Hiragana is at the very foundation of the Japanese language. It is a centerpiece to be found in absolutely every aspect of the language, and as a student of that language, Hiragana will definitely be one of the first aspects introduced to you along the journey!
In this article, we dive deep into the Japanese alphabet, exactly what hiragana is, how it is used, and more. So as always, buckle up for the ride and get ready to learn hiragana!
- 1 An introduction to the Japanese alphabet
- 2 What is Hiragana?
- 3 Hiragana chart
- 4 The writing rules of Hiragana
- 5 The Purposes of Hiragana
- 6 Katakana vs. Hiragana
- 7 Wrap Up
An introduction to the Japanese alphabet
It is important first to identify the capsule in which Hiragana itself lives. ひらがな (hiragana) can be considered the original and baseline Japanese alphabet – but it is not the only alphabet that Japanese natives use!
カタカナ (katakana) is the other Japanese alphabet, used in varying different contexts than ひらがな (hiragana). We go into more detail about the differences between these two alphabets a little further along in the line. For now, just be aware that this alphabet isn’t the end-all-be-all when it comes to the Japanese language!
What is Hiragana?
Hiragana originally developed from Chinese characters, known today as 漢字 (kanji) in Japan. The “hira” bit of hiragana can be translated as “ordinary” or “simple.” This would be in opposition to the more complex writing of Kanji, which was, due to its complexity, less common for everyday writing, although originally, kanji had much more popularity.
Actually, due to its softer and more fluid look, it was referred to as “women’s writing” hundreds of years ago. Either way, hiragana can be seen as hailing from Chinese characters, written in connection to complex characters to represent the same sound.
In the past, hiragana was far more abundant and scattered, so around the turn of the 20th century, reforms were put into place to create a system of exclusive characters to be considered official hiragana.
To date, hiragana consists of 48 base characters, including 42 consonant-vowel unions, 5 pure vowels, and a special, single consonant. The characters have their own stroke orders, rules of usage, and application – more on all this later!
Today, hiragana is the main alphabet of Japan that has come a long way from its complex origins from way back in the day!
To jump right into this, here are all of the basic hiragana characters:
As we mentioned above, Japanese is a syllabic alphabet, meaning that each and every sound (except one) must contain a vowel sound. In other words, you won’t see a double- or triple-consonant in Japanese as you would in English, like in the words clutch or thanks.
As for the vowels, there are 5: あ (a), い (i), う(u,) え (e), and お (o). These can stand alone or be grouped together since they are vowels in and of themselves. Learn more about the Japanese vowels here.
Lastly, there is the “soundless sound” or “closed consonant,” which is ん(n). There is plenty to say on the topic of Japanese vowels, so if you’re looking for some detailed insight, run on over to our article on the subject!
The writing rules of Hiragana
Japanese writing is more than just hiragana, as katakana and kanji are also pivotal aspects of the composition of Japanese writing as a whole. But either way, you should completely master the rules of writing hiragana as your first priority when it comes to using Japanese!
It’s also a bit more complex than katakana, which means that once you get this down, the rest will be a cinch! We will go over the rules of writing first before tackling how to use Hiragana more generally since this is the foundation. Here we go:
The first rule to writing Japanese is to respect the correct stroke order, no shortcuts! They serve only the purpose of an overall ease of writing, as well as to preserve the tight-knit spirit of the art of writing itself. Not to mention that following this order will definitely aid in your adaption to the specifics of writing kanji (which also have distinct stroke orders!)
The Japanese language has long vowel sounds (for example, the sound of “aa” coming together, or “ou”, etc.) too. For the sake of simplicity, we are simply using each individual English vowel to represent each Japanese vowel they are most typically associated with.
This does not equate to pronunciation! To learn more about Japanese pronunciation (critical for anyone shooting for fluency) take a deep dive into our topic around the subject!
