Hiragana and Katakana   ひらがな・カタカナ

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The hiragana "a"

The hiragana table

tableau Katakana

The katakana table

The order you write the characters in is important. This is the hiragana character "nu", and starts with the black line.

A restaurant sign reading "udon" and "soba" in hiragana

The monk Kukai (14th century)

Repeat: a, i, u, e, o!

If you want to start learning Japanese but don't know where to start, the answer is simple: with hiragana and katakana.

The two Japanese syllabic alphabets: hiragana and katakana are grouped under the name of kana. Be aware, however, that as well as kana, the Japanese also use kanji (ideograms taken from Chinese) and romaji (phonetic transcription in the Latin alphabet).

Traditionally, the invention of kana is attributed to Kukai (774-835), a Buddhist monk, poet, linguist and calligrapher, at the beginning of the ninth century. Back from a trip to China, Kukai would have adapted and simplified Chinese characters to form the man'yogana, the first kana.

Read also: Koyasan

Hiragana and katakana then developed from this first kana. Their current forms and uses were codified in 1900 and regulated in 1946. Thus hiragana and katakana each derive from a kanji beginning with the sound they express. For example the hiragana あ (a) sound is a stylized simplification of the kanji 安, meaning peace and pronounced あん (an).

Basic rules

Learned by Japanese students as soon as they enter school at the age of six, hiragana and katakana are a prerequisite for learning Japanese. Both have the same 46 characters (syllables). Both start with "a" and end with "n". Hiragana are used to write Japanese words, including verb endings and grammatical particles. As for katakana, they are used to transcribe foreign words and onomatopoeia.

It's essential to respect the writing order and the direction of the lines. This is usually shown on the character itself in kana tables. Concerning the appearance, hiragana are more rounded whereas katakana are angular.

Some signs are similar and may initially be confusing. This is the case of the following hiragana: さ / き, あ / お, ぬ / め, い / り and katakana: ナ / メ, ク / タ, シ / ツ, チ / テ. Some beginners might also be confused by the characters that differ somewhat between the handwritten form and the printed form (さ, き, り).

Combinations and variations

The ten-ten and maru: the ten-ten (formed by two small dashes: ゛) and the maru (small circle: ゜) are diacritic signs that are added to the syllable to change the pronunciation: k + ゛ → g; s + ゛ → z; t + ゛ → d; h + ゛ → b and h + ゜ → p.

The small や, ゆ, よ / ヤ, ユ, ヨ (ya, yu, yo): can be used in combination with the characters of the "i" column in both hiragana and katakana, and they form a new pronunciation in a single syllable. Ex: き + や gives きゃ kya, に + ゆ = にゅ nya, etc ...). Note that in this case the "ya, yu, yo" appear smaller.

The small つ or ツ (tsu): the small "tsu" marks a break and doubles the consonant that follows. Ex: にっぽん Japanese (Japan), ベッド beddo (bed).

Long vowels: to mark the extension of certain vowels in hiragana, it's necessary to double the vowel and in katakana, we add the sign ー. These long vowels must be pronounced correctly, or the meaning of the word may change. Ex: おかあさん okaasan (mother), コーヒー koohii (coffee).


If a simple pencil and notebook aren't enough to help you practise, the tech-savvy can turn to a multitude of language apps available on different platforms and study at any time of the day.

You must pay close attention to the pronunciation. Feel free to use audio support (apps, songs, online videos).

With some effort, it isn't difficult to remember and learn to write kana. You just have to be patient and practice writing, reading, rewriting and writing again. And after the kana, you will only have to master thousands of kanji!

がんばって! *

Read also: Japanese calligraphy

*Try your best!

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