Hiragana and Katakana : How to learn Japanese   ひらがな・カタカナ

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The hiragana "a" derives from the kanji 安 (an) which means "peace"

The hiragana "a" derives from the kanji 安 (an) which means "peace"

The order of the layout is very important.

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)

The monk Kukai (14th century)

The Kana: Japanese alphabets

Taught to Japan students in their first year of school from the age of six, hiragana and katakana are the essential prerequisites for learning the Japanese language.


So you've decided, you want to learn Japanese! But like any beginner, you feel a bit lost and don't know where to start. Japan Experience has the answer; and this one can be summed up in two words: hiragana and katakana. Before detailing these characters, their rules and their uses in more detail, you should know that Japanese is a language based on a phonetic unit called more or mora in Japanese. To keep it simple, remember that a more corresponds to the sound produced by a hiragana or katakana character, both are know as kana. As well as kana, the Japanese also use the kanji (ideograms of from Chinese) and the 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. After returning from a trip to China, Kukai adapted and simplified Chinese characters to form the man'yogana, the first kana.

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).

Read also: Koyasan


Hiragana and katakana have the same number of basic characters, namely 46. These have two different phonetic patterns: a single vowel-like あ = a or a consonant + a vowel-like か = ka.

The two alphabets contain the same syllables so each hiragana has its correspondence in katakana and vice versa. They also follow the same presentation starting with "a" and ending with "n". However, their uses differ. Hiragana is used to write Japanese words, especially the endings of verbs and grammatical particles. As for the katakana, they are used to transcribe words of foreign origin and onomatopoeias.


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).


The hiragana table

tableau Katakana

The katakana table


  • Variations of Hiragana and Katakana

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.

variations of hiragana and katakana

variations of hiragana and katakana

  • The combinations: ya, yu, yo

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 nyu, etc ...). Note that in this case the "ya, yu, yo" appears smaller.


Table of combinations of hiragana and katakana

  • 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 practice, 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

*Good luck! 

Comments Read comments from our travellers


So helpful. I self study hiragana and katakana 92 symbols then found these about variations and combinations, small tsu and long vowels added to my learnings! Thank you!