 110 different sounds. This is small number of sounds compared to English and many other languages.

softening of consonants

Let’s talk about the ten-ten, i.e., the double quote mark introduced above, that softens a hard consonant:

k” = g
s” = z
t” = d
h” = b

These soft consonants, besides giving us 27 new sounds, are useful to make words sound better. For example, let’s use the two words 田 (ta), which means ‘rice paddy’, and 中 (naka), which means ‘middle’; by themselves, we always pronounce them as ‘ta’ and ‘naka’, but we could combine them into a single word as ‘ta + naka’ or ‘naka + ta’. The ‘na’ beginning sound of ‘naka’ is easy to transition into, so we always have that

\mbox{ta}+{\color{red}{\mbox{na}}}\mbox{ka} &= \mbox{ta}{\color{red}{\mbox{na}}}\mbox{ka}\\

‘tanaka’ – in hiragana たなか and in kanji 田中 – is the most common last name in Japanese. Now let’s see the other combination, i.e., ‘naka’ + ‘ta’. In this case, the ‘ta’ sound is not so easy to transition into, so ‘naka + ta’ might be ‘nakata’, or we might soften the ‘ta’ into a ‘da’ and end up with ‘nakada’:

\mbox{naka}+{\color{red}{\mbox{ta}}}&= \mbox{naka}{\color{red}{\mbox{ta}}}\\
\mbox{naka}+{\color{red}{\mbox{da}}}&= \mbox{naka}{\color{red}{\mbox{da}}}\\

Both ‘nakata’ and ‘nakada’ are common last names, and we write them both as 中田, so a person whose last name is 中田 might pronounce it as either ‘nakata’ or ‘nakada’.

Hence, a transition into a word that begins with a hard consonant might or might not require us to soften that beginning consonant. Sometimes both options are available, as in ‘nakata’ and ‘nakada’, but often they are not; convention and/or usage has decided on one version or another. Here are some examples when the consonant has and hasn’t been softened:

canal hori+kawa (ditch + river) horikawa ほり
stream o+kawa (small + river) ogawa
perfume kou+sui (scent + water) kousui こう
flood kou+sui (flood + water) kouzui こう
chicken niwa+tori (garden + bird) niwatori にわ
hummingbird hashi+tori (bee + bird) hashidori はし
man otoko no+hito (male’s + person) otokonohito おとこの
villager mura+hito (village + person) murabito むら

practice words

And that is all there is to hiragana. Now some practice:

いぬ inu dog ねこ neko cat
かさ kasa umbrella くるま kuruma car
おうむ oumu parrot なまえ namae name
おおさか oosaka Osaka せんせい sensei teacher
おちゃ cha tea きゅう kyuu nine
きょう kyou today ひしょ hisho secretary
かぎ kagi key ばら bara rose
かぞく kazoku family めがね megane glasses
さんぽ sampo stroll かんぱい kampai cheers!
えんぴつ empitsu pencil かんぺき kampeki perfect
きって kitte stamp きっぷ kippu ticket
がっこう gakkou school ざっし zasshi magazine