Reading and Understanding Hiragana

Reading and Understanding Hiragana

At first glance, Japanese letters appear intimidating. After all, there are three Japanese writing systems. Not only are there the curvy hiragana and blocky katakana alphabets, there are also the Chinese characters known as kanji. I have good news for you: hiragana is actually quite straightforward! 

Learning how to read Japanese begins with learning how to read hiragana. Breaking down this first barrier is the hardest part of starting Japanese, but once you become familiar with hiragana, you will find that everything else from katakana to kanji to vocabulary comes just as easily as any other language.

Why do I need to learn hiragana at all?

There are many approaches to learning Japanese. Some focus on learning how to read and write with hiragana, katakana, and kanji from the beginning. Others focus on speaking and listening, using the romanized version of the words (called romaji) to get started in the language. However, no matter which path to fluency you choose, reading hiragana is an essential skill. Even if you choose not to learn how to write it, the usefulness of learning how to read it cannot be emphasized enough.

There are a few key reasons for this. First, hiragana is not just for reading and writing. Through learning the alphabet, you learn all the syllables that make up the Japanese language. For example, if you look at the word ごちそうさまでした gochisousamadeshita (“Thank you for the meal”), the romanized word can seem quite overwhelming with how long it is. A native English speaker might look at the word and not know where to divide the syllables to pronounce it correctly. 

However, a Japanese learner who has mastered hiragana would be able to recognize each character and pronounce the syllables accordingly, dividing the word up as go-chi-so-u-sa-ma-de-shi-ta. Additionally, Japanese has a reading aid called furigana, in which kanji have their readings written above the word in hiragana. Like so:

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Even if you have not yet learned kanji or still struggle to read them, furigana provide a convenient way to read the word. This makes it easier to identify (if you already know the vocabulary) or look up in a dictionary if you are unfamiliar with the word.

Lastly, the resources available to you when learning Japanese expand tenfold once you have learned hiragana. While there are resources that teach vocabulary and grammar through romaji, many of the best resources use hiragana instead. You will be doing yourself a favor to learn it!

Hiragana basics

First, what are hiragana? There are two types of kana (letters) in Japanese: hiragana and katakana. Hiragana is used for words that are of Japanese origin and is much more prevalent, while katakana is used almost exclusively for foreign loan words. Their only difference is in their usage and appearance; they are pronounced exactly the same. In this article, however, we will focus on hiragana

Originally, the Japanese writing system was adopted straight from Chinese, which is why kanji are still an essential part of the language today. A few centuries later, hiragana was developed as a cursive abbreviation for kanji (used primarily by women, who did not receive education in these Chinese characters). Even someone unfamiliar with the Japanese written language at all can see the similarities between the origin kanji and the modern, simplified hiragana.

安 → あ (a)
以 → い (i)
宇 → う (u)
衣 → え (e)

於 → お (o)Today, there are 46 basic hiragana used in modern Japanese. The chart below shows the standard layout for this alphabet, which uses what is called “gojūon ordering.”

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The hiragana in the chart above are the 46 basic letters. In order to read the variants below, it is essential to know them all.

While all hiragana are of roughly equal importance, there are a handful of hiragana that are used as indicators in Japanese grammar called “particles.” These may be considered some of the most important hiragana. The most common of these are listed below, and you will see them often as you begin learning Japanese grammar.

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* See the “Hiragana with unusual pronunciations” section below for reading this particle. 

Voiced and contracted syllables

Beyond the foundational hiragana, there are a few types of variants. The first group uses daku-on (〃) and handaku-on (゜) punctuation marks to identify these variations. These create “voiced” sounds based on the original letters. Note that only the h consonant group uses the handaku-on punctuation mark.

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The final group of hiragana variations are the contracted syllables. These use the hiragana consonants in the “i” column paired with the “y” consonants to create contracted sounds.

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This may seem overwhelming at first, but remember that once you learn the basic 46 hiragana, the rest are easy to learn! 