When writing the double A sound, double U sound, or double I sound, double the two vowels themselves: ああ=AA いい=II うう=UU
For the elongation of the O sound, the U sound, and the E sound, the hiragana characters are written as follows: えい=EE おう=OO
And so, to elongate the E sound in Japanese, combine an E and I.
To elongate the O sound in Japanese, combine an O and U.
There are just a slight few exemptions to these rules which few you’ll come across during your language learning to be remembered through exposure and repetitive use.
- そうでう (sou desu) – that’s right
- おかあさん (okaasan | お母さん) – mom
- もうだいじょうぶ (mou daijoubu | もう大丈夫) – (It’s) already okay
- とけい (tokei | 時計) – watch
- おかしい (okashii | 可笑しい) – strange
- くつう (kutsuu｜苦痛) – pain
It is essential to note that even when elongating a consonant-vowel union, this rule of elongation needs to be expected.
There are sounds within the Japanese language known as combination sounds. These sounds are formed by combining either や (ya), ゆ (yu), or よ (yo) with any of the い (i)-kana within the hiragana chart.
い(i)-kana are basically characters and sound that fall within the I column of the hiragana chart (ie し、り、み, etc.) To make combination sounds, just combine a small や、ゆ、or よ with the aforementioned characters, just like this:
し＋や＝しゃ Shi + ya = Sha
ち＋ゆ＝ちゅ Chi + yu = Chu
に＋よ＋にょ Ni + yo = Nyo
These combinations are an essential part of the language and should be considered as standard alphabet to be mastered. Here are some word examples:
- ぎゅうにゅう (gyuunyuu | 牛乳) – milk
- とうきょう (toukyou | 東京) – Tokyo
- じてんしゃ (jitensha | 自転車自転車) – bicycle
- ぎゃく (gyaku | 逆) – reverse
The small つ
There is a way to add a pause in Japanese by adding a small つ (tsu) to a word. This is also known as the double-consonant function since the consonant following the small つ (tsu) will be doubled when actually writing the word out in the Latin alphabet.
The small つ (tsu) is extremely important and can completely change the meaning of a word, so not only is the writing important, the emphasis on the pause it reflects is just as important too!
- きっぷ (kippu | 切符) – ticket
- きって (kitte | 切手) – stamp
- ほっかいどう (hokkaidou | 北海道) – Hokkaido
- ちょっきん (chokkin | )直近 – most recently
The Soundless Consonant – The Japanese N
The hiragana character ん (often thought of as how to say N in Japanese) is a special consonant with much to be explored about it. As far as this character goes, it is important to know two things:
- Words can never start with this character! Instead, you’d use the appropriate syllabic character, which already carries a vowel sound with it.
- This lies somewhere between an N and an M. In reality, it is simply the non-consonant – the closed sound that is more like the cessation or absence of clear sound than anything else. For that reason, you’ll often hear this character pronounced with some flexibility!
The two Os in Japanese
We’ve already covered the vowel お (wo), as it is found in the Hiragana chart. There is another を (wo) (usually written and phonetically transcribed as wo) that functions solely as one of the Japanese particles. This is the only special character of its kind found within the alphabet that has a distinct symbol.
すしをたべる (sushi o taberu | 寿司を食べる)
I eat sushi.
ぼうしをかぶっている (boushi o kabutteiru | 帽子をかぶっている)
He is wearing a hat.
Ten Ten and Maru
〃 (tenten) and ゜(maru) are symbols that accompany certain characters that change the sound of these characters. You can write tenten similarly to a double quotation mark and a small circle for maru that is like a degree symbol.
The details are specific (so we won’t get into them here), but this is a quick breakdown of the usage and function of 〃and ゜:
- S into Z (or J as seen in the character し (shi) becoming じ(ji))
- T into D (or J as seen in the character ち(chi) becoming ぢ (di – pronounced like “ji”))
でんとうてき (dentouteki｜伝統的) – traditional
- K into G
けが (kega) – wound
かぎ (kagi｜鍵) – key
- H into B
ぼく(boku) – I (used by young males)
- H into P
てんぷら (tempura｜天ぷら) – tempura
ぶんぷう (bunpou|文法) – culture
A Few Pronunciation Quirks
By and large, once you learn the pronunciation patterns of the vowels and consonants in Japanese, Japanese pronunciation becomes rather straightforward. But there are a few exceptions to be aware of!
