Hiragana — Master the building blocks of Japanese (2024)

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!

Hiragana — Master the building blocks of Japanese (1)

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!

Contents

  • 1 An introduction to the Japanese alphabet
  • 2 What is Hiragana?
  • 3 Hiragana chart
  • 4 The writing rules of Hiragana
    • 4.1 Stroke Order
    • 4.2 Long Vowels
    • 4.3 Combination Sounds
    • 4.4 The small つ
    • 4.5 The Soundless Consonant – The Japanese N
    • 4.6 The two Os in Japanese
    • 4.7 Ten Ten and Maru
    • 4.8 A Few Pronunciation Quirks
  • 5 The Purposes of Hiragana
    • 5.1 Okurigana
    • 5.2 Furigana
  • 6 Katakana vs. Hiragana
    • 6.1 Local Words vs. Foreign Words
    • 6.2 Cool Aesthetic
  • 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!

Hiragana chart

To jump right into this, here are all of the basic hiragana characters:

Hiragana — Master the building blocks of Japanese (2)

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:

Stroke Order

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!)

Long Vowels

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.

Combination Sounds

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:

  1. Words can never start with this character! Instead, you’d use the appropriate syllabic character, which already carries a vowel sound with it.
  2. 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 ゜:

〃turns:

  • S into Z (or J as seen in the character し (shi) becoming じ(ji))

すずき (suzuki)

  • 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)

゜turns:

  • 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:

しろいいぬきれいですね (shiroi inu ha kirei desu ne | 白い犬きれいですね)

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)

おさかとちゅう (Osaka he tochuu | 尾坂途中) – 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)

Okurigana

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 くりがな (okurigana)!

Furigana

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!

Cool Aesthetic

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!

Wrap Up

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)! ^^

Hiragana — Master the building blocks of Japanese (2024)

FAQs

Is hiragana enough to understand Japanese? ›

In almost all cases, yes.

The only situation where you wouldn't want to learn hiragana is if you only have very basic or specific goals for learning Japanese, such as for travel, or if you only ever want to speak Japanese, not read and write.

Do I have to learn all 3 Japanese alphabets? ›

To read and write Japanese, you need to learn three alphabets (yes, three). Learn about hiragana, katakana, and kanji in our easy-to-follow beginner-friendly guide.

How long will it take to master hiragana? ›

Hiragana, if you are willing to practice quite a bit, can be mastered in 1-2 days. The same is true for katakana. Since a lot of katakana is connected to English words that have been assimilated into Japanese language, you will be able to double pronunciation practice along with learning foundation words.

Is Tofugu a good website to learn Japanese? ›

I started with Tofugu's page 'A Ridiculously Detailed Guide to Learning Japanese'. It's well structured and takes you through the essential early steps (learning the different 'alphabets' hiragana and katakana etc), so I recommend following it (more or less) to the T.

Can you survive in Japan only knowing hiragana? ›

You can survive without knowing even Hiragana. There are a lot of foreigners living like that. BUT, if you want to figure out what's happening there or to be treated as a decent adult who can figure things out, language proficiency is a must.

Is it enough to learn only hiragana? ›

A basic understanding of hiragana is practically necessary just to start learning Japanese! If you want to use Japanese textbooks and workbooks, you'll need to be able to read hiragana to get started. But, fortunately, it's really very easy to learn.

How many Japanese kanji do you need to know to be fluent? ›

To become fluent in kanji, you'll need to learn around 2,000 basic Japanese kanjis used in media and everyday Japanese life. Don't panic; once you have the first 400-500 symbols down, the rest tend to follow smoothly. You really only need around 1,200 to read a newspaper or go to work.

What is the hardest Japanese alphabet to learn? ›

This is because of the complicated history of kanji, and you'll just have to get Busuu if you want to learn more! Learning kanji is definitely the hardest part of learning Japanese. But they're nothing to be scared of. The more kanji you learn, the easier it becomes.

Which is easier hiragana or kanji? ›

I would reccoment you learn hiragana first because it is used to write most Japanese words. use the tofugu Hiragana guide to help you memorize them it takes about 2 weeks of everyday practice to get it down. Don't learn kanji until you have a good grasp of kana.

How can I memorize hiragana easily? ›

Use Hiragana mnemonics — pictures to match the sound and characters to help the brain memorise. The brain has something called schemas that help you link prior knowledge to new knowledge. Therefore, the brain will have an easier time remembering if it can match the character to a familiar picture/drawing/image.

Is it better to learn hiragana or katakana? ›

Although Hiragana and Katakana are used for the same sounds, they have very different roles in a sentence. Katakana is used almost exclusively for nouns and adjectives, whereas Hiragana has many more uses and is much more common in written sentences. But you still need to know both if you want to get around in Japan!

Can I master Japanese in 1 year? ›

However, many experts believe it takes between 4 to 6 months of dedicated study to reach a beginner level. On the other hand, you can expect to spend at least 3 years studying to become fluent in Japanese with near-native level accuracy.

What is the most accurate way to learn Japanese? ›

The important thing is that today we've learned that the best way to learn Japanese is the combination of five different tips: getting use to the language by watching TV series and listening to podcasts, learning hiragana with mnemonics, using Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone to learn the basics, talking to online tutors, ...

Which is the best platform to learn Japanese? ›

Nihongo Master is a great platform where you can find free podcasts, community, blogs, dictionary and paid lessons for learning Japanese. This site will help you read, write and speak Japanese at a very low cost.

Does Rosetta Stone work Japanese? ›

Rosetta Stone, a trusted language learning software with 25+ years of experience, has a method that teaches the foundational concepts of Japanese in a particular order that allows learners to build towards success.

Can you read Japanese with only hiragana? ›

You would have a very difficult time, but it's not impossible. Kanji are supposed to represent another layer of meaning for whoever is reading your writing. If you don't have that layer, you'll of course lose out on the meaning.

Should I learn hiragana before speaking Japanese? ›

If you're only interested in conversational Japanese, you can even get by without hiragana and just use romaji (the roman letters English uses), but I don't recommend it. Hiragana is not that hard to learn, and learning it helps with pronunciation as well.

Should I learn Japanese hiragana or katakana? ›

The three writing systems of Japanese are Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. You should learn hiragana first, followed by katakana and kanji.

Do Japanese people speak in hiragana? ›

Hiragana is used for native Japanese function words, Katakana is used for borrowed words from other languages, and Kanji are Chinese origin characters that have been adapted to the Japanese language.

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