Hiragana with unusual pronunciations

Out of the particles listed above, two are not pronounced as they are when used in other applications: は ha and へ he. When used as particles, は is pronounced as wa and へ is pronounced as e.

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Obsolete and unused letters

There are also a few hiragana that are no longer used in modern Japanese!

If you look at the chart above for the 46 basic hiragana, you will see that there are a few blanks. In theory, wi, wu, we, ye, and yi would fill those spaces. Letters for wu and yi have never existed since the sounds were not used in Japanese. As for ゐ wi and ゑ we, the letters were dropped when, over time, their pronunciation became nearly identical to い i and え e. Both letters were deemed officially obsolete in 1946, as were their katakana equivalents. However, these sounds can still be found in some names, such as the beer Yebisu.

You may also see the character 𛀁 in some places. This is an unofficial letter for “ye” that was never formally recognized.

Hiragana pronunciation

The basics of the vowel sounds in Japanese are listed below:

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These vowel sounds can all be applied to the letters with consonants using the vowels, which makes pronunciation easy to pick up. For example, か ka would use the same “ah” sound with a k consonant in front of it, resulting in a syllable that sounds like “caw.” For more details on Japanese pronunciation, take a look at the specialized article on the topic..

Examples

Here are a few hiragana examples with Japanese vocabulary for practice. Try covering the right side of the screen to see how many characters you recognize first!

にほんご nihongo (Japanese language)

あおい aoi (blue)

おかあさん okaasan (mother)

じしょ jisho (dictionary)

Hiragana reading practice

There is no limit to the number of sources to help you practice reading hiragana. You can start anywhere! Newspapers, tweets from your favorite manga authors, manga comic books themselves, and of course, resources like textbooks specifically designed to teach you Japanese. Don’t be afraid to get creative!

At the beginning, ignore the grammar. Just start by identifying the hiragana. For example, if you see the sentence

日本語勉強しています

…you can see that six of the characters are kanji rather than hiragana (indicated in bold). Pretend they aren’t there and look at the hiragana one by one. Any instance where you can identify a letter is great practice.

For more focused reading, I recommend looking at the traditional Japanese stories by CrunchyNihongo that were prepared to help you practice hiragana. Not only do they provide great example sentences, but the romanizations and translations are easily accessible right below each sentence. You get to learn a few Japanese stories too!

Special hiragana ordering systems

Beyond the regular alphabet order, there is a special sequence called “iroha ordering.” Many English speakers are familiar with the phrase “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” This is called a “pangram,” meaning it contains all letters in the alphabet. Iroha ordering is simply a Japanese pangram, based on a poem written in the Heian Period (794-1179). This poem does include the obsolete characters mentioned above, emphasized with bold font:

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*The final letter n ん was added later.

This ordering system is used as an alternative to numbering systems. For instance, if you were to list something as a), b), c), in Japanese, you would order this as い i, ろ ro, は ha

Resources to get you started

When learning Japanese, finding the right resources is essential. Learning hiragana is no exception! The Japan Foundation has a wonderful app called “Hiragana Memory Hint” to help you learn hiragana through mnemonic devices. Since Japanese characters do not remotely resemble the Roman alphabet native English speakers are used to, mnemonic devices are a perfect way to grasp hiragana through pictures. For instance, take a look at their image for the letter へ he.

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The curve of the man’s head looks just like the letter he. You will find mnemonic devices for all 46 basic hiragana in this app, as well as audio to pronounce the letter for you. There are even customizable quizzes to help you solidify your knowledge of the character that you have learned.

Once you feel comfortable trying out your new skills, the stories in the CrunchyNihongo link above are perfect for practicing your hiragana. Formal textbooks, such as the Genki series, also provide exercises for reading and writing to help familiarize yourself with all of the Japanese writing systems.

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Above all, practice, practice, practice! No matter which resources you use, repetition is key when learning a new alphabet. Japanese tutoring is another excellent resource when approaching how to read hiragana. Having a Japanese tutor help get you started, or even give you guidance on how to learn Japanese on your own, is invaluable.

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