The first of these is with the character は (ha). When used to represent itself (an alphabetical), this character takes on the pronunciation you’d expect. When used as a particle, however, it is pronounced “wa.” Take a look at this example:
しろいいぬはきれいですね (shiroi inu ha kirei desu ne | 白い犬はきれいですね)
White dogs are pretty.
The “ha” in this sentence is a particle, and therefore, the correct pronunciation of this sentence is as follows: “Shiroi inu wa kirei desu ne.”
This is one of the absolute most fundamental rules of hiragana and must be mastered.
The second pronunciation exception concerns the character へ (he). When used as a particle, this character is pronounced just like the Japanese vowel え (e)
おさかへとちゅう (Osaka he tochuu | 尾坂へ途中) – Osaka-bound (train, bus, etc.)
This sentence is pronounced: “Osaka e tochuu”
Check out our in-depth article on Japanese pronunciation for a deep dive into this topic!
The Purposes of Hiragana
Nowadays, ひらがな (hiragana) serves the purpose of conveying every and all standard Japanese words that are of Japanese origin. Some of these words have kanji, and some don’t. Some of them originate from Chinese, and some don’t.
Some are exclusively written in their hiragana form although they may have a kanji equivalent. The important thing to remember here is that ひらがな (hiragana) points out these kinds of words.
Thusly, hiragana can be used for proper names, business names, official titles, you name it! (no pun intended)
おくりがな (okurigana | 送り仮名) are hiragana characters that accompany other kanji. For example, you may come across the word お寿司 (osushi), which is the more sophisticated way to just say 寿司 (sushi).
The first (o) at the beginning of that word is to be considered as おくりがな. Even the word おくりがな itself contains おくりがな (okurigana)!
Have you ever come across some incredibly difficult or just unknown kanji character that you had absolutely no idea how to read? Well, that’s where ふりがな (furigana | ふり仮名) comes in!
These are the tiny hiragana that are added in alongside tougher kanji characters as a reading aid for Japanese students and native speakers alike (some symbols are just that tough!)
Katakana vs. Hiragana
One of the biggest questions we get from young Japanese learners concerns the difference between hiragana and katakana, and so we’re here to clear up any and all confusion! Here are all the big differences between these two Japanese alphabets to consider going forward:
Local Words vs. Foreign Words
We briefly mentioned earlier that ひらがな (hiragana) is chiefly used for writing and representing words of Japanese origin. Well, カタカナ (katakana) is used for all words of foreign origin! That is part of the reason why hiragana is always taught first when learning Japanese, as such does correspond to the appropriate order of things.
Katakana gets used for foreign place names (being the names of cities and people that are not of Japanese origin) and even foreign words that were adopted by the Japanese and still have a place within the language to this day!
As far as the Japanese eye is concerned, カタカナ (katakana) has a cool edge that ひらがな (hiragana) simply lacks.
Not only that, but it’s the other language, the one used for strange or foreign things, and so, this alphabet is frequently used to make something feel hip or swaggy, especially amongst young, urban communities.
You may find some rappers, artists, actors, or creative franchises with names written in katakana, even if they are Japanese in origin!
In conclusion, hiragana is an essential building block of the Japanese language. From the moment you start learning Japanese, you’ll encounter hiragana everywhere – in conversations, texts, and even on street signs in Japan!
Being able to decipher Japanese texts, signs, and messages will empower you in ways you might not have imagined. It brings satisfaction and joy, allowing you to navigate Japan with a newfound understanding.
がんばってください (ganbatte kudasai)! ^^